Wednesday

December 13th, 2017

Good Will Gesture

In a first, Israel takes risk hiring Jordanians to wash the dishes, change the sheets at resort hotels

William Booth & Ruth Eglash

By William Booth & Ruth Eglash The Washington Post

Published August 3, 2016

In a first, Israel takes risk hiring Jordanians to wash the dishes, change the sheets at resort hotels
  Ahmad Salahat from Jordan tidies up a guest's room at the Dan Eilat Hotel n Eilat. Salahat is one of the first of 1,500 Jordanians to get a permit to work in Israel. Washington Post photo by William Booth

EILAT, Israel - This is what a little peace looks like in the Middle East. A room cleaner named Ahmad. A dishwasher named Mohammad. And a man with a vacuum in the lobby of an Israeli beach hotel.

Israel and Jordan signed their peace treaty in 1994 - that is a generation ago - but it has often been a cold peace, without real people moving back and forth, without workers, wages or bosses.

Now Jordan and Israel have launched a pilot project that is so small and simultaneously so ambitious that it tells the story.

Very quietly, Israel has been allowing Jordanians to cross the border to its Red Sea resort to work minimum-wage jobs at hotels.

The first 700 of 1,500 have started.

So far, nothing bad has happened.

"The Jordanians need work, and we need workers," said the head of the Eilat Hotel Association, Shabtai Shay.

Getting the Jordanians work permits to cross the border from Aqaba to Eilat took three years of negotiations with 10 Israeli ministries, he said.

On the Israeli side, there were concerns about security, vetting, the checkpoint, unions, the hours and how Israeli tourists would feel about being attended - even behind the scenes - by service workers who were Muslims from the Hashemite Kingdom.

Jordan and Israel fought two wars, in 1948 and 1967. Their relations have been further strained by the fact that Jordan is filled with Palestinian refugees.

"I never thought I'd live to see the first Jordanian worker in our hotels," Shay said.

The Israeli resort of Eilat is not exactly the French Riviera. There is a short strip of beach with a touristy promenade of duty-free outlets, chain restaurants and swimming in the Red Sea.

During the intense heat and humidity of July and August, it is packed with holidaying Israeli families. To the East is Jordan and to the West is Egypt. In the distant haze is Saudi Arabia. Few Israelis venture to those destinations.

There are 55,000 Israelis living in Eilat and 40 hotels with 12,000 rooms that employ 9,000 workers, about a third of them in housekeeping - jobs Israelis won't do anymore, or won't do for the money offered.

A dozen Jordanian hotel workers interviewed by The Washington Post said they were either happy with their new jobs in Eilat - or as happy as someone who changes dirty sheets in a foreign country can be.

"It has made my life," said Ahmed Riashi, 25, who washes dishes at Isrotel's Royal Garden Hotel.

He previously worked as a waiter at a five-star hotel in Amman, the capital of Jordan.

He estimates his wages have doubled in Israel. He is saving; he feels he is going somewhere.

"I was surprised, in a good way, when I arrived here," Riashi said.

He said Jewish Israelis are surprised, too, to see a Jordanian - then want to take a selfie together.

"We haven't had a single complaint from customers," said Etty Krichly, recruitment manager for Isrotel, which employs about 170 Jordanians.


The Jordanian hotel workers cross the border into Israel at six in the morning but must return to Jordan by eight every evening. They sleep in Jordan in a company dormitory. They are not allowed to travel outside the Eilat city limits, nor can they change employers without getting new permits. The Jordanians are only allowed to work as cleaners, not cooks, waiters or bartenders.

The Jordanian hotel employees are allowed to enter Israel with only the clothes on their backs - and one opened pack of cigarettes, because the Israelis do not want them to smuggle cigarettes, which are cheaper in Jordan than Israel.

Ahmad Salahat, 25, who cleans rooms at the Dan Eilat Hotel, a posh place on the beachfront, said the hours and the wages were not as high as he had hoped - but nobody was cheating him.

"They have treated us very well," he said of his Israeli employees.

One Jordanian worker professed love for his human resources manager, who doles out candies and hugs.

Another employee wanted to learn Hebrew and immigrate to Israel. One complained about the two-hour commute across the border on a bad day.

Jordan and Israel may be at peace, but when Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Jordan's King Abdullah II, the trips are not covered by the media in either country until after the fact.

On social media, some Jordanians have criticized their fellow citizens for working for the Jews, while some Israelis have worried about opening the turnstiles to terrorists.

The employees said they cared less about politics and more about wages.

"In Jordan there's work, but the pay isn't so hot, so here I am," said Eman Saleem, 33, who worked in Jordan as a nurse's aide and a flight attendant.

"I do this for me," she said. "For my life."

Saleem washes dishes and on her day off came to pick up her paycheck in ripped jeans and designer sunglasses.

Asked if she was harassed in Jordan for working for Zionists in Israel, she said no. "My friends are open-minded," Saleem said.

These room cleaners, pool scrubbers and floor sweepers - they are 99 percent men - are first vetted by a Jordanian employment agency, then Jordan's General Intelligence Directorate, then interviewed by the Israeli hotels and scrutinized all over again by Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security agency.

One worker who spoke briefly with The Washington Post was interrogated by Jordanian security agents upon return because of the contact with foreign reporters.

The hotel workers make minimum wage - but it is the same minimum wage as Israelis - about $1,200 a month. After they pay commissions to their recruitment agency, room and board in Jordan, transportation, plus taxes, they take home about $700 to $800 a month.

Once upon a time, Israelis fresh out of the military might work as maids in Eilat for six months before setting off to college or travel or better jobs.

No more.

Palestinians are not allowed to work in Eilat hotels.


For several years, the Israeli government allowed the hotels in Eilat to import foreign workers - from Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Those programs were ended.

Then the hotels were staffed by African migrants fleeing war and poverty in Sudan and Eritrea. Israel built a new fence in the Sinai to stop the illegal immigration - and now is pushing the Africans out of the country.

For every Jordanian the hotels hire, the Israeli government insists they fire one of the Africans.

The hotel managers, and the Jordan workers themselves, know that one violent incident, a stabbing, an assault, could shut down the program.

Magi Malul, a human resources manager for Isrotel, works closely with the Jordanian workers. "I love them, I really do," she said.

Malul speaks Arabic, which she learned from her grandmother, a Jewish immigrant from Morocco who migrated to Israel. In 2004, Malul's mother and 16 others were killed on a bus by a pair of Palestinian suicide bombers dressed as women. Malul said she cried so much the salt from her tears burned her cheeks.

"It was difficult for me at first, working with the Arabs," she said of her job. She had never met a Jordanian. Malul said she knows the men are uncomfortable, but she hugs them anyway.

She shrugged, "I'm a typical Israeli."

"Every society has good and bad," Malul said. She pointed to a stack of 25 new permits on her desk for 25 new Jordanian workers, who will start soon. Her new recruits. She will greet them with candies at the border.

"We have to try to make peace," she said. "This is my little part."

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