RAMADIN, Palestinian Territories - Palestinians desperate for work in Israel will go to extremes to sneak past the West Bank barrier, but now they face a new hurdle -- army attack dogs sent to sniff them out.
Workers say the use of dogs to hunt down anyone trying to enter Israel illegally is a new phenomenon which has only been occurring for about two months.
But it is a development which has quickly spread fear and anger among the worker population living in the south Hebron Hills, one of the poorest areas in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The Israeli army readily admits to using dogs in its operations in the West Bank, but says they are only brought in as a way of protecting the sprawling separation barrier from Palestinian vandals looking to create openings which would allow "terrorists" to infiltrate Israel.
"In order to prevent damage to the security fence, the IDF (army) uses a number of different measures, including the canine unit and its trained dogs, while taking appropriate precautionary measures to avoid unnecessary injury," the army said in a statement sent to AFP.
It said troops had been working with dogs in Ramadin on the southern tip of the West Bank where the barrier had been purposely damaged "to permit the passage of terrorists into Israel" but argued that the use of dogs "limits bodily injuries and obviates the use of other measures."
But Palestinian laborers tell a different story.
On May 1, which is celebrated as International Workers Day, two laborers were moderately wounded after being attacked near Ramadin.
"We were trying to cross into Israel at about 4:00 am when suddenly we saw a group of soldiers and dogs," said Munir Hushia, a 35-year-old father of six.
"They shouted at us to stop, then the dogs attacked, injuring some of us while others managed to get away," he told AFP, saying he was bitten on the hand and on other parts of his body.
Three weeks earlier, army dogs had attacked Alaa Adel al-Huarin, 22, at the same spot, breaking his hand. He had to undergo surgery in order to save his finger from being amputated.
"At about 5:00 a.m. I got to the border to try and get through a hole in the fence when all of a sudden a dog attacked me and tried to savage my hand. When I managed to get my hand away, it bit my backside," he said.
"The soldiers were just looking on without trying to help me or trying to stop the dog," Huarin told AFP.
After doctors operated on his hand, he went to the Israeli police station in Kiryat Arba settlement to file a complaint. But instead of helping, they arrested him on suspicion of illegally entering Israel, he says.
Mohammed Abu Qaeud, 20, was also injured by a military dog in an incident which he claims was filmed by one of the soldiers on his mobile phone.
"It was about 6:00 a.m. and I was several meters (yards) away from the wall when a dog savagely attacked me and bit my arms and my chest," he told AFP.
"I felt indescribable pain and tried to get rid of the dog but I couldn't because it was very fierce. I cried and begged the soldiers to help me but they didn't move until he finished filming."
After the attack, the soldiers took him and his friend to a nearby army camp where they interrogated them until the afternoon, he says. "Only afterwards could I go to hospital where they kept me in overnight."
Israeli human rights group B'Tselem is sceptical about the army's claim that the dogs are targeting militants bent on infiltrating the Jewish state, citing three cases in which dogs were set on unarmed Palestinians trying to cross into Israel to find casual work.
In one case, they stopped the worker then released him on the spot, B'Tselem's Sarit Michaeli told AFP, saying it would not have been the case if he was a suspected militant.
"In the two cases that we know of, where the Palestinians were actually arrested, the arrests were not under suspicion of terrorism -- they were because of suspected unlawful entry into Israel," she said.
"The Israeli military knows full well that the vast majority of people who enter are laborers and not terrorists.
"If they indeed are terrorists, they should arrest them and question them and bring them to trial rather than set dogs on them, which is completely unacceptable," she added.
B'Tselem has sent a formal letter of complaint to the army, quoting testimony from laborers alleging that in some cases the dogs did not respond to orders to stop, forcing soldiers to use an electric-shock device to calm the animals.
For the three unemployed Palestinian workers, they say they have little choice but to keep running the risks of crossing the fence because they have no other way of making money.
"This is my livelihood," says Qaeud. "I don't have a job here and the Israelis do not give us work permits.
"I don't have any other source of income, so as the sole breadwinner of the family, what else can I do?"
Image: Paolo Cuttitta / via Flickr