Palestinian Workers in Israel Caught Between Indispensable and Disposable
In Jerusalem under strict lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the abnormal quiet of the streets is disturbed by the familiar din of business-as-usual drilling and construction. Both the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority (PA) have enforced various lockdown measures since early March. But, as in other countries, the authorities are using their own criteria to decide which sectors are deemed essential. In Israel, the construction sector along with agriculture, health and nursing have been ordered to remain open.
Construction and infrastructure projects in Israel, and in Israeli settlements within the West Bank, are hugely dependent upon Palestinian labor. Under a lockdown in a pandemic this means that Palestinian workers are exposed to serious health risks while helping Israel cement its control over Palestinian land and people. As an example, my family’s home in Jerusalem is located in the neighborhood of Shuafat. The Jerusalem municipality has confiscated about 10 feet from all the properties on our street in order to expand the road for the “public good.” The bureaucratic requirements for submitting an objection to this expansion cost approximately $15,000 (50,000 NIS). No resident was able to do so, and in the middle of a lockdown the work began. The laborers, contracted from the West Bank, were ordered to demolish the walls of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem for a road that will only serve to further fragment Palestinian neighborhoods in the city and facilitate Israeli circulation.
As of May 15, Israel had 16,539 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 262 deaths. There have been 548 confirmed cases and 4 deaths in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Before March, according to Palestinian Minister of Health May Kaileh, the primary sources of coronavirus infection in the West Bank were the tourism industry (13 percent of cases) and Palestinians returning from abroad (10 percent). A small outbreak of the virus in Bethlehem was traced to a tourist group lodged in a local hotel. It was swiftly contained with a city-wide curfew.The pandemic is entrenching already existing patterns of debt, surveillance, labor exploitation and Israeli control over Palestinian land and life.With tourism and travel effectively halted, the source of contagion for the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza is now Palestinian laborers who are propping up Israel’s construction economy and agribusiness by transiting back and forth to Israel and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Two COVID-19 deaths in the West Bank are attributed to contact with Palestinians working in Israel and 75 percent of confirmed cases have been traced to these workers.
The pandemic is entrenching already existing patterns of debt, surveillance, labor exploitation and Israeli control over Palestinian land and life. The current crisis further highlights the multiple ways Israeli employers, trade unions and the state exploit Palestinian laborers to bolster Israel’s settler-colonial project, while cutting costs and displacing responsibility for the protection of workers onto the weak infrastructure of the Palestinian healthcare sector and economy.
Exploiting the Pandemic (and Workers) for Israel’s Benefit
The number of Palestinian workers in Israel and Israeli settlements was an estimated 130,000 in 2019, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)—but is likely to be higher due to the number who cross into Israel without permits.The breakdown of workers is estimated to be 22,900 workers in the settlements and 110,400 in Israel. Most Palestinians work in Israel’s construction sector, where it is estimated that they make up 65-70 percent of the workforce.
The Israeli minister for construction and housing was quoted in the Israeli media explaining that the construction sector must continue as normal “to ensure that construction in Israel for the benefit of home buyers will not be affected, even in the current exceptional circumstances.” According to the Israeli transport minister, the pandemic offers an opportunity to expand and accelerate infrastructure projects with some large-scale projects predicted to be completed six months to one year ahead of schedule.
Israel is exploiting the coronavirus crisis—and Palestinian laborers—to sustain its settler-colonial project that inherently benefits Jewish Israeli communities at the expense of Palestinian ones, while also restricting Palestinian access to land both in Israel and in the West Bank. Infrastructure projects that Israel is now accelerating include the fast train lines between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the Ayalon highways and light rail between Haifa and Nazareth. In Jerusalem, the plans include work on the Begin highway in Jerusalem, expansion of the Jerusalem light train and settlement projects in Ramot, Pizgat Ze’ev and French Hill. West Bank settlements, such as Maale Adumim, Ariel, Revava, Gush Etzion and Brukhin are continuing or speeding up infrastructure and construction work.
The continuation of construction projects in Israel and its settlements are of deep economic importance for the Israeli economy—they are essential to ensure the movement of goods, people and capital. There are fears in Israeli economic circles that the delay or collapse of the construction sector will cause significant damage to the Israeli economy, triggering a cascade of delayed payments to banks and insurance companies—with major consequences for the banking sector.
Although Israel has attempted to hire construction workers from East Asia and Eastern Europe in the past, these efforts have mostly failed. Palestinian workers continue to fill these necessary and precarious jobs to keep entire sectors of Israel’s economy functioning, but some of these workers have been literally discarded when they were deemed no longer useful. Since workers’ rights are dependent upon maintaining formal employment, Israel—like many Gulf countries who also have a large number of foreign laborers—can easily displace them in times of crisis.
Palestinian Workers’ Health at Risk
Thousands of Palestinian workers returned to the West Bank at the beginning of the Passover holiday in early April. Israeli authorities have refused to test workers before their return despite the infection of over 41 workers in the Atarot Industrial Zone in Jerusalem and the death of a 60-year-old Palestinian woman from the village of Biddu whose son was a worker in the Israeli economy. Now some 67,000 Palestinian workers are expected to return to the construction sector in Israel.Palestinian workers, however, do not receive the benefits to which they are entitled.The disregard for Palestinian workers’ health and working conditions is not unique to this current crisis. The Israeli construction sector has one of the highest death rates of construction workers among member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Palestinian laborers, if they hold an official permit, are entitled to medical care coverage. In fact, monthly deductions are made by the Israeli trade union the Histadrut and the Israeli Ministry of Interior from Palestinian workers’ salaries for social benefits. Palestinian workers, however, do not receive the benefits to which they are entitled. A statement by a group of Palestinian trade unions called for a boycott of the Histadrut due to its complicity with the Israeli state in the long term shunning of responsibility for the health and safety of Palestinian workers.
In addition, actions by the Israeli military and settlers have actually prevented Palestinian public health initiatives. These include shutting down a COVID-19 screening facility in East Jerusalem and confiscating equipment for a field clinic in the Jordan Valley. The daily oppression Palestinians experience under Israeli occupation continues as usual with house demolitions, arrests, killings, the ongoing blockade of Gaza and settler attacks on Palestinian villages, livestock and agriculture.
Coronavirus’ Uneven Impact on Palestinian Society
The high numbers of Palestinian laborers in Israel translates into well over 13 percent of Palestinian GDP.According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics’ (PCBS) labor force survey, remittances from the Israeli labor market amounted to $1.92 billion in 2017. The Palestinian Monetary Authority’s recent report estimated revenues from Palestinian workers to average $271 million per month ($71 or 250 NIS per worker per day). To put these figures in some context, the minimum wage in the West Bank is about $400 per month (1,400 NIS), less than 19 percent of what a worker might earn on average in Israel. The revenue from these workers is therefore not only of vital importance to the current functioning of the Palestinian economy, but more importantly the effects of losing employment in Israel will be felt by the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian families that depend on this income.The virus will have a differential impact across localities in the West Bank, depending on how many residents travel to work in Israel.With the current state of contagion, the virus will have a differential impact across localities in the West Bank, depending on how many residents travel to work in Israel. A study by Duja Michel and Belal al-Falah published by The Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute (MAS) illuminates the spatial disparity in the West Bank according to how many residents in each locality work in Israel. This is also a story of class disparity within Palestinian society where in some places there are no workers commuting to Israel at all, while in others the percentage of employment in Israel is over 80 percent. The map used in the report to disaggregate the geographical location of the West Bank homes of Palestinian workers in Israel could be used now to determine the relative risk to those communities from exposure to the virus. This data also indicates how an outbreak of the virus will likely impact Palestinian society unevenly, not just in terms of economic income but also in terms of access to healthcare. Testing and health interventions should follow these patterns, which indicate that rural areas, rather than urban centers such as Ramallah, will be most exposed to the virus.
Statements by the Palestinian Authority that all Palestinians are in this together sound like empty platitudes at a time when Palestinians are further apart than ever—not in terms of social distancing, but because of the blockade of Gaza, the increasing numbers of Palestinians in Israeli prisons, refugees whose right of return remains denied and most of all due to an increasing inequality in wealth between Palestinians.
The Palestinian Authority Responds
The Palestinian Authority is not well-equipped to deal with the COVID-19 crisis due to the long-term structural and financial strangling of the Palestinian economy by the Israeli occupation and the resulting de-development of vital public health, agriculture and infrastructure sectors. This relationship of dependency and exploitation is only further aggravated by long years of austerity and structural adjustment prescribed by international financial institutions such as the World Bank.
Two main elements of the PA’s response have so far received little coverage—bolstering the security sector and entrenching debt. The security sector is one of the three main pillars of the PA’s emergency budget, and the daily press conferences conducted by the PA are littered with references to its importance. On the ground, this shift has resulted in the repression of Palestinian laborers trying to enter Israel for work. The Palestinian Authority has boasted in local media reports about its efforts to increase security forces positioned near routes used by Palestinian workers to smuggle themselves to work in Israel without permits. It has also accused Israel of intentionally opening gates and smuggling routes into settlements and into Israel to facilitate the passage of workers. Rather than criminalizing workers who have no other option, the PA could ensure that they materially do not need to travel to Israel for work. This response of repression instead of support is indicative of one of the key roles the PA plays for the occupation, which is as a security coordinator for, and with, Israel.
The primary support venture has been Waqfet Izz, a fund established by prominent Palestinian businesspeople and the PA, which has raised over $17 million. The beneficiaries of the fund are the Palestinian Ministry of Health and families already registered with the Ministry of Social Welfare. On May 6, the Palestine Monetary Authority announced a program to provide $300 million of financing to small businesses through domestic banks. With estimates of 100,000 Palestinian families falling below the poverty line since the virus outbreak, these interventions are sadly still lacking.
Deepening Financial Crisis and Dependency
Meanwhile, the finances of the Palestinian Authority continue to fall further into crisis. In 2019 alone, well before the emergence of the coronavirus, UNCTAD and the World Bank deemed the PA to be nearing the limits of its domestic borrowing, due to Israel’s withholding of Palestinian clearance revenues as punishment for supporting the families of Palestinian political prisoners. Normally the PA would receive almost $200 million (700 million NIS) a month from tax revenue that Israel collects on the PA’s behalf, but due to the crisis a 60 percent decrease is expected. The PA has been in negotiations with Israel for months and now, according to Israeli media, an agreement has been reached to transfer 800 million NIS from Israel to the PA in the form of a loan, which will only further entrench the PA’s position of dependence on Israel.Encouraged to borrow by international financial institutions, the PA’s domestic and foreign debt has increased over threefold since 2000.Additionally, the international community has pulled the plug financially, with aid to the PA steadily decreasing since 2013. Encouraged to borrow by international financial institutions, the PA’s domestic and foreign debt has increased over threefold since 2000—from $863 million to $2.795 billion. The largest increase has been in domestic borrowing, which formed 56.4 percent of total PA debts by the end of 2019. The involvement of domestic banks means that they are particularly invested in the political project of the PA and especially vulnerable to crisis. This vulnerability is only set to increase as the current crisis unfolds and since the PA has already reached the limit of domestic borrowing at $2 billion.
In terms of credit and loans in Palestine, a closer look at some of the numbers also paint a worrying fiscal picture. Consumer debt now totals $4.2 billion and some $1.6 billion in loans are held by public sector employees alone. But since 2017, the credit to deposit ratio has been rising along with the number of non-performing loans. An increase of debt in a sector that was already not performing well should cause deep concern when presented as a solution to the crisis. It also holds political implications, meaning that an increasing number of individuals’ finances and property are tied to the continuation of the status quo, a deterrent to challenging it.
One popular narrative insinuates that Palestinians have an edge over other communities in the world due to their familiarity with crisis, lockdowns and curfews. Such discourses, however, ignore how the virus exacerbates already existing socio-economic class disparities. It also glosses over the unique ways COVID-19 intensifies existing vulnerabilities, such as the 13-year Israeli blockade of Gaza, a weakened public health system with a reduced infrastructural capacity, already high unemployment rates and individual debt, an ineffective and debt-ridden Palestinian Authority and decades of brutal Israeli military occupation and apartheid.
It is crucial not to lose sight of how longstanding underlying conditions of military occupation and colonization by Israel have created the oppressive conditions that encourage the exploitation of Palestinian workers and maintain Palestinians as a captive market. Israel is capable of paying Palestinian workers in Israel their lawful compensation, healthcare and sick pay. Instead of taking fiscal and political responsibility for the welfare of Palestinian workers, however, Israel is taking advantage of the pandemic as another opportunity to extract profit and cement control while putting workers at risk of coronavirus infection and continuing to structurally de-develop the Palestinian economy.
Featured image: Palestinian workers at a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Ramat Givat Zeev, Israeli-occupied West Bank, March 19, 2020. Ammar Awad/Reuters
 The breakdown of workers is estimated to be 22,900 workers in the settlements and 110,400 in Israel.
Posted on MERIP Report 2020