After deadly attacks, Israel targets Palestinian workers for punishment

Palestinians work at a housing construction site in the Jewish settlement of Har Homa in East Jerusalem (Kobi Gideon - Flash90)

Yuval Abraham

+972 Magazine  /  March 31, 2022

Palestinian laborers from the occupied territories fear for their livelihood as Israeli authorities and vigilante groups try to block their employment.

Following the series of deadly stabbing and shooting attacks in the Israeli cities of Be’er Sheva, Hadera, and Bnei Brak over the past week, which have killed 11 people, there have been growing calls in Israel to stop the employment of Palestinian workers in the country. These voices are coming primarily from right-wing activists, but not exclusively: municipal authorities and other public bodies have also announced that they will be preventing the entry of Palestinian workers from the occupied territories.

The policy — which is being justified as a security measure, but is effectively a form of collective punishment against Palestinians — has been gaining traction in recent days, though it’s hard to know how long it will last.

Amjad, 29, who asked not to use his surname out of concern for his status and safety, has a permit to work in a large factory in the city of Kiryat Malachi near Ashdod. According to him, the manager of the factory where he works, out of concern for their welfare, asked the Palestinian workers on Wednesday morning to go back home. “Our manager is a decent person,” said Amjad. “He said we should leave for our own safety, but promised to continue paying us, even while we’re not working.”

Amjad described how when he arrived at the bus station shortly afterward at 9 a.m., he encountered a group of Israelis people waiting to attack Palestinian workers. “They chased after us, swearing and shouting at us,” he said. “Other friends who were there said that the group went from car to car checking who is Arab and who is not.” Amjad went back to the factory, where some 50 other Palestinian workers are now stuck, unable to return home. “The manager said he would order a bus tomorrow to pick us up.”

In at least two locations on Wednesday morning, a small number of right-wing activists tried to physically block the passage of Palestinian workers into Israel. A Telegram group was set up for this purpose, named “Blocking Checkpoints/Entries for Palestinians,” calling on activists to come to those locations. “I decided not to come to work in Israel today,” said Nasser, a resident of Yatta in the South Hebron Hills. “The situation is very frightening.”

‘I did not come to work out of fear’

Wael, 32, works at a slaughterhouse in Kiryat Malachi. For the past two years, he explained, he has entered Israel every morning without a work permit by crossing through a breach in the separation barrier near the Meitar checkpoint. “Now the police are everywhere, looking for workers without a permit, and I have no way to get home,” he said. “They’re doing search operations in the city, setting up roadblocks for workers. This morning they closed a breach in the Meitar crossing, and I’m stuck.”

Wael said he entered Israel illegally because he is on the authorities’ “no-entry” list and is unable to obtain a work permit; he believes that he was placed on this list after filming Israeli soldiers destroying homes in Palestinian villages in the West Bank.

The Civil Administration — the arm of the Israeli military that governs the occupied territories — issues about 80,000 work permits for Palestinians from the West Bank to work inside the state, and about 30,000 to work in Israel’s West Bank settlements. A further 12,000 workers receive approval to enter from the Gaza Strip. About 40,000 additional Palestinian workers are also estimated to be entering Israel without a permit.

There are dozens of gaps in Israel’s separation barrier, and it is an open secret that the army has so far deliberately left them open — both because Israel wants Palestinians to do the low-paying, manual labor jobs that Jewish-Israelis are not willing to do, and because the Israeli defense establishment believes that the employment of Palestinian workers in Israel contributes to stability in the West Bank. Palestinian workers without permits, however, are not entitled to social rights, thus enabling rampant exploitation.

On regular days, one can see many Palestinians easily crossing through gaps in the barrier while soldiers passively look on. “Even people who have a permit enter through these gaps in order to spare themselves from the queues at the checkpoint,” said Wael.

But that situation seems likely to change, at least for the time being. The police announced yesterday that they had launched a large-scale operation to detain Palestinian workers staying in the country without permits, and the army has closed and set up ambushes at several points along the separation barrier which until now were open to workers.

Police spokespersons in the Naqab/Negev region, for example, said that they arrested 49 Palestinians from the West Bank who had entered Israel without permits, and that criminal proceedings had been launched against businesses that employed Palestinians without a permit. They also called on the public “to employ only those who carry work permits, and to report any suspicious incidents.”

Mohammad, another Palestinian worker, told +972 that he, too, was stuck at his workplace. “I am afraid to take the bus home,” he said. “There are groups of Jews roaming the streets looking for Arabs. Taxi drivers are refusing to drive workers without permits back to the West Bank, because they’re worried the police will catch them.” Noting this, the Palestinian Trade Federation issued a statement yesterday urging Palestinian workers to be especially cautious of potential attacks against them inside Israel.

“I’m 55 years old, and I’ve been working in Israel since the age of 16,” said Musa, a resident of Hebron. “Today may be the first time I did not come to work out of fear. I was supposed to work in the home of a woman who lives alone, but I didn’t dare to go. Many other workers have made the same decision. It’s hard. Because here, in the West Bank, there’s no work and there’s no money.”

A policy that ‘can’t hold up for long’

The Renovation Contractors Association stated yesterday that, since the early hours of the morning, dozens of inquiries had been received from clients requesting that Palestinian workers not be allowed to enter their homes to carry out their work — they even opened a hotline due to the volume of requests. “Since this morning, many construction contractors have reported that Palestinian workers are [also] asking not to come to work this morning,” said Eran Siv, chairman of the association. He added that the association expects delays in the delivery of work projects ahead of the Passover holiday.

A number of mayors of Israeli cities have ordered contractors to freeze construction work in order to avoid employing Palestinians during this period. The Mayor of Ramat Gan, Carmel Shama HaCohen, wrote on Facebook that he is asking all contractors in the city to shut down their construction sites which “rely on Arab workers.” The Mayor of Ashdod announced that the municipality and the police will conduct inspections of construction sites in the city.

Assaf Adiv, the director of the Ma’an Workers’ Association, a trade union that organizes Palestinian and Israeli workers, said that in the last four months Israel has allowed an unprecedented entry of Palestinian workers through breaches in the separation barrier. “It was an attempt to enable economic stabilization and alleviate financial distress after the coronavirus [pandemic],” said Adiv.

“For a decade there’s been no political solution on the horizon whatsoever, and the message to Palestinians is that the current situation is the final situation,” he continued. “But trying to maneuver between closing and opening the breaches in the barrier is not a policy that can hold up for long. There are five million people here without basic human rights.”

In a statement on Wednesday, the IDF spokesperson said: “This morning, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi led an operational assessment in light of recent events and following the decision to fortify the Seam Line and the Judea and Samaria area with additional forces… The IDF will offer the Israeli police extensive assistance, including assigning 15 companies from soldiers who are in special forces training, some of which will assist in the defense of the Seam Zone and some of which will be deployed in major cities.”

Yuval Abraham is a journalist and activist based in Jerusalem