The cabinet yesterday approved a nationwide pilot program to put Israeli unemployed back to work, while a crowd of 5,000 jobless Palestinians protested in Gaza.

Planning for the program, to be modeled after the Wisconsin Plan, will begin next month. The pilot will begin on March 1, 2003 and run through the end of 2004. At least 14,000 unemployed people will be obligated to participate in the program; should they refuse they will lose welfare benefits.

Researchers will follow the pilot closely so that any lessons learned can be used to draft a broader, longer-range program.

The program will be divided into four regions - south, center, north and Jerusalem - and will be run by four foreign companies acting in conjunction with Israeli organizations, including the Government Employment Service. Various categories of jobless people will be involved, including single mothers with children over the age of 3 - who are currently exempt from looking for work until their children turn 7 - and people considered unemployable due to behavioral problems.

Participants will start by undergoing testing to determine suitable types of work for them. Each job-seeker will then be assigned a counselor who will develop a work plan with the individual. For some, the plan will start with completing studies or taking a professional retraining course; others will begin job-hunting immediately. For those unable to find a job, the government will supply full- or part-time community service work. "There will no longer be a situation in which people receive a stipend and sit at home, except perhaps for drug addicts or alcoholics," declared a senior Finance Ministry official.

The program will require new legislation - among other things, to permit depriving welfare stipends for those who refuse to participate and to authorize child-care and transportation subsidies for those who require them in order to accept offered jobs. The hope is that eventually, as people find work and leave the welfare rolls, the money saved on their welfare payments can be used to bring new people into the program.

The government first began discussing an Israeli version of the Wisconsin Plan five years ago, at which time it appointed a public committee to investigate the matter. The panel submitted its recommendations a year later, but since then, nothing has happened - mainly due to bureaucratic infighting.

The plan is controversial, due to its element of compulsion and its mixed success in other countries that have tried it. Opponents, which include most social welfare organizations, argue that anyone capable of finding decent work for decent pay will do so without being forced, so the plan is pointless. Furthermore, they argue, though the plan has succeeded in reducing America's welfare rolls, poverty has increased.

Supporters argue that the state cannot afford a situation in which the number of people living off welfare is growing, while the unemployed don't look for work.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is one of the plan's fervent supporters. At yesterday's meeting of the social-economic cabinet, he pounded the table several times and declared that those unwilling either to work or at least to volunteer for the community should not receive welfare payments. "Let them clean the streets - our cities are filthy - or work in hospitals or guard kindergartens," he said. "Even if the work is unpaid, at least the person will be doing something in exchange for his stipend. From this point on, we should not give to anyone without receiving something in exchange," Sharon said. The prime minister even argued that the two-year pilot program was too long, though he voted for it. "The economy is burning," he declared. "We can't wait for the results of a pilot; we need people to get to work now."

Protest in Gaza

Thousands of Palestinians who worked in Israel and have been unemployed for the past 22 months because of the closure of the Gaza Strip, demonstrated yesterday in Gaza city, demanding that the Palestinian Authority provide them with either regular unemployment payments or alternative work.

Thousands of people were bused into Gaza early yesterday morning, from Rafah and Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, before the IDF closed off the Gush Katif crossing to Palestinians.

The demonstrators, numbering around 5,000, gathered outside the Palestinian National Council building in the center of the city, and marched on the empty and partly bombed-out headquarters of PA chairman Yasser Arafat, located on the beachfront.

The protesters were carrying signs reading "Work not charity" and "Lift the closure on Gaza." Some waved stale pita bread, while other banged on metal pot lids.

They even dared to chant direct accusations of theft of donations against the Palestinian Authority. "Where are the millions?" they demanded, in an eerie echo of a chant from the first

intifada

, which called on millions of people across the Arab world to help the Palestinian cause.

The protestors demand that the PA set up an employment fund, as it was supposed to have done years ago. The fund was supposed to act in the same way as the Israeli National Insurance Institute, which deducted payments from the Palestinians when they worked inside Israel. An unemployed Palestinian currently is unable to claim unemployment benefit, since the PA has not yet set up a parallel organization.

The demonstrators also demanded an inquiry into the fate of the donations from other Arab countries, which were promised at the start of the current intifada and were earmarked for unemployed workers. Throughout the last 22 months, most of the workers have received one or two token payments of NIS 500 or NIS 600.

Yesterday's demonstration was the first success for the independent mobilization of Gaza workers, which was given widespread international media coverage. The workers not only handed Arafat's representative in Gaza, A-Tayeb Abed el-Rahim, a letter containing their demands, but representatives also met with officials from the Palestinian Labor Ministry and the Organization of Palestinian Workers' Unions.

Last night, negotiations were under way to see how the PA could answer some of the workers' demands. Yesterday the PA also published the names of those workers who can expect to receive unemployment benefit, after many months during which no payments were made at all. In other words, the demonstration allowed the Palestinian Authority to "discover" the funds that were earmarked for the unemployed.

History shows that the PA does not look kindly on spontaneous initiatives by the workers. PA officials have claimed in the past, when teachers and doctors protested over their low pay, that their grievances should be aired via their "elected" representatives, the unions. But the union heads are paid their salaries by the PA, and more usually represent the PA to the workers, and not the other way round.

The PA seems unwilling this time to confront the protesters, even though several Palestinian officials have complained that it is they who are now coming under attack, and not the occupation.

The fact that this protest was not under the auspices of any political body has led many in the PA to wonder how it turned out to be such a success and how it has gained such popular support. There were some reports of efforts to "buy" the leaders of the protest by offering them jobs, but the attempt failed. The organizers warned the workers of agents provocateurs, who would try and turn the protest to violence, and insisted that their march pass off peacefully.