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The Tel Aviv Suicide Bombings
and Foreign Workers

By Jaggi Singh

East Jerusalem, January 6, 2003 -- The double suicide bombing at the Central bus station in Tel Aviv yesterday evening is dominating headlines internationally. The attack resulted in at least 23 deaths, and over 100 injured, many very seriously.

Israel's predictable response is to tighten the military occupation over Palestinians, meaning more restrictions on movement, more curfews, more checkpoints, more humiliating searches, more military incursions, and the closing of at least three universities, including Al-Najah University in Nablus.

Targeted assassinations, home occupations and house demolitions are sure to follow within the next hours and days, as will Palestinian civilian deaths. Just in the limited period between December 26, 2002-January 1, 2003, 15 Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli Occupation Forces, including 5 children (according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights).

And just as surely as Israel will increase its attacks in the occupied territories, more suicide attacks against civilians in Israel will follow, as the logic of collective punishment that Israel applies to Palestinian civilians is returned in kind by the members of various militant groups, both secular and Islamic, who all rushed to take credit for the latest terror attack.

At least six of the people killed in Tel Aviv, and a large proportion of the injured, were foreign workers, many of whom live and work in Israel illegally. The bombings occurred in a district of south Tel Aviv with a large concentration of foreigners (there are 80,000 foreign workers in Tel Aviv alone). Migrant labor in Israel comes mainly from Africa, Eastern Europe, Turkey, Southeast Asia (predominantly Thailand and the Philippines), China, Latin America as well as Palestine.

Many of the foreign worker victims and their relatives have been reluctant to seek medical help, or to inquire about their friends and relatives. According to the Jerusalem Post, a hospital spokesman at the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv said that "many of the wounded were refusing to identify themselves for fear of deportation, and that some had been left at the hospital's doorstep by friends who hastily quit the area."

In response, Israel's Interior Minister publicly announced that no deportation proceedings would be launched against foreigners who were wounded. Israeli TV news broadcasts, normally in Hebrew, included police appeals in English to foreign workers to seek medical help without fear of deportation. And the PR-savvy Israeli Foreign Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, will be visiting the foreign worker victims in hospital.

The immediate Israeli government response to the situation of foreign workers as suicide attack victims belies the day-to-day treatment of foreign workers here, when they're not sympathetic "Palestinian terror" victims like other Israelis, but just cheap labor. For the last year, foreign workers have been a convenient scapegoat for an Ariel Sharon government that needs lots of scapegoats.

The year 2002 was Israel's worst economic performance -- with negative growth -- since the formation of the state in 1948. High unemployment has been blamed, in racist fashion, on the influx of foreign labor.

Adam Baruch, writing in the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv this past November, described the campaign against foreigners as an atrocity. In his words:

"The propaganda of the immigration police against the foreign workers is developing into a cultural, humane and political atrocity. The television broadcast against foreigners is becoming more and more violent. The foreign workers are presented as "people enemies". Their humanity is transparent, non-existent. The fact that the Israelis "imported them" and is taking advantage of them is being denied. The propaganda incite the unemployed to act against the foreign worker. The propaganda presents those who employ foreign workers as "traitors". If you insert the word "Jew" instead of "foreign worker" in this propaganda - you will get anti-Semitism."

In a speech on unemployment last January, the Israeli Minister of Social and Labour Affairs, Shlomo Benizri, said: "The main problem we are dealing with right now is reducing our dependence on foreign workers ... It is shameful that Israel is number two on the list of [Western] countries with the highest proportions of foreign workers." [Foreign workers account for about 10% of Israel's workforce, second only to Switzerland.]

His colleague at the Interior Ministry, Eli Yishai, recently told Ma'ariv, "I want everyone who is not Jewish not to be in this land. Immigrants are coming who are gentiles, foreign workers are coming, and with the Arabs, they will make this state multicultural. The immigrants who are not Jewish come and build churches. They should stay in their own countries." [Yishai's comments were condemned by several secular Israeli commentators and politicians, who see the ultra-orthodox Shas Party of Benizri and Yishai as enemies, especially during an election campaign.]

Agents from the Labour and Interior Ministries are collaborating with the Israeli police in an aggressive crackdown against illegal migrants that began in September 2002, part of Ariel Sharon's announced strategy to deport 50,000 illegal migrants in one year. Tel Aviv has been the location of several police dragnets and roundups of illegal migrants, who often wait in prison for months pending removal.

Sharon's current deportation policy was announced after a previous suicide bombing last summer that killed Romanian and Chinese laborers, but the principle of expulsion began when Binyamin Netanyahu was Prime Minister, and continued under Ehud Barak.

The situation of migrant foreign laborers in Israel parallels other modern capitalist states in Western Europe, North America and Australia and New Zealand (reflecting Israel's similar neo-colonial relationship to the Third World), as well as the rich Arab Gulf plutocracies that treat foreign migrant labor horribly. The worldwide neo-colonial reality interacts with Israel's direct colonial relationship to Palestine and Palestinians.

Palestinians workers constituted a large pool of cheap labor for Israeli industry, and the occupied territories were a literal captive market for Israeli products. The captive market remains, but since the second intifada in September 2000, Palestinian workers have not been able to freely travel to work in Israel, and many migrants from elsewhere have filled the gap, especially in the construction field.

Palestinian workers in Israel were deemed a security threat by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, which accounts for the current wave of foreign, non-Jewish, migration to Israel, and the lesser numbers of Palestinians who still remain in Israel. [Unemployment rates in the occupied territories of Palestine are at 40%, in some areas much higher.]

There are an estimated 300,000 migrant workers in Israel (including about 100,000 Palestinians) -- both legal and illegal -- a significant proportion in a country of only 6 million. They work mainly in areas like agriculture, cleaning, construction, decorating and nursing. There is also significant trafficking of women for the sex industry.

Like migrant labor everywhere, foreign workers in Israel are not accorded full social benefits, and often lack even minimal medical access. They are reliant on the whims of their bosses, where abuse and harassment is common. Their existence in Israel is always temporary, on contract, and directly dependent on continuing to work, even in dangerous or unhealthy situations. The lack of status means that foreign workers are hesitant to demand better conditions, for fear of dismissal and deportation. Meanwhile bosses consistently pay foreigners significantly lower wages than they would to an Israeli for exactly the same work (reflective of the apartheid logic of migrant labor worldwide). In many cases, foreign workers are essentially bonded laborers.

And now, as a result of the Sharon government's scapegoating, illegal immigrants are being agressively rounded up and detained. There is even such a lack of prison space for the illegals that Israel is planning on using hotels to detain some of the foreign workers.

The mass round-ups of illegal foreign immigrants also coincides with the deportations of Palestinians, often to the Gaza Strip, even when native villages and towns are in the West Bank. In the case of one "illegal" Palestinian worker from the West Bank -- Jihad Abu Id -- the Interior Ministry is attempting to deport him to Jordan because he is married to a Jordanian. He has been detained for over six months.

The link between the roundups of illegal workers and the deportation of Palestinians has been made by one Israeli NGO, Kav La' Oved, a migrant workers hotline. In their words: "We suspect, that this is no coincidence, and fear, that mass deportation of migrant workers will legitimise mass deportations of Palestinians."

Israel continues to pursue its particular colonial domination over Palestinians -- mimicking the practices of colonial Britain and France in colonies like India and Algeria -- in defense of a chauvinist Zionism. Meanwhile it its treatment of migrant labour -- illegal and legal -- Israel similarly mimics the racist anti-immigrant (ie. non-Jewish immigrant) policies of the countries of Fortress North America, Fortress Europe, and the so-called Pacific Solution.

The logic has come full circle after the recent Tel Aviv suicide attack, and the large numbers of foreign worker victims. In the hypocritical thinking of the Israeli government and state authorities, if you happen to be a victim of a Palestinian bombing, you might get a visit from the Foreign Minister in hospital -- cameras in tow -- and even an extended visa. Otherwise, shut up and work, and expect a knock on the door by Sharon, Benizri and Yishai's thugs really soon.

[This dispatch was prepared for members of the No One Is Illegal campaign in Montreal. The No One Is Illegal campaign confronts and challenges the Canadian state and its racist policies against immigrants, refugees and indigenous peoples, and works in solidarity with similar efforts worldwide. For more information e-mail [email protected] For previous reports from Palestine, e-mail [email protected].]

[More information about the situation of Israel's migrant workers, including Palestinian workers, can be found at ]
[Prepared and written by Jaggi Singh, in East Jerusalem. Jaggi was recently a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in Palestine, and is a member of the No One Is Illegal campaign in Montreal. ]