How Israeli industrial zones exploit Palestinian land and labour

An Israeli security guard with Palestinian workers as they waited to cross into the Barkan industrial zone in the West Bank (TNA)

Jessica Buxbaum

The New Arab  /  March 11, 2021

Palestinians working in settlement industrial zones often feel they have no other choice, with the Palestinian economy and labour market shackled by Israel’s military occupation.

Every day, around 70,000 Palestinians make the arduous journey across military checkpoints to work in Israel, often in construction or agriculture, escaping a poverty trap in the West Bank caused by decades of occupation

A further 30,000 work at companies in settlement industrial zones – lucrative factory complexes which exploit Palestinian resources and receive tax breaks from the Israeli government.

Viewed as a source of cheap labour for the Israeli market, Palestinians face discrimination from their employers and risk their health doing dangerous work while receiving less money than their Israeli counterparts.

Israel has built 19 industrial zones in the occupied West Bank, with four under construction in Jenin, Hebron, Tulkarem, and Bethlehem. These industrial zones are illegal under international law because they operate on occupied Palestinian land.

The companies’ locations, though, are not the only criminal aspect of the industrial zones. For Palestinians working in these factories, meagre wages and exploitative practices are all too common.

“The Israeli corporations look at the Arab worker as a machine,” Mohammad Saleh told The New Arab. Saleh has worked for 26 years at Nun Aleph, a metal manufacturer in Mishor Adumim, an Israeli industrial park in the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim – a 10-minute drive from Jerusalem.

“If the [employer] sees a worker’s production decrease because of age or sickness, they’ll replace him immediately while the Israeli worker isn’t replaceable,” Saleh said. “They tell us, ‘If you don’t like the job, you can go home. I can replace you.'” Saleh explained that to Israeli companies, Palestinians are expendable and their labour worth less. 

“Arabs receive the [Israeli] minimum wage, which is between 5,000-5,500 shekels (about £1,080-1,190) per month for a skilled worker, while the Israeli skilled worker could receive between 8,000-9,000 shekels (about £1,730-1,950),” Saleh said.

Palestinians working in industrial zones are consistently underpaid. Muhammad Bleidi, secretary general of the Palestine New Federation of Trade Unions (PNFTU), told The New Arab that Israel wants to hire 200,000 Palestinians for cheap labour – paid about 50-70 shekels per day (£10-15) – for the new industrial zones.

Benefits are also scant for Palestinian workers. Israelis employed in industrial zones receive paid sick and vacation leave, while Palestinians don’t. They’re also rarely provided end of service benefits and pension funds.

‘Death zones’ for Palestinian workers

The settlement industrial zone of Nitzanei Shalom in Tulkarem is home to 12 chemical plants. The factory waste seeps into the groundwater and soil, and pumps toxins into the air, poisoning the nearby Palestinian villages. According to PNFTU, the rates of respiratory disease, eye infection, and cancer have increased in these communities.

“It’s death for both the workers and the environment,” Khalil Shehab, a Palestinian worker at Yamit Sinoun, a company producing water filters in Nitzanei Shalom, said.

Industrial zones don’t just pose an environmental hazard, but also endanger those working inside the factories. Yamit Sinoun installed ventilators to better fumigate areas where welding is done, but Shehab doesn’t think that’s enough.

“These safety measures are primitive,” Shehab said. “There should be a system for ventilation above each person who does the welding, not just general ventilation within the factory.” He also advocates for an external body to monitor the safety protections.

But when it comes to hazardous production, gas factories in Nitzanei Shalom may be the worst culprits. “Four people died from cancer and three people were burned during their work,” Bleidi of PNFTU said.

Despite the brutal working conditions, Palestinians often feel they have no other choice but to work in settlement industrial zones, with Israel’s decades-long military occupation having shackled the Palestinian economy and labour market. 

“They would rather work there because of poverty and to support their families and not to steal or be homeless or be a beggar,” Bleidi said. 

Palestinian workers fight back

Underpaid and overworked, Palestinians have battled Israeli corporations in recent years for their rights. At Yamit Sinoun, 75 Palestinians went on strike for 19 days in January. Their victory scored them paid holiday leave and end of service benefits.

And by partnering with the workers’ association, MAAN, Palestinians working at Nun Aleph secured end of service benefits, paid leave, and fair wages in 2019 after lengthy legal procedures. Saleh lamented, however, that these labour successes are rare. 

“If you compare it to other factories, this is not the case,” Saleh said. “Workers are always in trouble with the [company] owners. They don’t get their rights, and they can only obtain their end of service benefits by going to court.”

Now, Saleh, Shehab, and other Palestinians employed in Israeli industrial zones are waiting to receive the coronavirus vaccine. Israel began its campaign to vaccinate Palestinian labourers on Monday, but Saleh still doesn’t know when he’ll receive the shot. 

For Shehab, he wants the same drug given to Israelis. Receiving the Pfizer vaccination, instead of something else, is a matter of equality.

“We’ve been protesting and fighting for the past 25 years to get our minimum rights,” Shehab, who is also the head of the striking workers’ committee, said. “And after 25 years, we are still underpaid and still don’t get the same benefits as the Israeli workers.” 

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National and Gulf News