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Foreigners Find Jobs and Risks in Promised Land

Labor: They come from Asia, Africa and Europe for work once done by Palestinians. Life can be harsh, but in wake of attacks they fear its loss.

July 19, 2002|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEL AVIV — Four years of hard work far from home nearly ended in a shower of shrapnel and nails for Xu Xiangxin. The Chinese immigrant worker had just sat down to have a beer with a friend Wednesday night in this bustling Israeli city when disaster struck.

"I'd only drunk half my beer when there was a big explosion," Xu, 28, recalled Thursday. "That's when I passed out."

He came to on a hospital gurney, with blood on his face and a tube in his nose--one of dozens of people hurt when a pair of Palestinian suicide bombers set off two explosions in rapid succession along a shopping strip in Tel Aviv's seedy Neve Shaanan district.

The area is popular with Tel Aviv's booming population of foreigners. Two of the three victims killed by the bombers were "guest workers," one Romanian, one Asian. Immigrant laborers also made up a large portion of the about 40 people who were injured. It was one of the worst casualty counts among foreign workers during nearly two years of open conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The bombings' aftermath has trained a spotlight on immigrants like Xu, who come from countries throughout Europe, Africa and Asia in search of better economic prospects.

Experts estimate that Israel is home to about 300,000 workers from abroad. They have been pouring into Israel during the last 10 years to help the country keep up with the economic boom of the 1990s and to take over many of the menial, low-paying jobs that used to be filled by Palestinians. The Israeli government has restricted the movement of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip to keep out the tiny minority intent on committing violence.

Many foreigners toil in menial jobs under conditions one activist described as scarcely fit for human beings. Yet they stay, bound by Israeli immigration rules, desperation for money and, sometimes, coercive practices by their employers. Others are in the country illegally, living and working under threat of discovery and deportation.

Now they also fear for their lives. Five foreign workers, including the two who died Wednesday, have been killed in the cross-fire since December.

"I'm afraid," said Sally Escano, 29, who moved to Tel Aviv from the Philippines a year ago to work as a caregiver. She shook her head as she surveyed the destruction in Neve Shaanan, near Tel Aviv's old central bus depot, a few hours after the twin explosions went off shortly after 10 p.m. "I'm just thinking, 'How come?' "

Israeli authorities say the bombers' choice of target may have been dictated by the Jewish religious calendar. Wednesday night marked the beginning of Tisha B'Av, a traditional day of mourning for the destruction of the ancient Jewish temples in Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jewish people.

Most shops and restaurants were closed in observance of the holiday. But a handful in Neve Shaanan were open because of the district's primarily foreign clientele--which made it a place where the bombers, two young Palestinian men, could find victims, police say.

The attack shattered the fragile calm that had descended on Tel Aviv after a month without violent incidents.

Foreigners accounted for about half of the wounded, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said Thursday. Hospital officials said many appeared to be Romanian, one of the largest groups of overseas workers in Israel.

The real number of non-Israelis hurt in the attack is likely to be higher than the final official tally. Witnesses told of injured foreigners refusing medical treatment or quickly leaving the scene, possibly because they were undocumented workers who did not want to attract the attention of authorities.

One man from Ghana, who was barely able to walk on his bloodied feet, refused to allow police to put him in an ambulance, even after officers assured him that he would not be deported, the Maariv newspaper reported.

"All the time we try to convince them not to be afraid in such cases, but they are," said Hanna Zohar, who founded a Tel Aviv labor hotline. "They don't trust" the system.

"Somebody could be home with a wound right now," added Shanka Rosanne, a social worker with Mesila, an aid agency for immigrant laborers established by the municipal government three years ago. Tel Aviv has an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 foreign workers.

Mesila, which is near the bomb site, was ready Thursday morning for clients seeking psychological counseling or legal assistance in connection with the bombings. But by noon, only two people had shown up to inquire about the nationalities of the foreign citizens who died, Rosanne said.

"People are afraid to come out" for fear of being taken in by authorities, Rosanne said. "They're really terrified. There are police all over."

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