Out of Israel: Efi and crew try to sweep aside divisions

JERUSALEM - Everyone agreed: nowadays you just can't get the staff. The Jews don't want the work. The Arabs want the work but can't get to the jobs. What's more, Yitzhak Rabin says it's going to go on like this indefinitely.

Five days ago I moved into a new flat alongside the old green line, the boundary between Jewish west and Arab east Jerusalem. The location seemed compelling, for a foreigner monitoring the conflict: feet in the west but views over the east, overlooking the flashpoint of division and the focus of convergence. Here Israeli radio blasts out news of the latest clashes accompanied by the muezzin and the church bells of the Old City.

While the location was good, the flat needed a clean and Passover is the worst time to look for help. Every cleaner in Jerusalem is employed, scrubbing every Jewish home.

And Passover was not my only problem. The segor, or closure, had also worked against me. For nearly two weeks Israel has closed off the entire West Bank to ease Israeli fears in the wake of mounting violence, thereby preventing 90,000 Palestinians from reaching their jobs in Israel.

Many of the cleaners employed in Jewish homes for Passover are Palestinians, prepared to take on low-paid work which unemployed Israelis refuse to do. 'We have no staff, they can't come in from Ramallah or Bethlehem,' employers told me. The closure has angered many Israeli employers who have lost their workers. But most Israelis express nothing but relief.

Then yesterday along came Efi, a Jew, who said his cleaning company could do the job, despite Passover and the closure. And with him were three Palestinian workers, Raid, Wisam, and Fathi.

Efi arrived in jeans and T-shirt, hauling brushes and mops, but suddenly he donned a prayer shawl. As the men set to work he recited his prayers from my balcony, overlooking the Dome of the Rock, which hides from view the western wall of Herod's Temple, built on Judaism's holiest site.

Packing away the prayer-book and picking up the mop, he said he too had been hit by the closure. 'The law has screwed everybody,' he said. 'The Arabs work hard. If an Israeli gets 1,600 shekels a month in unemployment pay he doesn't want to come and work for me for 1,800.' His employees had been able to travel to their jobs because they lived in east Jerusalem, which Mr Rabin wants to include in sovereign Israel, and this was not closed off. Restrictions on these men are tight, nevertheless, and Efi gets them special permits to work in the west.

He admitted that he, like others, had become more nervous of late about his Palestinian employees. 'With all the stabbing you have to be scared. You might have known a guy for 20 years and suddenly you get a knife in the back. We get along and we talk politics. You want to trust and you want to believe in them, but the situation doesn't always let you.'

But Efi, 26, is clearly close to his workers, conversing with them sometimes in Arabic and sometimes in Hebrew. A Sephardi Jew, his family emigrated from Iran in the 1950s. 'I am open with them. I give them the feeling they are part of the business. Some bosses just stand on the Arabs' head,' he said.

Fathi, 22, who has worked for Efi for six years, says they are like a family. 'He is like a brother, he has come to my home.' But, he says, he can understand the fear of Israeli employers. 'When they make problems for us we feel the same way,' he says.

The group seemed used to watching each other both at work and at prayer. The Palestinians are attuned to the rhythms of the Jewish Passover, just as Efi is attuned to the rhythms of Ramadam. The Palestinians said, however, they did not have Israeli friends. 'Both sides feel the same about each other. It's just work, that's all. Before the intifada we used to play football with Israeli border police. But no more.'

As they chatted Mr Rabin was addressing the Knesset. 'The closure is successful because it has started to separate the two peoples,' he said, urging Israelis to return to being builders and farmers and stop depending on Palestinian labour. The job done, Efi and his men left for their respective sides of the green line.