According to the most recent statistics, 48,702 workers from the Occupied Territories were employed in Israel in July of 1984: 13,879 in construction; 18,423 in industry; 12,804 in services; and 3,596 in agriculture. Given the fact that this estimate was made by the employment office — whose figures only include those workers registered with them — one must reckon this to be roughly half the total sum. Perhaps less.
The great majority of workers from the Territories are prohibited from remaining in the state of Israel after midnight. But even so, many remain. The 800 to 1,000 shekels it costs to take a service taxi to Gaza or the 500-shekel bus ride can leave them with only a fraction of their daily wages by the time they return home.
This week I saw where and how they spend their nights in Tel Aviv and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Right in our midst, often in northern Tel Aviv, one spots a ramshackle hut between two exclusive buildings, or a dingy corner in a cellar, or part of a storeroom where four, eight or even ten workers from the territories regularly sleep. In a horrid shack on the Sheraton Beach in Tel Aviv I found two large halls crammed with at least 40 workers. It was filled with old metal beds, rotting mattresses and sometimes two men had to make do with a single bed. There are always a few bits of food in the kitchen, which is located under each worker’s bed. One day this week I saw them at noontime; the old men just sat and stared; the younger ones whiled away their time before going off for another day of backbreaking work.
Often you will see them in the kitchens of restaurants, trying to get some sleep on a tabletop. One café owner boasted to me this week that he didn’t leave his workers to fend for themselves. In another place, I saw an old cupboard used as a mattress for two.
Their work day usually fits a standard pattern. Those who go home every day must wake up before the break of dawn to get to work. Hundreds gather at the Gaza depot at 4 am in order to get to work on time. Since there is always the danger of being delayed by a roadblock for an hour or even an hour and a half, they must be ready to leave at a little after four. The luckier ones are on their way to their places of employment; the others will have to wait around at the black labor markets in Jaffa, the flea market, or Bnei Brak, until a Jewish well-wisher offers them a day of work. If not, they will return home at nightfall, 1,000 shekels poorer after the trip to Tel Aviv. And that is a hard blow to take.
Those who live in Tel Aviv usually try to find more than one job. Often they work on construction sites in the morning and in restaurants in the evening. Once or twice a week, they are stopped by the police, or the civil guard, in the middle of the street. Some are even held for 48 hours for not having a permit. But usually they are searched, rudely interrogated and then set free. At least once or twice a day they have to endure insults from Israelis. They all speak of getting hostile looks at least once every hour. Their wages consist of no more than 1,500-2,000 shekels for a day of hard work, often ten hours long. They work in restaurant or café kitchens; a few work as waiters; many are hired for cleaning jobs by Jewish contractors, who siphon off their earnings; others work in industrial plants. In any case, they are not paid as much as Israelis are, even though they may be performing the same task.
And so it is, day after day and year after year. Most of them, waging a fierce struggle to survive, are too busy to think about any possible solution to their problems. But some of the younger ones have been able to hold out. They hope for a day, in the words of one of them (who asked not to be named), “when I have a decent uniform, decent food, and the opportunity of serving in the army — any army — so that I can protect my tiny bit of land. I long for a day when I can roam around at night without a permit.” But aside from resignation and hope, there is a great deal of bitterness and even hatred. However, for the meantime, the struggle for existence has blunted its sting.
According to his friends, Juma‘ Sayyid Shaikh was once an excellent soccer player. He could have been a local star. But now, at the age of 22, he has given up the game, although once in a while he joins the Jewish children playing beside his northern Tel Aviv room. Not too long ago, one of the children playing soccer with Juma‘ was called aside by his father and reprimanded for “playing with an Arab.” “I heard that,” said Juma‘, “and my whole body began to tremble. I almost keeled over.” Since then, he has become an almost total stranger to the soccer field.
A few months ago, at the height of the election campaign, Juma happened to be standing in the doorway of the restaurant where he was working when Shimon Peres — the leader of the Labor Party — passed by, “pressing flesh.” Juma‘ took a deep breath, and plucking up all his courage, made his way through the security men in order to speak to the candidate. “What about us?” he asked. “Who are you?” asked Peres. “The Arabs from Gaza,” he replied. “Everything will be all right,” said Peres, as he continued on his way. “That kept me happy for a whole week. But today I no longer believe that anything will change.” This week Juma‘ was thrilled by the idea that what he was saying would be printed in the newspaper. One of his friends told me that in the end it would not be any different from the handshake he received from Peres.
Source: Gideon Levy in Haaretz, September 21, 1984. Translated in al-Fajr, October 5, 1984.