The phenomenon of undocumented Palestinians who cross into Israel illegally is the very essence of the Israeli con: Israel does not try to solve the problem once and for all. Instead, we fool ourselves, and every single time we’re astounded anew that it doesn’t pan out for us.
There have always been undocumented Palestinians in Israel. This is the nature of mixed populations that live together in a small, congested geographic area. The vast majority of undocumented Palestinians enter Israel for economic purposes. Palestinians of meager means look for work in wealthy, opportunity-rich Israel. There are many reasons why they avoid the acquisition of legal work permits. Some of them don’t meet the age and family criteria, and others have indirect ties with someone who was involved in terrorist activity. And then there are those who simply don’t bother with it. The ease with which they can enter through the massive holes in Israel’s security fence allows them to skip the complicated application process for permits altogether.
A completely organized mess
The fence around the Gaza border has reduced the number of undocumented Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to nearly zero. Those that did manage to make it through illegally were apprehended in the vast majority of cases and returned to Gaza. The separation barrier between Judea and Samaria should have had the same effect. This barrier, however, was never completed for political and budgetary reasons, and the segments that were completed have been worn down in recent years to the point of ineffectiveness.
Instead of a barrier to undocumented Palestinians who seek to cross the Green Line, the so-called seam zone became a veritable highway into Israel: In several areas, parking lots were even built on the Palestinian side that charged 10 shekels per day for every car. The drivers would leave their cars there, cross into Israel unimpeded, get into a waiting car on the Israeli side, and embark on yet another day of work in Israel. Mobile kiosks were stationed on both sides of the fence where these individuals could buy food and drinks. That’s how organized this mess had become.
It’s easy to understand why Palestinians want to enter Israel: to make a living. It’s also easy to understand why Israel wants to let them in: It needs workers. This need is particularly conspicuous in the construction, agriculture and hospitality industries. When terrorists escaped from Gilboa Prison last September, the IDF closed the seam zone in northern Samaria to prevent them from reaching Jenin. Contractors from Afula at the time called the IDF’s regional command in a panic and asked that Palestinian construction workers be allowed to enter Israel; otherwise, the contractors would fail to meet their completion deadlines.
These employers benefit from both sides. They have access to cheap and accessible manpower, desperate for work, who can be paid “under the table” to avoid taxes. But the employers are only one-third of the blunder; the other two-thirds are those who drive the undocumented workers—the same drivers who pick them up at the separation barrier and return them at the end of the day—and those who provide them with lodging inside Israel. Together, they comprise the three operational arms that break the law, most of the time knowingly, and Israel does nothing.
End the circus, start to punish
The time has come to put an end to this circus. The seam zone needs to be closed because it attracts terrorists. However, because Israel needs the manpower proved by Palestinian workers, it must take several steps to fix this problem. First, it must expand the number of work permits—currently, the necessary number is estimated at around 40,000 workers—and improve oversight in coordination with the Shin Bet security agency. Second, more crossings need to be built, and the ones that exist need to be improved and enlarged so they are more streamlined and humane to traverse, which would also lower the motivation to bypass them in favor of holes in the fence. Third, the country must establish a legal transportation and lodging apparatus to take these workers to and from their jobs and give them a place to stay in Israel. Finally, it must severely punish those who illegally drive, host and employ Palestinians.
These steps, if they are cohesively implemented and enforced, will dramatically mitigate the phenomenon of undocumented Palestinians. Given that the percentage of documented Palestinians who carry out terrorist attacks in Israel is zero—because they have families to feed and therefore a great deal to lose—it is vital to the war on terror to find a solution to this problem.
Yoav Limor is a veteran journalist and defense analyst.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.