Palestinian worker killed at barrier

Israeli police shot and killed a building worker from the West Bank village of Sair yesterday, after he used a rope to scale the "separation barrier" meant to keep Palestinians from entering Israel clandestinely.

Also yesterday, an Israeli military court convicted two soldiers of using a 9-year-old Palestinian boy as a human shield during last year's Gaza war — the most serious conviction yet connected to troops' conduct during the military offensive.

The West Bank laborer, Izzedine Kawazbeh, a 35-year-old father of five, was shot after scaling Israel's towering separation barrier by rope and dashing across a wide stretch of road heavily patrolled by Israeli police. Israel started building the barrier in 2002 during a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings that killed hundreds of Israelis. The last one was in February 2008.

In an added twist, some of the laborers head to construction jobs in Jewish settlements, helping Israel tighten its hold on lands the Palestinians want for their state.

The workers say they are too busy struggling to feed their families to think much about the risk or the nature of their work. West Bank jobs are scarce, and a laborer there makes only about half of what he would get on an Israeli construction site.

"All he wanted in life was to earn money to feed his family," Kawazbeh's brother, Zeinedin, 34. "He didn't care about anything else." Kawazbeh's widow, Fathiyeh, 30, is pregnant.

The West Bank has recently witnessed a modest economic recovery after years of conflict-driven downturn, but hardship remains widespread in places like Kawazbeh's home village of Sair, where hundreds of men set out weekly for jobs inside Israel.

West Bank Palestinians must obtain permits to enter Israel and the dozens of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Israel argues that it must tightly screen Palestinian workers to weed out possible attackers.

About 20,000 Palestinians have permits to work in Israel, and another 20,000 have permits to work in West Bank settlements, said Salwa Alenat from Kav Laoved, an Israeli group that assists the laborers. As many as 15,000 sneak in without permits, she said.

Kawazbeh's last trip started like all the others he had taken since he started working in Israel at age 15, said his cousin, Radad Kawazbeh, 30, who made the journey with him.

Well before dawn, he and two dozen other workers from the village arrived near a section of the barrier where many Palestinians cross. Hundreds of laborers from elsewhere were also nearby, waiting to sneak across, he said.

When the men could see no army jeeps nearby, they ran for a 15-foot-tall section of the wall. Workers who crossed earlier attached a rope to the top, and the men used it to climb over, Radad Kawazbeh said.

They dropped into a weedy patch full of barbed wire next to a wide stretch of roads. When the way appeared clear, they ran across.

A police car approached as they crossed, but most of the men ran up a hill and hid in the weeds. Kawazbeh, older and heavier than the others, couldn't run fast enough, and a soldier started chasing him, Radad said. As his cousin headed up the hill, Radad said he heard a gunshot.

"When I heard the shot, I thought it was in the air," Radad said. "I didn't imagine they'd shoot my cousin."

Israeli police said the Palestinians ignored police orders to stop and fled, but an officer caught up with Kawazbeh. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Kawazbeh tried to grab the officer's gun. The police officer, re-enacting the incident, told investigators at the scene that his weapon discharged accidentally during the struggle.

The cousin denied that Kawazbeh had tried to grab the gun, saying the officer was 10 meters away when he fired.

Hundreds of villagers gathered near Kawazbeh's house Sunday afternoon for the funeral. Even workers who had entered Israel safely before the shooting returned to pay their respects.

Many were rattled by the shooting.

"We always go that way," said Hassan Kawazbeh, 30, another brother who had been with the group. "Sometimes they catch someone and take him back to the crossing, but they've never shot anyone before."

Workers at the funeral said they earn around $40 a day in Israel, about double the rate in the West Bank. To avoid getting caught, most stay in Israel during the week, sleeping outdoors at their work sites.

Though Israel gives more permits to older, married men who are seen as less of a security risk, Kawazbeh never received one, family members said. Six months ago, Kawazbeh spent 16 days in an Israeli prison after being arrested for not having a permit, according to his brothers.

When Kawazbeh's body reached the village, it was buried without being bathed — the funeral given a "martyr," or one killed by the enemy.

After the service, worker Nasser Shalalda, 30, said he still planned to go back to Israel. When asked how soon, he said: "Next Saturday."

Meanwhile, an Israeli military court convicted two soldiers of using a 9-year-old Palestinian boy as a human shield during the Gaza war.

The court said the soldiers asked the boy to open bags in a building they took over, fearing explosives were inside. The military bars soldiers from using civilians as human shields.

The boy told Channel 10 TV that soldiers threw him up against a wall and fired at an attache case he failed to open. The Israeli Ynet news website said the soldiers could face up to three years in prison.

Israel has faced widespread criticism that it failed to properly investigate alleged wrongdoing by troops during the three-week military operation. Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed, including hundreds of civilians.

There have been a total of 48 investigations into Gaza war actions, a third of which are still in progress. Three indictments have been issued, including the case that resulted in yesterday's conviction.

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