HALHOUL, West Bank — Released from Israeli prison, the 12-year-old girl went home to a festive scene in Halhoul, a town outside Hebron in the occupied West Bank. Bouquets of roses and sunflowers greeted Dima al-Wawi, who served two and a half months in an Israeli prison after she was arrested with a knife outside an Israeli settlement, intending to stab a security guard. Hamas, the Halhoul municipality and a Palestinian prisoner’s group feted the preteen, thought to be the youngest female Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail ever, with banners that hung outside the family home.
But inside the two-story house, al-Wawi’s father, 54-year-old Ismail al-Wawi, was not celebrating. His young daughter’s act cost him his work permit into Israel, where he was a construction worker on a train line between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. As visitors and journalists streamed into the living room, he wondered how he would provide for his family of 11 when all the attention and celebrations died down.
“What happened after Dima got out of prison is a lot of media [attention], while I don’t have permission to work,” he said, sitting on the edge of his daughter’s bed, which was covered by a teddy bear blanket. Nearby was a pile of handicrafts al-Wawi had made in jail: a heart pillow decorated in glitter paint with the names of other child inmates, and a journal embroidered with the words “My compassionate mother.”
Al-Wawi hunched over his knees, a deep crease between his brows. “There has been interview after interview without real solidarity or economic support,” he said.
Teens and young adults have been at the center of the most recent Palestinian uprising, which is now in its seventh month and seems to be waning. Unlike the second intifada, in which Hamas trained suicide bombers to blow up Israeli buses and cafes, many of these young assailants have no political party affiliation. In many cases, their parents say they had no knowledge of their plans. Now, their parents are paying for their crimes, some by losing their ability to work inside Israel.
Sylvia Piterman, a volunteer with Machsom (Checkpoint) Watch, says she has seen an “extreme” increase in the number of family members of attackers who have lost their work permits. That includes people with family members serving long jail terms that began before the most recent spate of attacks. And it’s not just limited to the direct family. She he has seen several cases in which the “whole hamula,” or extended family, has lost work permits into Israel when one of their relatives has attacked Israelis.
The revocation of work permits for families of assailants is part of a broader Israeli crackdown on Palestinian violence, although attacks by Palestinians with work permits are rare. Last November, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toured Gush Etzion Junction, the site of repeated stabbing and vehicular attacks, and vowed to “step up our war against the terrorists” by calling for the “extensive revocation of work permits for the families of terrorists.”
“Such a family is aware of the fact that there is an extremist — or one who is about to carry out an attack — in its midst,” he continued, “and such a family has no right to work in the State of Israel. We are revoking it; this is important.”
Since October, Palestinians with work permits have carried out at least two attacks against Israelis, killing two, according to media reports. The vast majority of Palestinian attackers have entered Israel illegally from the West Bank, have attacked Israeli settlers and soldiers inside the West Bank, or hail from East Jerusalem. In the most recent violence, about 30 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians and more than 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israelis, many in the course of attacks.
Yet while Israel is revoking permits to families of assailants, the military sees increasing permits as a way to tamp down the violence in general. In February, the security Cabinet, headed by the prime minister and made up of members of the defense establishment and others, approved the main provisions of a plan to allow 30,000 more Palestinian workers inside Israel, Haaretz reported.
If implemented, the plan will bring the total number of permits in Israel and the West Bank Jewish settlements to almost 100,000, a 35% increase. The article cited “widespread support in the defense establishment” for adding Palestinians to the Israeli workforce, believing that it could actually help restore calm in the Palestinian territory as an “economic gesture.” This policy of increasing permits at a time of turbulence represents a sharp swerve from the second intifada approach that saw the closure of large portions of the West Bank.
According to the Civil Administration, the Israeli military’s administrative arm in the occupied territory, more than 58,000 Palestinians hold work permits in Israel, and more than 28,000 Palestinians are permitted to work in the settlements. Thousands of other Palestinians — estimates range between 10,000 and 50,000 — work illegally inside Israel. The Civil Administration said that “hundreds” of permits that were revoked have now been returned “in accordance with the political security assessment.”
This push-and-pull between administering and revoking permits reflects long-standing Israeli questions about how to integrate Palestinian workers into the Israeli economy given the tensions between the two populations.
“You cannot maximize the number of people who get permits, because it could put Israelis at risk. You cannot minimize it, because then it would mean that Palestinians don’t have work and there would be unrest and cause problems to Israel,” said Asa Kasher, a philosopher who wrote the Israel Defense Forces’ code of ethics. “You have to strike a middle course.”
Yet there are other factors beyond security that guide Israeli permit policy, said Yael Berda, a sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who wrote a book about Israel’s permit regime. Israel’s Ministry of Economy, she said, speaks with “two voices,” one that is concerned that Palestinian labor will replace Israeli workers, and the other, pressured by Israeli contractors, that wants Palestinian workers to fill construction jobs.
“You have this vast intersection of conflicting interests,” she said. “And this is not even talking to the Palestinians, this is just within the system itself.”
Work permits into Israel are a precious commodity for Palestinians as the aid-dependent West Bank economy limps along under Israel’s military occupation. According to World Bank data, around 20% of West Bank Palestinians are unemployed. Israel began formally administering permits to Palestinians in 1993 as it erected checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza, Berda said. The permit system was concretized in the 2000s when Israel ramped up security in response to Palestinian suicide bombings. In the 1990s, Israel began opening its borders to workers from Thailand and the Phillipines, diminishing the need for Palestinian labor. But Palestinians still dominate certain sectors of the Israeli labor force, Berda said, such as construction to preserve historic buildings.
“It is very difficult to see how denying the family’s source of income is going to help when it is so clear that the girl has major issues and that generally she went through a terrible ordeal regardless of what she did,” said Sarit Michaeli, the spokeswoman for B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, of Dima al-Wawi’s case. Using a “sweeping criteria” to guide permit policy amounts to “collective punishment,” she added. She compared it to the controversial Israeli policy of punitive home demolitions, when the home of an assailant is destroyed as a deterrent against further attacks. She doubted that permit revocation will turn others away from attacking Israelis. “It is about doing something that is pretty clear is not really going to deter people from terrorism,” she said.
Kasher called Netanyahu’s revocation push an “attempt to exert pressure on the families of young people.” But he also questioned whether the crackdown would prove to be effective, given the complex reasons that lead young people to violence. “I am in doubt of whether a politician can easily make a decision with respect to major sources of influence over the kids who try to stab soldiers and citizens,” he said.
Because of the competing interests in Israel’s permit policy, the giving and taking away of permits can feel arbitrary to many Palestinians. According to several human rights groups, Palestinians who lose family members to Israeli fire — even if they were not attacking Israelis — automatically lose their work permits for concern that they will carry out a revenge attack. Permits are also used as leverage by Israel’s general security service to induce Palestinians to act as informants, Berda said.
The day that his daughter was arrested, Ismail-al Wawi said he was notified by Israeli forces that his permit to work inside Israel was revoked. He was called to the Gush Etzion settlement, where Israeli interrogators asked him about his daughter’s crime. He was told that as a result of her actions, he would lose his ability to work inside Israel legally as he had been doing for the past 27 years. Al-Wawi said that his employer tried to get his permit back on his behalf, but the request was denied after a month and a half. The Civil Administration did not respond to a request for comment on Ismail Al Wawi’s case.
Unlike al-Wawi, other family members of accused assailants are not told directly when they lose their permits. According to Piterman, many Palestinians learn that they have been denied entry to Israel at the checkpoint into Israeli territory. Machsom Watch operates a program helping Palestinians who are denied permits to appeal through the Israeli court system to get back their permits.
Unable to go back to his job inside Israel, al-Wawi said that he would farm his family’s fields near Halhoul. Though he believed his daughter to be innocent, he said that the ordeal with his permit has affected their relationship.
“She is very distant from me because she feels that what happened with her caused me to lose my permit,” he said.
Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.