Exclusion Of Palestinian Workers

The Double-Edged Sword

Jonathan Shamir

[Israel’s far right wants to permanently replace Palestinian workers, but employing them has become key to maintaining the occupation.]

In February, four months after Hamas broke through the fence around the Gaza Strip, Israel’s military establishment secretly employed hundreds of Palestinian workers from the West Bank to repair it. The incident represented one of the only times that Palestinian workers have been allowed to return to work within the Green Line after the Israeli government revoked almost all of their work permits in October.

The Israeli military establishment’s decision to rehire previously-banned Palestinian workers, which bypassed elected lawmakers on the official Security Cabinet, represents a growing tension between Israeli leaders’ divergent approaches to Palestinian labourers. In the aftermath of October 7th, far-right politicians like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir have insisted that Israel must permanently remove the over 200,000 Palestinian labourers, including those without permits, who work inside Israel and the occupied West Bank. These far-right leaders have positioned Palestinian workers as an unmanageable security threat, and given the significant power within Israel, their approach has largely carried the day, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refusing to bring the workers’ return to a vote in the Security Cabinet. Instead, Netanyahu’s government has resolved to replace Palestinian workers with a massive proposed influx of migrant labourers from countries like India and Sri Lanka, even though it will cost Israeli employers up to three times more to employ such workers.

But a contingent of senior officials associated with the military and intelligence service have vocally opposed this policy, insisting on readmitting the banned workers—not out of concern for Palestinians’ livelihoods, but because leaving almost a quarter million Palestinians unemployed and desperate is seen as jeopardising Israel’s own security. “Letting them make a living for their families will lower the tension,” said Defence Minister Yoav Gallant. “A strong economy and welfare for the Palestinian residents of Judea and Samaria [the biblical name for the West Bank] is in Israel’s security interest.” In line with this belief, in December, the army permitted 10,000 Palestinian workers to begin labouring in West Bank settlements, in addition to bringing in the workers to fix the Gaza fence a few months later—all despite continued criticism from Israeli politicians.

This ongoing tension between elected leaders and the military establishment continues Israel’s longstanding oscillation over whether allowing Palestinian workers in, or forcing them out, is more beneficial to the occupation. Israel has at times responded to Palestinian uprisings by excluding Palestinians and turning to foreign migrant labourers. Yet the economic advantages of exploiting Palestinians have usually pushed Israel to reverse course—and over time, control over Palestinian workers has become an attractive tool of political pacification in its own right. In the post-October 7th moment, Israeli leaders are retracing this familiar debate about Palestinian labour, but the rise of the far right has meant that the exclusion pole is much more powerful than in previous iterations. According to Hussain, a 60-year-old Palestinian labourer and West Bank resident who worked in construction near Tel Aviv before October 7th, Israel’s cancellation of almost all work permits has created one of the direst crises Palestinian workers have ever faced. “The situation was never this bad even during the First or Second Intifada,” said one Hussain.

In the long term, however, experts say that the turn to migrant labourers is unlikely to last given the benefits Israel derives from a disenfranchised Palestinian workforce.

In the first two decades after it occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, Israel opted to integrate a Palestinian labour force in the hopes that ensuring a basic level of welfare for Palestinians would maintain calm. But Israel changed tack with the onset of the First Intifada, the late 1980s Palestinian uprising against the occupation. In that period, Israel’s repeated closures of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which intensified following a wave of Palestinian militant attacks, barred tens of thousands of Palestinians from reaching their workplaces. This created a crisis for employers in the construction sector, where the dependency on Palestinians was most acute, and since Israeli workers were unwilling to work in these hazardous jobs—which also became socially stigmatised due to their association with Palestinians—the government had no option left but to bring in workers from elsewhere. As a result, by 1996, the Israeli government had granted 106,000 permits for foreign migrant workers.

The shift to supposedly pliant and depoliticised foreign labour was seen as not only a way to keep the Israeli economy going, but also a strategy to quash the Intifada, which leveraged Israel’s dependency on Palestinian workers to put forward political demands through frequent strikes. “When the working Palestinian population rose up and threatened the interests of the state and employers, migrant workers were brought in as a sort of strike-breaker population,” said activist and anthropologist Matan Kaminer, who researches migrant workers in Israel. Bringing in a non-Palestinian labour force was also seen as preparation for an imminent two-state agreement: “The Oslo years also represented the most significant attempt to wean Israel off Palestinian labour because the government genuinely believed that there would be political separation.”.

For right-wing Israelis, however, the potential replacement of Palestinian labour with foreigners triggered other latent anxieties. “The Israeli right was worried about foreign workers because if they were given rights and equality as non-Jews, it could create a liberal society where the first and most important marker is not the fact that you’re Jewish.”

Despite these measures, Israeli leaders remained concerned that this population would naturalise, a problem they didn’t have with Palestinian workers.

Far-right politicians are now calling this established regime of labour management into question. After October 7th, Smotrich has argued, “the notion that money can buy peace has collapsed,” signalling that Israel must chart a course forward without Palestinian workers.

But despite its loud opposition to the status quo ante, the right wing has been unable to commit to actually removing Palestinians from an economy built on their exploitation.

The influx of migrant workers will give Israel even more leverage over Palestinian workers, which will mean worse working conditions and more surveillance.” Indeed, the military establishment’s recently proposed pilot for a partial reentry of Palestinian workers explicitly suggests the use of “advanced monitoring systems that have never been used before” as a way to address the far right’s concerns about Palestinian militancy. In crafting this harsher version of the previous system, Israel looks poised to draw from the precedent of both the Intifadas, bringing in a migrant labour population to depress Palestinians’ power as it did in the ’90s while also heightening surveillance on Palestinian workers as in the 2000s. For the Palestinian workers on their receiving end, these emergent re-entry policies constitute a bitter lifeline, offering a short-term improvement on months of unemployment, but a long-term erosion of their already precarious rights.

[Source: Jewish Currents]

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Vol 56, No. 41, Apr 7 - 13, 2024