This week, a bus attack in the heart of Israel -- a Palestinian bus driver struck Israeli passengers waiting at a stop in South Tel Aviv -- killed eight and left 12 wounded. The government's response was swift. It sealed off the Palestinian territories by air, land and sea. Palestinian residents are forbidden from entering Israel, but also from traveling to Egypt and Jordan, and anywhere else except Mecca, Saudi Arabia for their Islamic pilgrimage.
The border has been under a general closure since September 30th, when the latest round of violence began, but Israel has made exceptions for Palestinian men working across the Green Line. No longer. After the bus attack, the government promised to reassess the policy of allowing Palestinians to work in Israel. Because of the complete border closing, 150,000 Palestinian men are out of a job.
The events are as familiar as they are terrible. The bus attack is just the latest in the five-month-long Al-Aqsa Intifada, modeled after the bloody first Intifada, which began in 1987. The bus attack too, is reminiscent of earlier violence. In one period of 1996, four separate bus explosions rocked Israel; the nine-day death toll was 61. The casualties were civilians, not soldiers, who lived in Israel proper, not the settlements. "Before that point, most of the violence had been in the territories," says David Bartram, a professor of sociology at Colorado College. In response, the government sealed the border to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, preventing Palestinian day laborers from reaching their jobs in Israel -- just as caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Barak has done this week (Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon will be sworn in next week).
But the 1996 border closing had unintended consequences. One was an increase in economic migration to Israel from countries like Thailand, the Philippines and Romania. As Bartram explains it, "Israeli employers got upset that the government was taking away their labor supply, and argued it was the government's responsibility to come up with an alternative." The alternative was a set of formal recruiting programs overseas. When the violence ended and Israel opened the borders to Palestinian workers again, however, foreign workers stayed. (There are nearly 200,000 non-Palestinian foreign workers currently in Israel according to Ze'ev Rosenhek, a sociology professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.) As a result, there were fewer jobs for Palestinians to return to. Palestinians' economic problems remained long after the violence ended, increasing their resentment of Israelis.
Five years later, Israel is back where it started. The bus driver Khalil Abu Ulbah, was not an extremist. He had no known ties to groups like Hamas or Hezbollah and was working in Israel legally; in fact, his work permit was renewed just two weeks before the attack, requiring an extensive security check. Why, then, did he mow down a group of Israelis on the side of the road? According to his family, he "just snapped." To the government's mind, Israel can no longer afford to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent. Any Palestinian -- or any Arab for that matter -- is a possible terrorist, so Israel must keep Palestinians on their side of the fence.
The problem with this reasoning is that there is nothing on the Palestinian side: no jobs, no industry and no hope. In times of relative quiet, nearly 40 percent of able-bodied Palestinian men work in Israel, typically in agriculture or construction. Since the eruption of violence in late September, the United Nations estimates that the Palestinian economy has lost $1 billion, a good portion of which is accounted for by lost wages from day labor in Israel. Prior to the complete border closing, more than a third of the Palestinian work force was already unemployed. Taking action that increases economic desperation in the Palestinian territories cannot be safe for Israel -- no matter how carefully the borders are sealed.
The latest crackdown is dangerously severe. Ephraim Sneh, Israel's deputy defense minister, acknowledged this concern on national television on the day of the attack, saying, "The harsher the measures are, the worse the Palestinian economic situation grows. The more they starve, the more the hatred and despair become, and with it the feeling that there is nothing to lose." But his conclusion contradicts his facts: The only way for Israel to be completely safe, he said, is to seal off the border. "When you open the borders," he said, "there is always a risk."
On one of the first hopeful days of the Camp David talks this summer, I met with Ze'ev Rosenhek, the sociologist from Hebrew University at his office in Jerusalem to discuss the situation of Palestinian laborers in Israel. "Let's assume that one day there will be a Palestinian state," he began, an assumption that now seems less likely,
Some say the two countries -- Israel and what would be Palestine -- should be economically integrated. Others say, at least in the first stages, that they should be separated in order to prevent economic dependency. But there is a Catch-22 here. The Palestinian economy cannot develop if it is dependent on Israel, but on the other hand, without a close relationship bordering on dependency the Palestinian economy could not survive.
These were words spoken at a time when peace seemed closer at hand, but they hold weight even now. Any decisions made now for the sake of short-term security will have long-term repercussions. The border closings in 1996 led to a recruitment of foreign workers to replace Palestinian day laborers, introducing competition for low-skilled jobs and fundamentally changing the economic situation in Israel and the territories. With investment in the Palestinian territories all but dried up, and the opportunity to work in Israel suddenly evaporated, what is left of the Palestinian economy? If Israelis and Palestinians ever hope to share their strip of land in peace -- or at least in quiet -- they must continue to heed the systemic problems, including water use and labor mobility, even when the news of the day is terrifying and tragic.