Work permits are a lifeline for Gaza, and a lever for Israel

Palestinian Ibrahim Slaieh, who currently has a permit allowing him to work in Israel - Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip (Fatima Shbair - AP)

Fares Karam & Sam McNeil

AP  /  August 26, 2022

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip – Ibrahim Slaieh can point to three great moments of joy in his life in the Gaza Strip: his graduation from university, his wedding, and the day last year when he got a six-month permit to work inside Israel.

The permit — a little piece of paper, wrapped in protective plastic — allows the 44-year-old to work at a grocery store in southern Israel, making 10 times what he could in Gaza. It means a better education for his six children, bigger family meals and treats like pastries, fruit yogurt and chocolate milk.

Without it, he would have to seek meagre wages inside the narrow coastal strip, which has been under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power 15 years ago. With unemployment hovering around 50%, that might mean salvaging rubble from years of conflict or trapping birds to sell to pet shops.

“It’s incomparable,” Slaieh says. “One month of work there equals three years of work here.”

Israel acknowledges the permits are also a powerful tool to help preserve calm or — in the eyes of its critics — control.

Israel has issued up to 15,500 work permits since last year, allowing Palestinians like Slaieh to cross into the country from the Gaza Strip and work mostly menial jobs that pay far higher wages than those available inside Gaza.

They are among the first Gazan labourers to work officially inside Israel since the Hamas takeover of the territory in 2007. More than 100,000 Palestinians from the occupied West Bank have similar permits that allow them to enter Israel for work.

The permits give Israel a form of leverage over the Palestinians who rely on them — and over Hamas. Gaza’s militant rulers risk being blamed if the border is closed and the workers are forced to stay home — as they were earlier this month during the latest flare-up in violence.

Hamas, which has fought four wars and countless smaller battles with Israel over the years, sat out the latest round of fighting — apparently in order to preserve the permits and other economic understandings with Israel that have provided an economic lifeline to the territory.

Last week, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced 1,500 more permits “on condition that the security situation remains quiet,” once again spelling out the terms on which the permits are issued.

Israel often describes the permits, and other measures that provide economic opportunities to Palestinians, as goodwill measures. Critics view the permits as another means of control, part of Israel’s decades-long military rule over millions of Palestinians, which shows no sign of ending. Israel considers even peaceful forms of Palestinian protest as a threat to public order — something that could lead to a permit being cancelled.

Maher al-Tabaa, an official with the Gaza Chamber of Commerce, says the permits have had little effect on Gaza’s wider economy, which remains heavily constricted by the closures. He says those working in Israel inject a total of just $1 million a day into Gaza’s economy.

Before the Hamas takeover in 2007, some 120,000 Gazans worked inside Israel. Nearly all lost their permits when Israel tightened the blockade that year. Since then, the population has doubled to around 2.3 million even as the economy has all but collapsed.

Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent Hamas from building up its arsenal, while human rights groups view it as a form of collective punishment.

Al-Tabaa said that only doubling or tripling the current number of permits would bring about an economic recovery in Gaza.

On a Sunday morning, Slaieh awoke before dawn, kissed his girls goodbye and waved at his sons through a window as he made his way down a dirt road, bound for the fortress-like Erez crossing leading into Israel.

After he crosses, he is sometimes picked up by his employer. Other times, he shares a taxi to the southern city of Beersheba, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) away, with other workers. He spends three weeks in Israel before returning home for a week.

Before he got his permit, Slaieh said he had never been in Israel.

He has only recently begun to learn Hebrew. He works at a store in Beersheba owned by a distant relative and says many of the shoppers are Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Like many Gaza workers, Slaieh said he largely keeps to himself, partly to avoid jeopardizing his permit and partly because it’s expensive to go out. He occasionally gets together with other Gazans or goes to pray at a local mosque.

“I work lengthy hours and get paid overtime, that’s why I do it. In Gaza, we would work these hours for only 30 shekels (about $10) a day,” he said.

Some of the permits get renewed automatically, while other workers have to periodically reapply, hoping they remain in the good graces of Israel’s security apparatus.

Slaieh’s permit expires in December.

He says the prospect of not having his permit renewed is “terrifying” and that he is already losing sleep over it. He says he’s saving as much as he can out of the roughly $75 a day he brings home from his job in Israel.

If his permit is denied, he said his only hope is to start a small business in Gaza.

He said his father didn’t save money when he worked in Israel some two decades ago. When Israel shuttered the border in 2007, tens of thousands of workers, including Slaieh’s father, lost their jobs suddenly. His father died six years ago.

“I don’t want my children to go through the experience we had,” he said.