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Occupied labour: The treadmill of Palestinian work in Israel

An investigation into how Palestinians escape the poverty trap by working in Israel but only at the terrible cost of failing to build and sustain their own local economies

Andreas Hackl/IRIN

Driving near the concrete barrier that separates Israel from the southern West Bank, a car passes a Bedouin settlement, leaves the main road for a dirt one, and veers into a field. It stops next to a gap in the wall. Three men get out, rush through the opening, and are picked up on the other side – inside Israel.

Further west, the ground becomes rocky and hilly. Four-wheel drives bring groups of men to another spot where the wall breaks. As the passengers step out, a car motors towards them, kicking up a massive dust cloud. The Palestinian men get in and the car speeds away towards an Israeli town.

All of this repeats itself every few minutes each evening near Yatta, the West Bank’s third largest city, although it doesn’t look it: With a population of 65,000 on the dusty hills south of Hebron, its Old Town rarely sees an outside visitor, while piles of abandoned cars line its many winding streets.

If Yatta seems forgotten, that’s because only 2,400 of its residents have jobs locally. Like much of the rest of the West Bank, the vast majority depend on the Israeli labour market for employment, in one way or another.

This sort of dependency, fostered by 50 years of occupation, makes for a mean cycle. Salaries are higher in Israel, so young Palestinians look for work across the border. There is also less investment at home, and the local economy doesn’t create good jobs.

For most West Bank Palestinians, crossing the border for work requires a job and a permit from the Israeli government. These can be hard to come by, so many take the illegal route, crossing through weak points in the barrier and finding lower paid informal employment.

If caught, they face imprisonment. But for many, the risk is worth it.

The Abu Bakr family* has a story like so many others in this small city: The oldest son can no longer enter Israel after repeated prison terms for crossing the wall illegally, the second oldest works on Israeli construction sites with a permit, the third does so without.

The youngest, only 16, is looking to smuggle himself across the barrier for the second time during the summer holidays. Once there, he plans to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day, at a car wash. He’ll live on the margins of society, constantly fearing capture.

It’s an unquestionably difficult life, but locals have little choice but to tie their fates to business on the other side of the concrete, barbed wire, and checkpoints.

“Without work in Israel, no family can survive here,” explained Yatta Mayor Ibrahim Abu Zahra.

The bottom line

The UN says Israel’s occupation is the “main trigger” of humanitarian needs in the West Bank and Gaza.

A strangled economy is part of that occupation. While Gaza continues to suffer under a blockade, the combination of a demand for cheap labour inside Israel and the West Bank’s struggling economy – brought on in part by restrictions on movement and trade – mean many Palestinians seek work in Israel and “aspire to that as a primary solution” to their economic problems, according to the International Labor Organization.

By the ILO’s count, at no point over the last 15 years have so many Palestinians worked in Israeli jobs: currently around 120,000, who earn a quarter of the West Bank’s total salaries.

Andreas Hackl/IRIN

The cash flow from work in Israel may be considered essential by many individuals and families, but it comes at a hefty price: the sustainable economic development of the Palestinian towns themselves. The combination of political instability and Israeli economic restrictions mean no one wants to invest in Yatta and workers look first to work across the wall, said its municipal manager, Nasser Raba’i. “Our economy is completely entangled with the Israeli economy,” he told IRIN.

Saleh, a geography teacher from Yatta, said it’s rare for school leavers to even consider building their employment futures at home. “A student will not try to start a project here, work his land, and open a factory. The student at school thinks: ‘I want to leave school and make money in Israel to build a future: he wants to marry, build a house, and buy a car.’”

Permit pressure

Economic dependency also means vulnerability. It can be a form of political pressure because Israel requires that the majority of Palestinian workers hold permits – tied to their jobs – to cross through checkpoints. Some 81,500 currently hold such conditional permits.

Israeli regulations allow men above 55 and women above 50 to enter and work without a permit. Young men are only eligible for permits if they are married and at least 22 years old, although age limits sometimes change and vary across different sectors.

Permits are often denied for “security reasons”, but Palestinian workers’ rights advocates doubt this security need, given that the ban can be lifted after a simple legal process.

Workers without permits, estimated to number between 35,000 and 42,000, are smuggled across the borderland.

Yatta is a the West Bank’s main smuggling hub, and workers complain that Israel can switch off their access to employment like water running from a tap. They recount permits used as a bargaining chip by recruiters from Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, which in part relies on Palestinian informants for intelligence. While it is impossible to verify such accounts, they are certainly widespread.

Israel has annulled permits after violent incidents: When two Palestinians from Yatta killed four Israelis in a Tel Aviv shooting last June, Israel promptly cancelled 83,000 visiting permits issued to Palestinians during the holy month of Ramadan (some were later reinstated) and froze hundreds of working permits from the perpetrators’ clan.

Israel justifies tight control of Palestinian movement as a necessary security measure, but tightening can often lead to escalation. This became clear when the recent set up of metal detectors outside Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Mosque compound sparked sustained protests, an attack that killed three Israelis in their home, and a violent crackdown on Palestinians in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The metal detectors were put up after three Palestinian citizens of Israel shot and killed two Israeli policeman inside the holy site.

Israel’s power to revoke permits or change movement patterns has made some fearful to speak their mind. “We workers cannot talk about politics,” said one construction worker from Yatta who has a permit to work in Israel, and would not be named. “Maybe I say something… then they say I am politically active and can no longer enter.”

Whether one sees such pressure as a justified security measure or a way of pushing through quiescence, the economic implications are the same.

Raba’i is concerned about what dependence paired with political instability entails for Yatta’s failing economy.

He said that after movement and permits were halted in the wake of the Tel Aviv killings, many locals became temporarily unemployed, so the municipality could not collect money for electricity bills.

Shops were affected too.

“The worker consumes with the money he brings home from Israel, so if he doesn’t bring any, it has a huge influence here,” explained Raba’i. “Some say, ‘I didn’t work today, so I cannot have dinner.’”

Samir Salameh, assistant deputy minister at the Palestinian Ministry of Labour, said the permit system and the possibility of mass cancellations is a major issue.

“If permits will be cancelled, we will find ourselves in a serious problem,” he told IRIN. “If suddenly 100,000 people are unemployed, what to do with them?”

Lost time and money

It’s not just permits that make legal crossing difficult.

The checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank – located at various points along the wall (variously known as the fence, the security barrier, the separation barrier and other terms) – can move slowly as soldiers search cars, buses, and individuals on foot.

Andreas Hackl/IRIN
A Palestinian worker crosses back from Israel into Qalqiliyah

The northern West Bank town of Qalqiliyah was once a vibrant market town, but now the separation barrier almost entirely encircles it, encroaching into its lands.

In the middle of the night cars rush through its unlit streets, towards the Israeli checkpoint at the walled-off edge of town. As workers exit cars and taxis, salespeople begin intensive morning shifts at dozens of market stands, selling snacks, coffee, and cigarettes.

All told, these checkpoints are a heavy burden for the workers: several thousand Palestinians push through here every morning – so many that a team of 70 volunteer “herders” must keep the masses in order.

“I leave my house at 3am so I can cross the checkpoint on time,” said Ahmed, a construction worker outside the crossing.

Each day, he travels from Tubas, on the other side of the West Bank, and makes a long but short journey to Tel Aviv: four hours just to get 60 kilometres as the crow flies. After a rough day of burning tar on building sites, he is back in bed around 8pm, to wake up at 2am when the treadmill spins on. “I only see my children asleep,” he said.


Despite all this trouble, Palestinians who work inside Israel often don’t bring home their full wages. A share of pay cheques from those employed regularly is dedicated for Israel’s national insurance and pension funds, but most of the money never makes its way to Palestinian workers.  

Those who manage to get permits lose yet more money to powerful intermediaries – often Palestinians themselves – who broker permits and connections between workers and employers.

That’s because permits tie workers to specific employers. The way around this is through a middleman, who effectively sells permits if an employer is allotted more than they need.

The Israeli government itself said in July that the permit system leads to the exploitation of workers and lost money for labourers. The ILO estimates those losses at between 232 and 1,360 million Israeli shekels, or between $66 million and $389 million, each year.

The affected workers pay up to 2,500 shekels ($716) of monthly “broker tax” for permits that are resold by employers who don’t use up their allocated quotas. Brokers often charge additional money for transport.

Andreas Hackl/IRIN

Brokers hold similar sway on settler farms and construction sites, where cheap Palestinian labour is used in “Area C”, about 60 percent of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control.

On a veranda overlooking Jericho, Kifah, a Palestinian broker who is employed by Israeli settlements businesses, told IRIN she brings around 70 workers a day into the settlements so they can work there for $20 a day, of which they pay Kifah $6 (30 percent) for transport.

Brokers who bring workers from faraway towns in the West Bank often charge much more than Kifah does.

Abed Dari, an expert at workers’ rights NGO Kav LaOved, explained why these brokers are such a massive problem, both in the West Bank and Israel: “Because of them, there is no direct connection between the employer and the employee, which undermines their claims to their rights.”

Without proof, complainants pay $850 just to start a court case if they are mistreated. But Dari said this is a rarity, in part because settlements keep a “black list” of workers who “cause problems”.

Search for alternatives

Israel is investing in upgrading major checkpoints and, together with the Palestinian Authority, it is considering changes to the permit system that could soon tackle the problem of brokers.

Salameh, the assistant deputy minister, said workers’ permits must be disconnected from specific Israeli employers. The NGOs agree.

One idea is to give Palestinian construction workers permits per sector rather than per employer, allowing them to switch employers within sectors and put an end to the practice of reselling unused permits on the black market.

Salameh said he is still awaiting a concrete response from COGAT, the Israeli body that governs civil affairs in the West Bank. COGAT has announced some changes to the system, but IRIN understands that officials don’t yet know when exactly these will be implemented and how.

COGAT did not reply to a request for comment but said in published statements: "Trading employment licenses has created a black market and a brokerage scene which involve Israelis and Palestinians and generate large profits."

The body, which runs an Arabic-language Facebook page called "al-Munaseq" (“The Coordinator”), says it sees Israel as “a pivotal economic source for many Palestinians as thousands of them turn to Israel to seek employment and to have a stable source of income in hopes of a better life".

Even if major changes do come, many believe only an end to occupation will allow the building of a sustainable economy. A cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, lacking foreign investments and the much higher salaries in Israel, means Palestinians will continue to accept hardship in exchange for cash.

“Without a solution, we must learn to live with it,“ said Abdel-Jalil, a Palestinian trade unionist based at the Qalqiliya checkpoint, where he sees thousnda cross into Israel every day. He wishes more Palestinians could find employment at home.

“Working in Israel is not the solution,” he said. “It is part of the problem.”


*Name has been changed 

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