Uzi Nevo watched with satisfaction as his new workers, brought in from Thailand, clipped red roses from his greenhouse bushes and piled them carefully in wheelbarrows.
The Thais, who speak no Hebrew or English, communicate in a rudimentary sign language with their Israeli employer. Nevo has nothing but praise for the diminutive, silent laborers.
"They will work 16 hours a day, no problem," Nevo said. "They don't have to stop to eat or to drink. I have to urge them to do those things. I have to force them to take a holiday. It is like they were born for this kind of work."
In another greenhouse nearby, farmer Moshe Kaiden was equally enthusiastic about his Thai workers.
"They are very obedient," said the New York-born Kaiden, who helped found Nir Banim, a collective farming community of 37 families in southwest Israel, 37 years ago. "And they don't look at our women."
The scene in Nir Banim's greenhouses is being repeated across Israel. Thais, Romanians, Turks and other foreigners are replacing Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip at Israeli farms, construction sites and factories.
Alarmed by suicide bombing attacks by Palestinian militants inside Israel in recent months, the Israelis have shut down access from the West Bank and Gaza. The government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin says this is the first step toward eliminating as many Palestinians as possible from the labor force in Israel, where tens of thousands of men from the territories have done much of the hard labor since shortly after Israel captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
With Arab workers, said 41-year-old Shmuel Kaiden, son of Moshe, "all the time you feel the threat on your back."
For Palestinians, losing access to the Israeli job market is devastating.
A World Bank report in 1993 said that wages earned inside Israel represented 30% of total income in the West Bank and almost 40% in the Gaza Strip.
Despite pledges of financial assistance from the international community to support the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord signed in September, 1993, few jobs have been created in the territories. For many Palestinians, there is simply no immediate alternative to working in Israel.
"More than 1,000 men in our village work in Israel," said Majid Agrib, a Palestinian living in the West Bank town of Tarkumiya, 22 miles southeast of Nir Banim. The men of Tarkumiya have been idle since Israel banned West Bank workers and Gazans from their jobs on Jan. 22, after a pair of militants blew up themselves and 21 Israelis at a bus stop.
Today, Agrib said, only three villagers have permits to work in Israel.
"Some families will face real hunger if these (other) men cannot go back to work," he added.
But Israeli employers express little sympathy for the economic plight of the Palestinians who have worked alongside them for years. Most offer one overwhelming argument for hiring foreign workers: They pose no security threat because they have no political bone to pick with Israel.
"As of this moment, we hope that we will not need Palestinians ever again," said Zvi Friedman, a spokesman for the Assn. of Contractors and Builders in Israel. "We feel good about the foreign workers. We feel safe."
Last week, the number of permits issued to foreign, non-Palestinian workers hit an all-time high of more than 65,000--and the government says it will soon issue permits for another 5,000. The program began four years ago.
The construction industry alone employs 50,000 foreign workers, most from Romania. Two years ago, 85,000 Palestinians from the territories worked on Israeli construction sites, Friedman said. Today, even if the border closure were completely lifted, no more than 25,000 jobs in construction would be available to Palestinians, he said.
"Yes, we could unilaterally declare a complete separation," Prime Minister Rabin told a parliamentary committee last week. "We have hardly any need for Palestinian workers."
Rabin said he has decided to allow about 15,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip back into Israel to seek work only because he fears that Gaza in particular is near economic collapse.
"The continued closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip could bring about an explosion that would lead to other problems," Rabin said. "Economic problems will lead to greater support for radical organizations and we have to take that into consideration."
Rabin's decision to allow even a fraction of the Palestinians back into Israel raised howls of protest from some parliamentarians. There is strong support across the political spectrum for replacing Palestinians with foreign workers.
When Nevo and his neighbors in this southern Israeli farming community first started hiring Thais, they saw it as a temporary solution to periodic work shortages caused whenever Israel's government imposed temporary bans on Palestinian workers from the territories.
At first, Nevo and other farmers said, they felt uncomfortable with their shy and silent Thai workers. Over the years, the Palestinians had learned to speak Hebrew, and some had grown quite close to their employers and their families.
About 100 workers from Tarkumiya regularly labored in Nir Banim's fields, even after the Palestinian intifada, or uprising against Israel's military rule in the territories, erupted in December, 1987.
Nir Banim's farmers say there was never an incident between a farmer and a worker, never an attack in all the years of working together.
Now Nevo and other farmers at Nir Banim say they see no reason to go back to the Palestinians who, for more than a decade, have worked their fields, orchards and greenhouses. Now, they see the foreignness of the Thais as a virtue, a barrier that keeps the workers from becoming too involved in the farmers' lives.
Nir Banim's farmers cite convenience and security concerns as reasons for severing their relationship with Palestinians.
Before he switched to hiring Thais on two-year contracts, Nevo employed six Palestinians from Tarkumiya. Today, three Thais who live in a trailer on Nevo's property do all the work.
"I need to have workers I can count on," Nevo said. "These people are the perfect answer."
Besides, he added, "on the personal level, it is nicer to work with these people. Arabs you can never 100% trust. We know that sometimes even good people are forced to do bad things."
The men of Tarkumiya still do not understand that they probably will never return to their jobs at the farms.
"I have four kids. Sure I want to work. Now, I just sit home all day," said Agrib, 29.
For more than 10 years, he worked alongside Noam Yaakoba, one of Nir Banim's farmers, in Yaakoba's artichoke fields and peach orchards. Now, Agrib said, he hopes that Yaakoba will press the Israeli authorities to grant him a permit to come back to work.
"I was happy there," Agrib said. "Noam is a fair man and he was always good to work with. We had no problems.
"Call him," he pleaded. "Tell him to get permission for me to come back."
But Yaakoba doubts he will make that call. The seven years of periodic strikes Palestinians observed during the intifada, then the attacks by Islamic militants in the heart of Israel that commenced when Israel signed its peace accord with the PLO, have taken their toll, he said.
"You cannot farm unless you have workers who can come all through the year," Yaakoba said. "Last year, I went on a trip to Morocco. Ten days into the trip, I heard there had been a bomb inside Israel and I knew that I had a problem, that the Arabs would not be able to come to work. When I got home, I saw the field full of unpicked artichokes. I had to call friends I served in the army with 15 years ago to help me."
Now, even though he said that he regards Agrib and another Tarkumiyan, Amjad Kabajat, as "almost part of the family," Yaakoba said he cannot take a chance on hiring them back.
Yaakoba expressed no remorse for the economic hardship his decision will cause for his longtime Palestinian workers.
"I am not the reason they are losing their jobs," he said. "I have to make a living."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Palestinians Shut Out. . .
Before the Intifada erupted in December, 1987, about 115,000 Palestinians worked in Israel. Now only 15,000 will be allowed.
In the construction industry, Palestinians composed about 11% of Israel's work force in January--far less than in the past.
* Palestinian construction workers
* After Intifada
** Before Jan. 22 border closure
. . .And New Workers Replace Them
Israel has issued 65,353 work permits for foreign workers besides Palestinians; it plans 5,000 more. The current breakdown:
Care providers*: 5.2%
* Caring for the elderly and the infirm
Sources: Israeli government; World Bank; Assn. of Contractors in Israel.