MEITAR CHECKPOINT, West Bank — It is well before dawn when the first work deprived Palestinians arrive to sneak through a two-meter hole cut in the metal fence that is supposed to keep them out of Israel.
The men are among the thousands of Palestinians working in Israel illegally, risking bad working conditions, exploitation and jail for a chance of employment.
On the morning AFP visited, Yunis, from Dahariya in the southern West Bank, was one of hundreds running the gauntlet as police patrolled the area.
They play a cat and mouse game with Israeli security — sometimes making several attempts before crossing without being spotted.
“I got here at 3:00 a.m. and found police patrols ahead of us,” said the bearded and wrinkled 55-year-old. “I know I am leaving my house and I may not come back but this bitter life drives us to adventure.”
Around a kilometer or so away, Palestinians lucky enough to have permits queue in a long line at the Meitar Crossing between Beersheba in southern Israel and the West Bank, waiting for their documents to be checked and their bags and bodies to be searched.
Visibly tired, they wear winter jackets and carry small bags containing food and work clothes.
Around 70,000 Palestinians have official work permits, according to the Bank of Israel.
While reliable numbers are hard to come by, thousands more are estimated to be working illegally in the country — mostly in construction and other manual labor.
They can earn far higher salaries than in the West Bank, but can be arrested or exploited by employers.
‘Stay on the work site a week’
Amir, 20, who like others didn’t want to give his full name, comes from the town of Yatta near Hebron in the southern West Bank.
He sneaks through the security barrier to make money to help his family.
“The police arrested me four times,” said Amir, alleging that he was held for several hours and beaten.
He also said that he and his peers had been chased by police dogs.
Asked by AFP, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld described allegations of beatings as “incorrect” and “misleading.”
“All border police activities take place according to strict orders and a strict protocol,” with illegal workers returned to Palestinian areas, and serial offenders liable to prison sentences or fines, he said.
Even if he avoids the police at the fence and finds work, Amir has to be careful, knowing he could still be arrested on the street.
“We worked for months on the site without washing,” he said. “We just want to live with dignity.”
On the Israeli side of the crossing, taxis line up to ferry the men to nearby cities — both those with permits and those without.
Tayseer, 38, had snuck across and avoided police searches by mingling successfully with those who had permits.
“We make NIS 130 [$37] each day and pay NIS 50 [$14] getting across. We stay on the work site a week or more and after that return home.”
He said employers often pay far less than they initially promise.
“They don’t give us the rest because they know we are working without permits.”
Khaled Amro from near Hebron didn’t realize when he dodged through the fence in October it would be his last time.
The 50-year-old was employed without a permit, but fell from a height and died.
The police report said he fell from an open elevator while going up to sleep on the roof of a building site near Ramle in central Israel, his brother Muntaser told AFP.
Khaled had been arrested in the late 1980s so was refused a permit, Muntaser said.
“He was the head of the family with three kids to support. There is no work in the West Bank,” Muntaser said.
Dakhil Abu Zaid Hamid of the Israeli trade union federation Histadrut said most of the 81 people killed during work incidents this year were Arab.
Of these 42 died while working on construction sites, according to Kav LaOved, a hotline for workers rights. It says the rate of deaths of construction workers is 2.5 times higher than in the European Union, and blames a lack of proper monitoring of work sites.
Even those with permits face potential exploitation.
A recent Bank of Israel study found that 20,000 Palestinian workers paid a total of NIS 480 million ($138 million) to middlemen and employers to obtain work permits in Israel. It recommended cancelling a requirement that Palestinians work only for a predefined employer.
Back by the fence, Yunis admits failure for the day — the police are out in force and in daylight his chances of crossing undetected are slim.
In total around 80 people were arrested that morning, according to police figures.
Yunis said he had little choice but to try again another day.
“I am not afraid of death, there is no alternative.”