Down in the dumps

In a garbage dump in a Jewish city in the center of Israel, a group of illegal Palestinian workers has made its home. They live in constant fear of the police and long for the days before the separation fence.

Amira Hass

Haaretz

Kislev 4, 5765

Back home, the kids believe Father sleeps in a rented apartment with other relatives, all of them from the same northern West Bank village, all of them working in faraway Israel, all of them coming home once every two weeks. "They welcome us when we come back as if we'd arrived from a different planet." The first thing they do is take a shower; they barely have a chance to see the family, only taking out a little gift or something tasty for the children. They sleep as if they were dead, drink coffee with the grandfather and uncle, and head right back to work the next day.

Except that this father, H., so gaunt that he looks older than his 45 years, with only his eyes smiling like a boy's - lives in a garbage dump, along with 25 or 30 other residents of Palestinian villages. The dump is in the heart of a Jewish city in central Israel, on a plot of land tucked behind factories and warehouses that has gradually become a local garbage dump. The men have built their home in the underground. The walls are piles of garbage, an upside-down, rusted-out car chassis and piles of wood panels; their roof is the sky. At best, they have a canvas sheet stretched overhead.

They "live" in three or four similar garbage-walled clusters. When they visit one another, they exit through an entryway that only those in the know can find, or they climb over the walls of piled-up garbage. A circle of steel beds is arranged in a clearing surrounded by garbage. The beds have mattresses that have been collected over time, and thin blankets. Other furnishings include a few cracked chairs, some donated kitchen cabinets and a small desk on which they cut the salad every evening and in whose drawer they store the water bottle that the neighborhood butcher, a Jew of Iraqi descent, freezes for them in his refrigerator.

They buy some fresh meat from him every day. It was he, they say with affection, who taught them the definition of a rich man: anyone who has eyes, teeth, hands and feet. "They know us in all of the shops in the neighborhood. They know we're Palestinians, and they also know that not a single car has been stolen here." People know they are living in the area, but don't know exactly how or where, even though it is only five minutes away on foot.

"We're embarrassed to tell our families how we live," they admitted last week, in a conversation that took place at their "home." "But what choice do we have? No one will rent us - Palestinian workers without permits - an apartment." The youngest man in the group is 31, the oldest 65. All of them worked in Israel for years, and look back with longing for the days when they would get into a taxi at 5 A.M. every morning and within an hour at most, and for NIS 5 or NIS 8, would get all the way to work. Now the winding route, which circumvents roadblocks and the separation fence and its gates and Border Guard policemen takes at least five hours, including a few different taxis, and costs NIS 200 a person, if not more.

Well known to police

This group of laborers works in construction. Some of them know the contractors from years ago. Some contractors pay decent wages, of NIS 300 a day, while others exploit the situation and pay less than NIS 100 a day. It's all exempt from taxes, health insurance, paid vacation days, etc. The contractors come early every morning to the nearby city street, and collect them in their cars. The more decent contractors drive their workers back to their "neighborhood" each evening. Otherwise, the workers have to find their own way back without drawing the attention of the odd policeman or alert citizen. There are always a few Jewish taxi drivers who can be relied upon to drive them wherever they need.

Every so often, the denizens of the garbage dump are included in the weekly statistics of the Israel Police, which refer to the number of illegal aliens who have been apprehended. Last week, this number stood at 2,400. H. has been detained eight times in the past year, whereupon he was transported in a police car to the area of Kafr Qasem, where he was thrown over to the other side of the barrier. A day or two later, he was back. The same holds true for his friends: They are apprehended, sometimes going back the same day, sometimes waiting a few days, particularly when there have been terrorist attacks. All of which means that many of these apprehended illegal aliens appear multiple times in the weekly statistics.

Workers without permits still work and live in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the central region, and in the villages of the triangle and the Galilee. They come from every area of the West Bank - from Hebron in the south to Jenin in the north. It is difficult to assess the numbers: In August 2004, when the border was not hermetically sealed (which has not been the case since Rosh Hashanah) approximately 15,000 workers from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were permitted to work in Israel. Estimates regarding the permit-less aliens, all of them from the West Bank, range from 15,000 to 30,000.

In the second year of the intifada, especially during Operation Defensive Shield, they did not dare come to Israel. Some found work in the settlements. Over the past two years they have returned, mainly to employers for whom they had worked in the past. But since then they have discovered that most of their applications for the magnetic card - the prerequisite for working in Israel - have been rejected. The hotels that used to hire them don't dare renew the relationship. Small hotels and hostels no longer rent them rooms after policemen served warning to their owners.

The residences of the workers are not unknown to the police: on the beach, beneath bridges, on construction sites, in apartments in a few Arab neighborhoods. The breaches in the fence and at Green Line roadblocks through which they sneak into Israel are fairly well known to the police. If the police are checking every car at the exit of the Shuafat refugee camp, the illegal aliens trek through the hills. If there are police in the hills, too, they head south for a while, or find a route in the Qalandiyah area, or wait a few hours until the police grow tired.

`We are the best'

Every so often, police raid their garbage dump. Some are apprehended, others manage to escape and, as they put it, "to hide with the cats." When they are caught, they sign a statement that they were in Israel illegally, that nothing was taken from them and that they were not beaten. If they are caught a second time, their name appears on the computer screens of the Civil Administration, and when they apply for a magnetic card once every few months, the negative answer is based on the fact that "the police have something against you."

So you constantly live in fear of being caught?

"It isn't a bodily fear," answers Abu Khaled, 42, who says he doesn't know how to read or write. "They don't eat people. If we're caught, nobody cuts off our heads, they only cut off the source of our subsistence, our possibility of feeding our children." Every other sentence out of Abu Khaled's mouth is a joke. It's hard to know if he is joking or simply always seeing the comic angle to his reality. He has worked in Israel for 20 years or so. "We've worked in all the restaurants and all the streets," he says. He once worked in Kochavi Shemesh's (a founder of the 1970s-era Black Panther movement in Israel) restaurant in Tel Aviv. "I knew his partner, Yehezkeli, who was a wrestler and the Israeli champion in 1962, the same year I was born." Sometimes, he says, the police tell the apprehended illegal aliens: "`Go work for Arafat.' And we answer them: `If there were work there, do you think we'd come here?' Is the West Bank a state? It isn't a state. They broke the state [Israel] when they brought workers here who sent money to Romania and China, while we are the best for them."

They offer two explanations as to why they can go back after having been caught. Says H.: "The contractors need us and the good, cheap manpower we provide, and the Shin Bet knows we pose no risk. Once I heard someone from the Shin Bet telling a Border Guard policeman not to waste time on us."

In the twilight hours, they return to their "apartment." "I'd be willing to give up the 40 dunam they confiscated from us in our village," says Abu Khaled, "if only they would let me build an apartment here with two rooms, a shower and bathroom." Considering the lack of sanitary conditions, the men are surprisingly well groomed. They find a tap or a rubber hose at their workplace, and shower at the end of each workday. They buy their food items for that evening and cook something in the "kitchen": a plywood board leaning against a pile of garbage. In the resulting triangular space underneath the board, they light a small bonfire.

All of you cook together, or is one of you the cook?

"No," says Abu Khaled. "We have a woman from Sri Lanka, but today she's on vacation" (he says the word vacation in Hebrew - "hofesh"). Someone calls the drawer in the small desk "the refrigerator." This is where they store the leftovers for a few hours, in case someone wants to eat it before it goes bad. The youngest man in the group waves a water bottle that he filled at work and says, `"Write that our worst problem is that we don't have water." To which someone resting on his bed in the depths of the "room" answers: "You want them to hook us up to water and electricity here?"

They work in the hot and dry months and save up about NIS 4,000, which is supposed to be enough for the family to make it through the winter months, when they remain in the village. Wouldn't it be worth their while to go home for the olive harvest? "What olive harvest, what olives? I only have two trees," says the younger man in the group. Abu Khaled says that the price of a liter of oil has gone down to NIS 7 (due to trouble exporting the oil or selling it in the Gaza Strip), another says that he has no trees, and the 65-year-old reports that he had 200 trees but that all of them are now part of the nearby settlement.

Throughout the entire conversation - which took place before the terrorist bombing in the Carmel market in Tel Aviv two weeks ago and before the death of Yasser Arafat - Abu Khaled's cell phone keeps ringing. Contractors are calling to ask him to set them up with a worker for the following day. "There are workers," he answers a caller in Hebrew, "but I don't know if they need work tomorrow." When the work on the separation fence is completed, the last of the breaches through which they come to the garbage dump - and work - will be sealed. Then what will they do? "We'll fly," suggests Abu Khaled. "Actually, I know of a helicopter in Ramallah that's available [Arafat's - A.H.]. We can take that one."

Fear of degradation

M., a 25 year-old bachelor, doesn't want to think of what will happen then. "I live the moment," he says in a conversation that takes place in a Jerusalem cafe. Right now, he is waiting tables in a Jerusalem restaurant. As opposed to the monthly NIS 1,700 that he received in a Ramallah restaurant, here he gets NIS 3,000 plus some tips. Each month, he sends NIS 1,000 to 1,500 to his aging parents and three of his brothers and sisters, who do not work. He lives off the rest. He had hoped to save a little, and with the help of some friends travel to Europe, continue to work and enroll in an acting school that does not require a matriculation certificate. He didn't get the visa. For a week straight, M. got drunk every day to drown his sorrows. Now, during Ramadan, he is fasting as a means of forcing himself not to drink alcohol and get drunk. "I could have been living abroad, ensuring my personal future, studying. Here I only subsist." Several waiters from the West Bank sleep in the restaurants in which they work; a handful, like M., live in rented apartments. In the past year he has been caught twice and taken to a roadblock. Once, he was back at work the same day.

M. insists on living this way, at constant risk of being caught, because "I consider myself an ordinary person, going to work, going back home. I can't bear the thought that I am different, seemingly inferior, that I don't have the same right to freedom of movement and livelihood as a young Israeli."

He fears being beaten by policemen: not from the physical pain, but from the pain of degradation, which is seared into the mind forever. In the course of the conversation, held in a cafe, tears well up in his eyes once: He points at one of the waitresses. They had gone out a few times. When she heard that he was from the West Bank and not a resident of Jerusalem, she left him. Today, there is no chance for such "mixed" couples to overcome the distance created by the bureaucracy of the separation fence