Closure of Territories Leaves Israel Struggling to Fill Jobs

“Talk to me a year from now, and we shall reach a situation in which most job vacancies (formerly held by Palestinians) will be filled by Israeli workers,” Danny Gillerman, director-general of Israel’s Chambers of Commerce, told a reporter this week.

Gillerman spoke as the Israeli economy tried to adjust to a ban declared by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on allowing Palestinian workers from the administered territories to enter Israel proper.

The closure of the territories, announced last week in an effort to end a wave of Palestinian attacks on Israelis, is expected to last at least until the end of the Passover holiday next week.

But many Israelis, such as Gillerman, said the government should severely limit the number of Palestinians working in Israel proper even after the closure is lifted and that such a policy would help curb high unemployment rates among Israelis.

Even as the economy and government struggled to cope with the loss of the roughly 120,000 Palestinians who typically make their way daily into Israel for jobs, a ministerial committee, headed by Labor and Welfare Minister Ora Namir, was established to set future limits on Palestinian laborers crossing the “Green Line” into Israel proper.

At Sunday’s weekly Cabinet session, the government also decided to limit the number of roads leading from the West Bank to Israel proper, in an effort to have better control of those coming to Israel, and to ban the entry of private Palestinian cars to Israel.

Political observers noted with irony that the government which had tried for the last two decades to erase the so-called “Green Line,” now appeared to be moving in the opposite direction of maintaining a firm separation between the territories and Israel.

The moves were being seen by some as glaring evidence of the country’s failure over the past 26 years to integrate the territories and their inhabitants into the Israeli sphere.

The closure consequently is being seen by some as carrying a political significance — intended or not — in the context of negotiations over the territories’ future.

REPLACEMENT WORKERS RECRUITED

Meanwhile, the government and Jewish agencies mounted a national effort to solve the immediate crisis of the labor shortage caused by the closure.

Employment Service officials estimated that 65 percent of the Palestinian workers were employed in construction, 10 percent in industry, 9 percent in municipal and other services, and 3.7 percent in agriculture.

The Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization have so far recruited 200 replacement workers following what were termed “urgent consultations” at the end of last week.

The recruiting drive is being conducted in cooperation with the Agriculture Ministry and the national Employment Service.

Three thousand more volunteers are slated to start farm work over the course of the month as part of the Jewish Agency-WZO effort.

The workers are being recruited from among high school juniors and seniors in Jewish Agency Youth Aliyah boarding schools and youth villages, new immigrants, and teen-agers from abroad who are here on various youth programs.

“One of the main values in Israeli history is the importance of Jewish labor,” said WZO spokesman Yehuda Weinraub,” and WZO has always stressed this as part of its philosophy.”

The workers will receive 70 shekels or about $25 a day from the Israeli government.

In New York, Volunteers for Israel has also mounted a campaign to bring Jews to Israel to replace Arab workers in critical agricultural and industrial sectors.

The efforts by the WZO and Volunteers for Israel came on the heels of an army decision to send 1,500 soldiers, also in coordination with the Agricultural Ministry, to help farmers throughout the country.

BUILDING INDUSTRY HIT HARD

An Israel Defense Forces spokesman Sunday took pains to explain that the deployment would not harm the defensive capability of the military and that such national service was a military tradition.

But in what might be indicative of deeper problems surrounding the labor issue, the army was forced to allow a limited number of Palestinians from the territories — 1,200 — to enter Israel under special permits Sunday to work in the fields.

The plain truth is that despite the large numbers of unemployed Israelis, Jews just are not willing to do the type of manual jobs for low pay that Palestinians routinely fill in the Israeli economy.

In addition, most Arab workers from the territories earn less than the legally mandated minimum wage and do not receive such benefits as paid vacation and disability insurance.

Finance Minister Avraham Shohat, speaking to the Cabinet, said it is “scandalous” that although 150,000 Israelis are registered as unemployed, it is impossible to recruit even 1,000 workers to replace Arab agricultural workers in the Sharon Plain.

Shohat said another means of encouraging Jews to take menial jobs is to limit the payments of unemployment checks.

The minister proposed that unemployed people under the age of 35 be required to take any job offered to them, or presumably face a cutoff in unemployment allowances.

While millions of dollars worth of agricultural produce ready for harvest hangs in the balance because of the closure, the hardest hit sector of the economy is the construction industry, which is heavily dependent on Arab labor.

Building contractors Sunday held job fairs throughout the country to attract would-be Jewish laborers. The turnout, at least in Jerusalem, was lower than had been expected.

Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said he reached an agreement with the building contractors association to train 10,000 new workers a year for the next three years.

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