- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2005

KHAN YUNIS, Gaza Strip — They would never say they’re sorry to see Jewish settlers leave Gaza, but for Palestinian laborers who work in greenhouses inside the settlements the impending Israeli departure is met with ambivalence.

While the rest of Gaza will be celebrating, about 3,000 workers employed in the settlements will be worrying about where can earn their next paycheck.

“It’s a mixed feeling. In the situation we’re in, the only work that provides a good income is inside the settlements,” said Amjad Firwan, who tends cilantro and onion crops in the settlement bloc of Gush Katif to support his family of six. “After the pullout, there will be a difficult period. We don’t know what we will do.”

Labor at $1 per hour

For the past four years, Mr. Firwan and fellow laborers from Khan Yunis have crossed the Israeli-Palestinian battle lines to earn $1 per hour — less than one-fourth Israel’s minimum wage, which is pegged at 45 percent of the average wage in Israel.

But this is several times more than the average income of Palestinians in Gaza. Their precarious existence highlights the desperation of Palestinians in Gaza.

At home in Khan Yunis, the workers live with Israeli military incursions and disdain from neighbors who suspect them of collaborating with Israel. En route to the settlements, they face humiliating strip searches and work amid intermittent mortar fire from Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Palestinian shells kill 3

This month they got a reminder that Palestinian shelling can be just as deadly as Israeli strikes when three of their colleagues were killed and several critically injured during a rest break in one of the greenhouses.

“It’s scary, but what choice do we have?” asked Mr. Firwan.

The attack provoked muted criticism of the militants by the families of the wounded, he said. Their complaint was that the shelling occurred in daytime when Palestinians are hard at work in the greenhouses, rather than at evening when most have returned home.

Mr. Firwan said the attack backfired on the militants by showing them as reckless. “Israelis are using it for public opinion, and say: ‘Look how the Palestinians are killing each other.’”

Few jobs are available

A few days after the attack, a handful of workers gathered in a cinder-block apartment in Khan Yunis on their day off to talk about the hardships of their work. Even though most had completed high school, the alternative to working in Gush Katif is sitting at home with nothing to do, said Iyad, 31, who asked to be identified by his first name only.

While on the job in the Jewish settlement of Gadid, relations with their employers are strictly business. Still, politics remains just below the surface, said Iyad. “He [Iyad’s Jewish employer] knows that I’m his enemy and that he’s my enemy. I know what work I have to do,and he knows what he must do for me.”

The reaction to the Palestinian laborers when they return home is mixed. Even the children of Khan Yunis heckle the settlement workers, said Mr. Firwan. “I feel ashamed when I hear it. Palestinians ask us: ‘Why are you working there? They are our enemies.’”

Intifada shut border

To be sure, before the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000, hundreds of thousands of laborers worked in Israel as well as in the Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory. The escalation of daily violence led Israel to close border crossings, choking off jobs and Gaza’s economy. Through it all, the settlements in Gush Katif have continued to use Palestinian labor.

Khan Yunis Mayor Osama Alfarra said his countrymen shouldn’t fault the workers for staying at their jobs during the uprising. “There is no religion and no political party that says people should not bring food to their families.”

Fate of farms not clear

Palestinian workers say some settlers have offered them jobs once they re-establish their farms outside the Gaza Strip, but few believe they’ll get permission to enter Israel. It is still not clear what will be the fate of the farms after the withdrawal, but if they’re left intact, the laborers are confident they could manage the business.

But Shimon Snir, a farmer who lives in Gush Katif and employs laborers from Gaza, said he would rather destroy his greenhouses than yield them to the Palestinian government. If he could transfer the infrastructure to employees, it would be a different story, Mr. Snir said.

“If they were to tell me I could leave my greenhouses to my worker, I would leave it to him as a present.” Indeed, despite the violence involving both sides, the work in the hothouses also has planted fledgling friendships.

Ahmed Firwan, a relative of Amjad Firwan, recalls how his boss would let him ride his dune buggy around the settlement. That will further complicate his attitude toward the settlers.

“If he is my enemy, I won’t be sad to see them leaving,” he said. “But I will keep as a memory that there was a friendship, and that he helped me.”


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