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West Bank jobless eke out living from trash

Jawad held up a pair of worn plimsolls to show he was having a good day. He had found them in the heaps of rotting rubbish at Azzariya, the main garbage dump for Jerusalem where hundreds of unemployed Palestinians have gathered every day since Israel sealed off the West Bank.

"There used to be just 10 or 20 people who came here," says Adel, 19, dressed in a dirty T-shirt. "Now there are between 500 and a thousand people who come because they have no money to buy food for their children." As each garbage truck disgorged its load, people surged forward in search of food, clothing and scrap metal.

Most of the Palestinians who claw through the rubbish at Azzariya used to work in Israel. Jawad, 19, says: "Before the closure [of the West Bank] I used to work in a supermarket in Tel Aviv. Now I am here from five in the morning." At one time 174,000 Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank were working in Israel, mainly in construction and agriculture.

Israel had sealed off the West Bank before, but after two suicide bombs exploded in Jerusalem and Ashkelon on 25 February the West Bank was isolated as never before. Israeli employers were threatened with heavy fines if they employed any West Bank Palestinians. Some 210,000 Rumanians, Thais and Turks have replaced Palestinians on Israeli construction sites.

The Azzariya dump is easy to find. You follow garbage trucks past the outskirts of Jerusalem through the village of Azzariya into an enormous sandy hollow. Even before they stop you are hit by the stench of the rubbish heaps. Beside a cliff face there was a huddle of donkeys waiting to take away anything of value. As each truck stops people rush to grab the choicest items.

A Palestinian manager in charge of the dump, who did not want to give his name, said: "About 1,000 tons of rubbish come here everyday. It is dangerous for people to be standing in the middle of it. There is lots of broken glass and last year a ten-year-old child was crushed to death by a truck." In half an hour our car was covered in a fine layer of dirt.

It is possible that the people of the Azzariya dump may soon see a small improvement in their lives.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the newly elected Israeli Prime Minister, is expected to decide today if the closure will be eased. This might ultimately allow 50,000 to 60,000 Palestinian workers to enter Israel. But only workers over 25 will be given permits and most of the people at Azzariya are in their late teens or early twenties.

Not surprisingly nobody at the dump spoke about the Oslo accords. For them the years of the "peace process" have brought economic misery. In the last 12 months per capita income for Palestinians on the West Bank has fallen by 20 per cent. It is not difficult at Azzariya, watching the young men squabble over a choice garbage bag, to understand why Hamas and Islamic Jihad find it easy to recruit suicide bombers.

Ibrahim, 15, looking pleased that he had found an uneaten roll with some lettuce in it, said he did not think anything would get better. He said that the 14 members of his family were on the edge of starvation and the dump was their last resort.

Later in the afternoon he was expecting his mother and father to join him in searching through the garbage.