Israel Forces Arab Shops to Open, Will Bar Food Aid

Times Staff Writer

Israeli authorities stepped up the pressure Tuesday on Palestinian workers and shopkeepers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, putting into effect what was described as Stage 2 of the government's program to break a six-week cycle of civil unrest.

Touring the Ramallah area north of Jerusalem, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said the government will block food shipments from relief organizations and other countries in an effort to end the commercial strikes that continue to paralyze Arab East Jerusalem and a number of towns in the occupied territories.

"We will show who is running the territories," he said.

Rabin said the violent stage of the unrest, which has left at least 36 people dead, appears to have passed as a result of massive troop reinforcements, new riot-control tactics and curfews in the Palestinian refugee camps.

Soldiers forced merchants in Ramallah to open their stores Tuesday morning despite a strike called by the Palestinian "Uprising Committee." However, most of the merchants remained outside their shops, and there were no customers. East Jerusalem stores were shuttered for the 10th day in a row.

In Gaza City, soldiers reportedly confiscated the identification papers of about 50 Palestinian shop owners and said the vital documents would not be returned until they ended their strike, which has been almost continuous since the unrest began last Dec. 9.

Israel Radio reported Tuesday night that the Jerusalem police and Mayor Teddy Kollek were considering new measures to counter the commercial strike, but it gave no details.

Rabin said Tuesday that despite statements by U.N. officials and Palestinian leaders that there is hunger in the refugee camps, there are "ample supplies of whatever is needed by the population."

He said it is a contradiction for the Palestinians to complain about shortages while closing down the means of distribution.

"Therefore," he said, "we will not allow any support from the outside . . . not by countries, not by organizations, because there are commodities, and once all the shops will be open there will be no shortage."

Israel Will Bar Shipments

Asked if this means that Israel will prevent shipments of food or clothing to the territories, he replied, "No doubt about it."

Meanwhile, Israeli businesses that are normally dependent on large numbers of Arab employees from the territories were finding alternative manpower sources in a move that could have a long-term impact on the interwoven economies of the two societies.

Palestinian nationalists see economic protests as a way to maintain the pressure generated by street demonstrations, and possibly to translate that momentum into political gain. Also, the tactic is meant to involve a wider segment of the Arab population in a protest that has been focused mainly on the refugee camps.

Business Set Ablaze

Organizers of the commercial strike in East Jerusalem had underscored their words Sunday night by setting fire to the business of a money changer who refused to close.

Israeli officials point to the incident as evidence that the great majority of businessmen have simply been terrorized into going along with the strike, but interviews with Palestinian merchants indicate that many of them support the protest.

The economies of the territories and that of Israel proper have become mutually dependent in 20 years of occupation. But in any economic showdown, Israel would have much greater staying power than the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel imports about $275 million in goods from the territories each year, but its sales in the territories are valued at $800 million--roughly 70% of all the goods and services consumed in the West Bank and Gaza.

The total value of goods and services produced in the territories is less than 7% of that in Israel proper, and nearly one-third of the wealth in the areas comes from the 40% of Palestinian wage-earners who work in Israel.

Manpower Pinch in Israel

The combination of voluntary strikes and involuntary curfews preventing Palestinians from reaching their jobs has caused a manpower pinch for many Israeli employers.

Moshe Katzav, Israel's minister of labor and welfare, told the Cabinet that only about half the usual number of workers from the territories had shown up in the previous two weeks. However, employers in some of the hardest-hit areas said Tuesday that they are making do.

Of most concern in Israel is the citrus harvest. Arabs usually fill about one-third of the 15,000 picking and packing jobs.

Last week, Katzav approved a plan to bring 550 workers from south Lebanon to help with the harvest, and Yoram Wineberg, director general of the Council of Citrus Distributors, urged that up to 200 Portuguese pickers be imported as a "strategic backup," so "the Arabs won't hold us by the throat."

Students Mobilized

Education Minister Yitzhak Navon last week ordered the emergency mobilization of high school students to help save the citrus harvest. On Tuesday, at the packing plant of a firm called Pri-Or, boys from a secondary school in nearby Ashdod worked just an aisle away from the first eight Arabs to report to work in six weeks.

Plant manager Hillel Koren has also hired some West Bank workers to fill the gap, and he said he is thinking of leasing automatic packing machines to replace his Gaza workers permanently.

An Arab worker who identified himself as Abdel Nasser, 22, said he and his colleagues slipped in to work through the fields from the Nusseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. The Nusseirat camp has been under army curfew for more than a week, and before that it was the scene of almost daily clashes between residents and troops.

At the Hagavia Wafer Products Co. in Netivot, co-owner Zelig Rittberg said that normally about a third of his 150 employees come from the nearby Gaza Strip. But few show up now, and he has brought in about 30 new Jewish workers from Beersheba and Ashkelon. He said that when the unrest subsides, he will take back the Gazans who have particular skills, but not the common laborers.

Other hard-hit sectors are the building trades and municipal services, both of which normally employ large numbers of workers from the territories.

Zvi Tzilker, director general of the Federation of Contractors and Builders in Israel, said that only about a third of the Arab workers in the building trades are on the job.

"We're receiving complaints about buildings being held up," he said, "and there is concern that if the situation continues it will be hard to meet deadlines."

Streets Not Cleaned

Benny Cohen, spokesman for the city of Tel Aviv, said the municipal service that has been most affected by the unrest is street cleaning.

"The city is dirty," he said. "If this goes on for a few more weeks we'll have to think of a solution."

Israeli officials say that the commercial strikes in East Jerusalem and the territories are cutting into government revenues from value-added taxes. However, the main reason the authorities want to break the strikes is to avoid any appearance of weakness.

A Ramallah businessman said he and other merchants are informed about strikes by means of pamphlets, Arabic radio broadcasts, telephone calls and personal visits.

"Sometimes," he said, "it's old ladies who come and tell you, 'Tomorrow you open until 11 in the morning.' " Then, lifting his right arm in a mock salute, he added: "And I just say, 'Yes, Ma'am.' "

Changing Attitudes

This merchant admitted that at first he opposed the commercial strike. But then word began to filter back from the United States and elsewhere that the disturbances were having an impact on the public perception of the Palestinian problem, he said, and "after we saw that it brings results, we don't resent (the strike) any more."

An East Jerusalem store owner who has been closed for the last three weeks said the strike is a financial hardship, but: "We'll eat. We'll sleep. That's all we need."

In what was seen as a highly unusual reaction, the son of the East Jerusalem money-changer whose store was burned said it had been a mistake for him and his father to ignore the strike.

'They Can Kill You'

"I don't blame (the people who burned the shop)," Nasser Kurd, 22, told the Jerusalem Post. "We made a mistake and we paid for it. Being against the government is OK. The worst thing the government can do is put you in jail. But being against your own people, that's not OK. They can kill you."

One Israeli group has applauded the East Jerusalem commercial strike--the West Jerusalem Merchants Assn.

"Not only did the number of Jews who shop in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem decrease," the association said in a statement to the press, "but many Arab residents do their shopping in West Jerusalem. As a result, our income has grown and the state treasury benefits as well."

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