- Associated Press - Sunday, October 3, 2010

SAIR, West Bank (AP) — Israeli police shot and killed a construction worker from this West Bank village Sunday after he used a rope to scale a towering wall meant to keep Palestinians from sneaking into Israel, police and a witness said.

The victim, Izzedine Qawasmeh, a 35-year-old father of five, was part of a group of Palestinian construction workers trying to enter Israel without permits when he was killed in east Jerusalem near the West Bank separation barrier. Most were headed to construction jobs in Israel, said a cousin who witnessed the shooting.

Despite a modest recovery in the West Bank after years of conflict-driven downturn, there is still significant economic hardship. Jobs remain scarce, and pay is lower than in Israel. A workers’ rights group said thousands sneak into Israel every day in search of jobs.

The dead man’s cousin, 22-year-old Mohammed Qawasmeh, said his relative was shot from close range and without provocation.

He said about 100 workers from villages near the West Bank city of Hebron climb over the separation barrier at a particular spot once a week, head for jobs on Israeli construction sites and return to their villages for the weekend.

“We climb on each other’s shoulders to the top of the wall, and we tie the rope, then descend to the other side,” Mr. Qawasmeh said. “We usually choose (Saturday) midnight, because there are no soldiers and security. We move to a nearby place, a hill, where we stay until the morning,” then travel by bus and on foot for several more hours to various construction sites.

Israel started building the separation barrier in 2002 at the height of the second Palestinian uprising, saying it was necessary to keep Palestinian suicide bombers from entering the country.

It is now about two-thirds complete, running several hundred miles north to south in a series of concrete walls and barbed wire fences. The structure is expected to run about 480 miles when finished, but a series of legal and political considerations have held up construction in several sensitive locations.

Israeli police said the Palestinians trying to enter Sunday fled after ignoring police orders to stop, but an officer caught up with Mr. Qawasmeh. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said he was shot after trying to grab the officer’s gun, but it wasn’t clear whether the officer fired or his gun discharged accidentally.

The cousin denied that Mr. Qawasmeh tried to grab the gun.

West Bank Palestinians must obtain special permits to enter Israel. The number of permits plummeted during the years of the uprising. Although the number has increased in recent years, many still are turned away. Those without permits sometimes try to sneak in, though the separation barrier has made such crossings more difficult.

About 20,000 Palestinian workers have entry permits to Israel, and another 20,000 have permits to work in West Bank settlements, said Salwa Alenat from Kav Laoved, an Israeli advocacy group that assists the laborers. In addition, 10,000 to 15,000 work without permits, she said.

She said workers without permits get paid less by Israeli contractors than those with permits.

Mohammed Qawasmeh said he makes about 150 shekels, or $40, a day, about double the day rate for a laborer in the West Bank. He and his fellow workers often sleep outdoors or at the construction site during the week, he said.

He said he did not try to obtain a permit after others in similar situations were turned down. Israel tends to give preference to married, older men who are seen as less of a security risk.

Mr. Qawasmeh said he and others have been unable to find jobs in their village and have no choice but to sneak into Israel.

While Israel has justified the sprawling separation barrier on security grounds, the Palestinians say the barrier steals their land because it separates them from east Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank, captured lands they seek for their future state.

Also Sunday, an Israeli military court convicted two soldiers of using a 9-year-old Palestinian boy as a human shield during last year’s Gaza war, in the most serious conviction yet connected to soldiers’ war conduct.

The court said the soldiers asked the boy to open bags in a building they took over, fearing explosives were inside. The military bars soldiers from using civilians as human shields.

Israel has faced widespread criticism that it failed to properly investigate alleged wrongdoing by troops during the three-week military operation. Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed, including hundreds of civilians.

A U.N. probe accused both Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers of committing war crimes. Israel denies the allegations, saying its justice system is capable of conducting an investigation that meets international standards.

The Ynet news website said the soldiers could face up to three years in prison.

Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem contributed to this report.