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Israel to import workers

MORE than a month after the Israeli-occupied territories were closed off, barring Palestinians from jobs in Israel, a worker shortage has forced the government to allow thousands of Palestinians back, and to import foreign workers.

Yesterday an acrimonious cabinet meeting discussed the employment crisis caused by the closure, particularly in the construction industry. A decision was delayed about how far to relax restrictions on Palestinian workers, and when to bring in foreigners, but the decisions are certain to be confirmed this week. Building companies have threatened to close down sites all over Israel unless the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, brings in 10,000-15,000 foreigners to help fill the jobs vacated by up to 100,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Before the closure 95,000 Israelis were receiving unemployment benefit. But only a few hundred have come forward to take the low-paid unskilled work vacated by the Palestinians.

The worker crisis has taken the gloss away from the new closure policy, which is seen by the government as an important security measure, which soothes fears of Arabs heightened by a rise in stabbing attacks. The measure was also seized on by the governing Labour Party and the liberal-left as a useful means of getting Israelis used to the idea of a separate Palestinian entity, which could one day become entirely independent.

Although there is little doubt that the principle of economic severance between Israel and the occupied territories is here to stay for the long term, in the short term economic pressure has forced the government to relax the closure, and this is itself proving contentious.

Many Palestinians who once worked in Israel no longer wish, or feel able, to return, in some cases because of pressure from Palestinian factions. And many Jewish construction and agricultural workers are saying they will not work alongside Palestinians. Mr Rabin is set to agree to using workers from Thailand for agriculture and from former Yugoslavia and East Europe for construction.