‘It’s like another planet’: crossing the border from Gaza to work in Israel

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  January 1, 2023

Unemployment in the Gaza Strip stands at 44% but since 2021 permits to work in Israel have been issued in small numbers.

There’s nothing quite like the Erez crossing, the only civilian route between Israel and the blockaded Gaza Strip, anywhere else in the world. The Israeli side looks like an airport terminal, but is in fact a fortress: surveillance balloons and motion sensors monitor above and below the sea and land that make up Gaza’s de facto borders, while semi-autonomous robots, equipped with machine guns, patrol the buffer zone.

Inside, Israeli border and military personnel use offices connected by walkways high above the ground to minimize the risk of attack. Single-person turnstiles, mazes of movable walls and caged walkways eventually lead to Palestinian territory.

Built in the 2000s at a cost of $60m (£50m), Erez was designed to facilitate about 45,000 Palestinians a day who used to leave the strip to go to work in Israel, but the militant group Hamas took over just four months after it was finished, leading the Israelis – who occupied Gaza from 1967 to 2005 before withdrawing their forces – to seal the frontier. For the most part, the crossing has been eerily empty for the past 15 years. An entire generation of Palestinians in Gaza has never left the tiny 41km by 12km area, or ever met a single Israeli.

Now, that is changing somewhat. In 2021, Israeli authorities began reissuing work permits as part of an effort to stabilize the strip after last May’s 11-day war with Hamas, boosting an economy that cannot function normally. Research released in August by Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies found that the average wage of a Palestinian from Gaza working in Israel is six times higher than in the strip, at 6,350 shekels (£1,500) a month.

About 17,000 economic travel permits were issued in 2022, more than the total since the siege began – although this still represents only a fraction of the 500,000 people who used to travel for work each month before 2007. Most are given to married men over the age of 25 to work in agriculture and construction. COGAT, the Israeli military body in charge of governing the occupied Palestinian territories, did not respond to several requests for comment about the new policy.

Severe restrictions on the movement of people, goods and equipment and several rounds of war between Israel and Gaza’s militant groups have created punishing conditions for the strip’s population of 2.2 million. About 97% of the area’s water is undrinkable, homes and businesses suffer rolling electricity blackouts, and a lack of medical equipment means sick people must apply for permits to travel for treatment in Egypt or the West Bank.

Unemployment stands at 44.1%, rising to 59.1% for young people. Not surprisingly, almost everyone jumps at the chance to get out.

For many Israelis, the suffering in Gaza remains out of sight and out of mind. Yet more and more Palestinians in Gaza are now working across Israel, often staying for weeks at a time, somewhat dissolving what for years was a rock solid separation of two peoples.

It took months to find someone in Gaza working in Israel who was willing to talk to the Guardian and let our reporter shadow him for the day. Few want to take any risks that may endanger their hard-won permits, for which most people must pass stringent Israeli security checks, negotiate Hamas bureaucracy and pay brokers who connect them with employers on the other side for 20% of their earnings.

A day in the life of 35-year-old factory worker Nasser – not his real name – is a window into a newly emerging reality in Israel and the Palestinian territories today – one in which a seemingly endless occupation has created a bizarre socio-economic hierarchy.

Nasser’s story

I have a degree and I work as an accountant in Gaza but like many people here I have debts from starting a business that failed; my vendors couldn’t get goods to me on time because of the blockade. It’s hard manual work in Israel, but I’m happy to do it because the money is great. I hope I will be clear of the debt in about a year. Maybe my permit will only be for six months, but it will still make a huge difference to me and my family.

I never left Gaza before this. The main thing that I wasn’t expecting is how beautiful Israel is. It’s breathtaking.

My work schedule is never really steady for more than a few weeks at a time, depending on what work I can get. Normally I would need to leave home in a shared taxi to get to Erez for 4am, but at the moment I am working night shifts, so I can leave later, around 9am, to get to the factory in the north of Israel before my shift starts.

The Israeli rules seem to change now and again but in general we are not allowed to take anything with us through the crossing except a phone, charger, wallet and what we are wearing. So I have to buy clothes and toiletries every time I go.

When I get over to the Israeli side by around 9am, there are shared minibuses and taxis who will take workers like me to the bus stations in Tel Aviv or Ashkelon where we can look for work. Brokers there will pick up people and take them to farms or building sites.

Most of us are employed illegally and we have no rights. Once I didn’t get paid at the end of the day and there was nothing I could do about it. Another time I was hit in the face by a steel beam at a construction site but I couldn’t go to hospital because I do not have insurance.

My work day is usually very long, sometimes 14 hours, and physically hard. When I first got into Israel, for about a month I worked on a construction site near Ashkelon. It was awful – at the end of the first day I didn’t know where I could go to sleep and I didn’t know any Hebrew at all. So I slept on the floor in an abandoned warehouse nearby with dozens of other Palestinians. There were rats. I got out as soon as I could.

Over the summer I was working as a cleaner in a holiday resort. That was great – sunshine, the water. They also provided a room for us to sleep in so I could keep my stuff there. I stayed for a few weeks working every day before going home to see my family.

Right now I’m working in the packaging department of a food factory on the night shift, which starts at 6pm. It’s pretty organized and I don’t have to worry about not getting paid at the end of the day; they’ve been good like that. One of the managers I am quite friendly with. He said he didn’t know that people from Gaza were not all terrorists.

I’m sharing an apartment with 11 other men just over the Green Line in the West Bank, near the Israeli town the factory is in. We are organized into groups of four a room, and we cook and clean between the four of us.

I enjoy the fact the apartment is quiet in the daytime as everyone else is at work but the sleep patterns are difficult to get used to and it’s hard to find time to call my wife and children. I think a lot of the manual work I’ve done this year has also made my migraines worse.

When I finish work at the factory I’m usually exhausted. At the moment I am going home for the weekends about once a month. We are supposed to return to Gaza every night, but the Israelis know that we don’t do that – it’s basically impossible if you are working anywhere farther north than Tel Aviv, and it takes a lot of time to cross, which we could spend earning instead.

I went home this weekend. It took 11 hours on five buses. I slept for the whole day on Friday. It is wonderful to see my family. My mother cooked my favourite foods and I bought my children fresh oranges and toys.

It seems that most people only get a work visa for six months and then Hamas or the Israelis want to give the permits to new people, to give them a chance and share out the money. I’ve been working in Israel since August and I will maximize the time I have there.

It’s difficult to describe my experiences in Israel to my family, it’s like another planet to them. I wish I could bring my wife and kids and my mother to see the clean sea in Jaffa or the Old City in Jerusalem. Maybe one day.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian