Israel has handed out 21,600 work permits to Palestinians. But an estimated 40,000 risk their lives to enter the country and work illegally

Before dawn, a crackling sound breaks up the cool, still air, as boots tread over rocks on a four-mile-long path that leads hundreds of illegal Palestinian workers into Israel each day. None holds an Israeli work permit and as the labourers make their way from the occupied West Bank, they risk a dangerous run-in with Israeli paramilitary border police.

The small Arab village of Beit Iksa , nestled among foothills and surrounded by Jewish settlements, opens out to a dark panorama of Jerusalem studded by twinkling street lights. But it’s not the view that beckons Palestinian labourers from every corner of the West Bank. “They all come here because this is the only place without a wall around it,” says an undocumented worker who declined to give his real name but identified himself as Abu Omar. Beit Iksa is not enclosed by the Israeli barrier that snakes through the West Bank, making it a transit point for many seeking to enter illegally for work.

Israel, rocked by suicide bombings in its cities during a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000, says the network of concrete walls, wire fences and ditches is a security measure that has prevented attacks by militants. Palestinians call it a land grab and the World Court has deemed the barrier illegal because it cuts through territory Israel occupied in a 1967 war.

For Palestinian workers, the barrier means that what was once a simple journey into Israel is now a dangerous commute that can take four hours or more, as they take measures to evade armed border patrols. Many of these Palestinian labourers have worked inside Israel for 15 to 20 years and don’t want to lose their jobs.

Around 21,600 Palestinian labourers hold Israeli work permits, but between 35,000 and 40,000 undocumented workers enter illegally, according to the Palestinian Workers’ Union. In 2009, the unemployment rate in the occupied West Bank has ranged from 19.5 to 15.9, which the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics says reflects availability in seasonal agricultural work.

“Sometimes I will get in once during the course of a week, and then I’ll stay in Jerusalem for the week. And some weeks, I don’t get in at all,” said one worker. “Each time you do it, you’re risking your life,” Abu Omar said. “If one of those soldiers is a bad guy, he might shoot at you while you’re going through the mountains. No one can do anything about it, that’s it.”

Workers who get into Israel on a regular basis make about 2,000 to 5,000 shekels (£320 to £800) a month. “I get 4,000 to 5,000 shekels a month now. If I worked in Ramallah (in the West Bank) I’d get 1,400 shekels,” said one woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Doesn’t that seem worth the risk? Even if it’s exhausting, or you have to sneak in, when I come home and I have enough money to take care of my kids, any feeling of guilt disappears. I forget the exhaustion.”

Now, even Beit Iksa is being closed in. Israeli border police have installed a checkpoint at its entrance and Palestinians pay 20 shekels to get smuggled through. One smuggler, who takes workers into Israel via a different route, said tactics have to be changed constantly. “We used to just use old Fords for transit,” said the smuggler. “Then we started to use nice cars, to try and make it look like a tourism company, but they figured that out. Then we started putting Israeli flags on the cars, and the driver would wear a Jewish skullcap, but they’ve figured that out too.”

The trip can deplete a worker’s salary by as much as 50 per cent each month when tallied with other transportation costs. Many undocumented workers say they have been shot at by border police while trying to sneak across the border or beaten after being caught.

Palestinians who smuggle workers into Israel face heavy fines of up to 10,000 shekels and a six-month jail sentence for a first offence. “But we’ll keep going,” one smuggler said. “One guy gets caught, we just bring in someone else to drive. He gets caught, we bring in the next one.”

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