Each morning in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Arab workers pass through the Israeli checkpoint on their way to jobs in Jerusalem. At first it seems a picture of efficiency, as soldiers carefully scrutinize their entry and work permits. But along either side of the militarized checkpoint hundreds of illegal Palestinian laborers stroll through olive groves--in plain sight of Israeli soldiers--on their way to low-wage positions in Israel. Indeed, of the 120,000 Palestinian workers who enter Israel every day, more than half are illegal. For Israeli employers, the workers are a source of cheap, dependable labor. For Hassan Tamari, who makes the short trek each day, the economics are equally simple: "There are few jobs in Bethlehem," he says. "I can make 130 shekels in Israel and only 80 in Bethlehem."
If Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has his way, tens of thousands of workers like Tamari won't earn any shekels in Israel. As part of a broader policy of "separation," Barak wants to drastically reduce the number of day laborers in Israel. He has proposed an electric fence and even an overland bridge between Gaza and the West Bank so that Palestinians shuttling back and forth will never touch Israel.
At the Oslo summit last week, Barak signaled his willingness to accept a Palestinian state. But to the consternation of the Clinton administration and Palestinian leaders, he also made it clear he wants to disentangle the two economies. Electric fences and elevated highways are a far cry from Shimon Peres's vision of the new Middle East, where goods and people would flow like milk and honey. Barak, the unsentimental former general, reflects a view shared by most average Israelis: they can accept territorial compromise and even a sovereign Palestinian state, but they also want a divorce. "We used to talk about getting Israel out of Gaza," says Dan Schueftan, a Haifa University lecturer and author of a new book on separation. "Now Israelis want to get Gaza out of Israel."
Many Palestinians believe that such disengagement would be a disaster for their fledgling economy. Unemployment is already high in the Palestinian areas, and a peace deal with Israel could mean a huge influx of job-seeking Palestinians from surrounding Arab countries. They argue that the only way peace will take root is through economic integration, not separation. If Israel fences off its job market, frustrated Palestinians may turn to violence. "Separation is very bad for us," says Palestinian legislator Husam Khader. "Separation will force the people to revolution again." Even some prominent members of Barak's government agree. "Borders must be open for business and labor," says Ephraim Sneh, deputy minister of Defense. "We can't speak of a separation based on an electric fence, minefields and barbed wire."
Lately, Barak has been soft-pedaling the separation plan. He insists it won't mean the end of economic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. Rather, Barak would like to gradually wean the Palestinians off Israel's economy. "[A fence] is needed to give the Palestinian infrastructure and economy a chance to stand on its own two feet," Barak told NEWSWEEK in an interview last month. "We are not their patrons." Both sides might look to the Betar Forest mini-mall, near Bethlehem, which straddles the green line separating Israel from the West Bank, as a model of integration. Here, Jews and Arabs share stores and restaurants. Arabs speak Hebrew, and Israelis pepper their conversation with Arabic. At the local cafe, owner Ami Magali scorns the recent Oslo summit. "The real peace is here between me and the Arabs," he says. But not everyone agrees. "I feel hate about them taking our land," says Abdel Aziz Abu Kamil, a nearby Palestinian villager. "It's not cooperation, it's fear." For him, Barak's call for separation is welcome news.