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Jobs battle on Israeli front line

Patrick Cockburn in Hod Hasharon finds unrest stirring among foreign workers recruited to replace Palestinians Patrick Cockburn in Hod Hasharon 14pt standfirst in here please from so ans son in somewherefrom so ans son in somewhere
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ON Friday afternoon, a strange protest march made its way down the main street of Hod Hasharon, a prosperous industrial town north of Tel Aviv on Israel's coastal plain. The men in the front row of the march carried a 10ft placard on which was written "Greva-Foamei" - the Romanian for hunger strike - and this was repeated in red letters in Hebrew and Thai.

The marchers, 250-strong, were all workers from Romania and Thailand, recruited to replace Palestinians on Israeli building sites, but now penniless because the company which recruited them went bankrupt 10 days ago. "They did not have enough to eat until the high school opposite the site where they were working gave 1,000 shekels [£212] for them to buy food," says Almog Burstein, head of the local labour council.

The Romanians and Thais, who show perfect solidarity although they only have a few words of English in common, feel particularly bitter because Israkan, their employer, did not pay them for two months before it went out of business. They also want the Israeli receiver to give back their passports and the $1,200 (£790) each paid when he signed on in Bucharest or Bangkok, as an up-front guarantee he would finish his contract.

None of the stranded workers appeared conscious of the fact their presence in Hod Hasharon has its origin in the Palestinian intifada, the Gulf war and the spate of suicide bombings over the past year. "There are too few Israeli workers," says Mr Burstein. "Most of the workers here used to be Arabs from the territories." They provided the bulk of the labour on Israeli construction sites and on citrus and flower farms.

But the repeated closure of the West Bank and Gaza, preventing Palestinans travelling to Israel, means that even before the present ban on entry, imposed after the Beit Lid bombing on 22 January, the number of Palestinian workers in Israel had dropped from 120,000 two years ago to 55,000 today. Their place is being taken by around 60,000 foreign workers, about half of them Romanians, and the number is increasing rapidly.

"Until a year ago, the Israeli threat to replace Palestinians with foreign workers wasn't serious," says Hisham Awartani, head of economics at al- Najah university in Nablus. "Now they have experimented with the idea and found it works. Israeli firms say the foreigners can work longer hours for less pay than Palestinians, but the most important shift is in Israeli public opinion, which is more and more hostile to Palestinian workers since the bomb attacks started."

Mr Burstein, an economist who is also an international chess arbiter, says some of the workers he is trying to help were not paid much less than Israelis. But another Israeli, a former Romanian naval officer come to watch the demonstration, who did not want to give his name, said: "There is a sort of mafia which recruits these workers. They take their passports and treat them like peons. The Romanian consul says he has no power to do anything, and they have no trade union."

In fact, only donations of food and money from local people in Hod Hasharon and from the Histadrut trade union federation earlier in the week were preventing the Romanians and Thais from starving. Other Israeli sympathisers had written slogans in Hebrew on placards for the Thais, all wearing green and white peaked caps, to hold up beside the road. A ceramic tiler named Preecha said: "I want my money for two months, my $1,200 guarantee and my passport, and then I want to go back to Thailand."

The Romanians were gloomier about the prospect of returning to Bucharest, and said that first of all they wanted the money they were owed. While the demonstration was going on, a local Israeli employer drove up and offered 10 to 15 of the Thais jobs as tilers there and then. But they said they would not discuss new jobs until the demands had been met of all 249 men - 175 Romanians and 74 Thais - who had been building the half-completed luxury villas behind a fence 100 yards away.

Israeli government policy is to speed up the recruitment of foreign workers to replace Palestinians. This has a devastating effect on the economy of the West Bank and Gaza, where they used to bring in $700,000 a day, but economists like Professor Awartani believe they may never go back.

Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, speaks of a further 25,000 foreign workers being brought in, and last week the government announced a further 3,700 Thais are to be recruited.

The plight of the Romanians and Thais at Hod Hasharon is not unique. Driving close to Jerusalem at Ma'ale ha-Hamisha, down a road that threads its way past small factories, we came upon a stark yellow building with shirts and underclothes drying on a washing-line outside. Inside the building, divided into large rooms, each with seven or eight bunks, Romanians and Chinese workers were living.

Chu Tzai-Yu, 26, said there were 20 other Chinese, all from Sichuan province, with him, but the builder they had been working for had just gone out of business. They were waiting for other jobs. He said: "If they don't find us other work we will go back to China." He was playing "Chinese chess", and looked unperturbed by the difficulties of being a guest worker in Israel.

In Gaza, meanwhile, the Palestinian workers whom Israel is replacing say they work harder, cost less and are more skilled than their foreign competition. This is probably true, but may not do them much good. A 26- year-old electrician named Taysir, sitting beside the road with a dozen unemployed friends close to the Erez checkpoint, through which they used to pass every morning, said: "The last day I worked in Israel I put electrical wiring in an apartment in a town in the Negev that Thais are going to live in. We talked by signs."

Others were more optimistic. One construction worker who had held jobs in Israel since 1973 said that at one site "they brought in 10 foreigners, Romanians, but they were dismissed after three days".

A reason why Israeli employers like Palestinians to work for them is that almost all can speak Hebrew, unlike newly arrived Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Few of these are, in any case, manual workers. But a tiler called Rizq held a different - and more pessimstic - view of what was going to happen than his friends. He said: "I think that if the closure continues for a long time then they will get rid of all of us."