Palestinian Workforce: Could It Be a Force for Peace?

Palestinian peace
A Palestinian laborer works on a construction site in Har Homa. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

By Dov Benovadia

Palestinian workers in Israel are a study in impractical pragmatism. It can’t work. But Israel is the land of ein breirah. For survival, you make things work.

An early morning visit to IDF checkpoints along the “Green Line,” the 1948 Armistice Line that has evolved into a de facto border between “Israel proper” and “the territories,” as many Israelis in positions of influence call them, yields a sight not often reported in the world media: Thousands of Palestinian Authority-ruled Arabs patiently awaiting their turn to pass a security check, on their way to jobs inside Israeli cities and towns. Because so many clamor to get through, most come early, so they can get through the checkpoint in time for work. An armada of jitneys, taxis, pickup trucks, and buses awaits them, transporting them to their places of work. The same story repeats itself in the afternoon, as the tens of thousands of Palestinian workers head home — except that afternoon “rush hour” is less concentrated and more spread out, as quitting time differs for workers in different industries and businesses.

It would be easy to mistake the scene for an exercise in what the world media calls “colonialism” — where a poor, indigenous population is exploited for the benefit of the wealthy “master class.” But Israel’s main motivation in admitting as many as 100,000 Palestinian workers is far from purely economic, according to advocates of the work permit program. “Keep in mind that employing Palestinians in Israel lets them earn a decent and dignified living, on the background of a nearly 20-percent unemployment rate in the Palestinian Authority,” said Shraga Brosh, president of the Manufacturers Association of Israel.

Call it a coexistence of necessity. Echoing comments made by many senior security officials, Brosh said on a recent tour of the Barkan Industrial Zone near Ariel, that enabling Palestinians to work in Israel encourages them to build a positive future for their families — and discourages their children from joining terror groups. “We must continue to encourage and help those seeking to work in Israel, and these workers prove by their daily actions that coexistence is possible, and actually exists, in Israel.” At the same time, he said, Palestinians fill positions that might go begging otherwise, as young Israelis today pursue the high-tech dream, seeking careers in advanced technology, business, and other white collar positions.

According to the Manufacturers Association, 2017 was a banner year for Palestinian workers in Israel. In recent years, the government has been gradually increasing the number of permits issued, to the point where over 100,000 Palestinian workers can now legally enter Israel to work, with about 70,000 crossing the Green Line daily, and the rest working inside Jewish communities and Israeli industrial zones in Yehudah and Shomron. According to the Association, that figure is set to jump by 25 percent in 2018. In addition to the legal workers, there are at any given time as many as 50,000 illegal Palestinian workers inside Israel proper, according to police estimates. Of those employed legally inside Israel, about half are employed in construction, with the rest working largely in agriculture, as well as in health services, restaurants and hotels. In the industrial zones in Yehudah and Shomron, most work in factories.

Permits for Palestinian workers, which were first authorized in 1970, are issued by the Coordinator of Government Affairs in the Territories (CoGAT). A Palestinian who wishes to enter Israel as a worker applies at his nearest CoGAT District Coordination and Liaison office, and undergoes a security check, as well as an interview by the Shin Bet. Employers must request specific workers (they can choose from lists based on their skills, location and family situation), and when permits are available, a worker is assigned to a job provided by the Israeli employer. The sight common in many places, where large numbers of migrant workers stand around to be “selected” by employers, doesn’t apply to Palestinian workers; because of the stringent security concerns, Palestinian workers are allowed to work only for the employer with whom they have a work agreement.

Lest one think, by the way, that Israeli employers are anxious to hire Palestinian workers because they can get away with paying them less, Israeli law requires paying Palestinian workers exactly the same salaries as Israeli citizens, and providing them with the same social conditions (pensions, National Health Insurance, etc.). In a 2007 decision on equal pay for foreign workers, the High Court proclaimed the principle of equal pay for equal work, “for men and women, for parents and those who are not parents, for Jews and Muslims, and for Israelis and Palestinians.” With that, Israeli workers’ rights organizations like Kav La’oved say that Palestinian workers are often taken advantage of; employers may underpay or stiff them altogether, counting on the likelihood that Palestinian workers who do not speak Hebrew well nor feel comfortable in the presence of Israeli officialdom will not pursue their rights.

It’s not to hire cheap labor that employers take on Palestinians; it’s to find workers to fill jobs that go begging, especially in construction and agriculture, work which Israelis aren’t willing to do, at least for the low wages and difficult work conditions offered. Over the years, various governments have tried to encourage Israelis to train for work in building trades by offering courses, stipends, and other benefits, but none have had a major impact on the employment situation. Foreign workers, especially from Turkey and Eastern Europe, have been recruited to fill some jobs, but Palestinians make up the lion’s share of non-Israelis working in construction. For Palestinians, the permits are valuable enough that they are willing to pay for them — to the extent that the government earlier this year declared a campaign against “sponsors” of permits who take advantage of Palestinian workers by promising to get them a permit if they pay fees of as much as NIS 2,500 for a permit that sometimes materializes, and sometimes doesn’t.

Is filling jobs a good enough reason to admit Palestinian workers into Israeli communities? Opponents of the program can point to two recent terror attacks that were carried out by permit holders, which could discredit the program. In November 2015, Raid Khalil, a 37-year-old father of five, killed two Israelis at the Beit Panorama office building in Tel Aviv. The victims, 32-year-old Aharon Yisayev from Holon and 51-year-old Reuven Aviram from Ramle, were killed when Khalil tried to get into a religious-articles store in the office building as Jews gathered to daven Minchah. The victims were killed when the terrorist tried to get into the office as the Minchah minyan was just starting; he stabbed them right outside the room. People inside blocked the door for several long minutes as the terrorist tried to barge into the room. Eventually an individual with a gun was able to shoot Khalil, wounding him moderately.

Then there was the Har Adar terror attack in September, when Nimer Mahmoud Ahmad Jamal, 37 years old and a father of four, tried to cross a checkpoint where workers were entering Israel for their labor shifts, and ended up killing three security officers — Ohr Arish, Hy”d, a 25-year-old resident of Har Adar; Solomon Gevriya, Hy”d, a 20-year-old Border Guard officer and resident of Be’er Yaakov; and Yussuf Othman, a resident of the Arab town of Abu Ghosh. Channel Two reported that Jamal had raised security concerns even before he passed through the security fence; security personnel met him outside the fence, and he pulled out a handgun and shot them, killing three and injuring one. The terrorist was immediately killed by other security personnel.

In both cases, the perpetrators of the terror attack held Israeli work permits — Khalil for a restaurant job he had in Tel Aviv, and Jamal for his job in Har Adar. In both cases, the terrorists did not fit the profile security officials have developed for terrorists — who are generally young, single men who have had a hard time getting a job, and who have no children. As family men, Khalil and Jamal are among the preferred populations for Israeli work permits, as they are considered to have too much to lose personally to carry out an attack. And these attacks, say supporters of the program, are the only two killing terror attacks carried out by permit holders.

Following both of the attacks, some MKs and ministers called for a suspension of the permit program altogether. Michael Sharon, the security officer for the central Shomron town of Kedumim, told 360 News that “there is no question that the issue of admitting Palestinian workers is a complicated one. On the one hand, we want to provide them with the ability to support themselves and build a life in a positive manner, in order to keep them away from terror influences. But we are creating an extremely complicated security situation by admitting many hundreds of Palestinians to our cities to work on construction projects.”

The risks are formidable. Construction workers often come with their own tools, “and you meet them daily at the entrance to the security fence carrying axes, hammers and screwdrivers,” said Sharon. “They don’t need knives or guns to attack us. They can also hide weapons in their lunchboxes or under their clothes — we can’t check everything. As security personnel, we do our best, but anything can happen at any time. This is a complicated and often frightening situation.”

No one would debate that, but there is the fact that terror attacks by permit-carrying Palestinians have been rare — as if there is an unspoken understanding between both sides acknowledging the mutual benefits of the permit program. And that viewpoint is held by the vast majority of officials across the political spectrum, from both left and right. Indeed, speaking after the Beit Panorama attack, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, arguably one of the most hawkish members of the government, said that the permit program needed to continue, despite the risk. “History has proven that misuse of these permits is very rare,” said Bennett. “Very few Palestinians who work in Israel to support their families carry out terror attacks against Jews. This is the right thing to do from an economic and security standpoint. It’s a win-win for both Israelis and Palestinians.” So important is the permit program that this past Sukkos, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot approved permits for Palestinian workers to enter Israeli cities during Chol Hamoed Sukkos — the first time such permits have been approved for a holiday period, when permits are usually suspended.

The vision of a Palestinian population integrated into the Israeli economy was enunciated clearly by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself in his famous 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech. “I call on the talented entrepreneurs of the Arab world to come and invest here and to assist the Palestinians and us in spurring the economy,” said PM Netanyahu. “Together we can develop industrial areas that will generate thousands of jobs and develop tourist sites that will attract millions of visitors eager to walk in the footsteps of history — in Nazareth and in Bethlehem, around the walls of Jericho and the walls of Jerusalem, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee and on the banks of the Jordan.”

In an extensive interview in July in Yediot Achronot, IDF Colonel Roman Gofman, the outgoing commander of the Etzion Brigade, which operates in the Gush Etzion area south of Jerusalem, affirmed the comments by Bennett. “Honor is extremely important to Palestinians, and we don’t always remember that. Ensuring that they can keep their dignity is an important way to build up a good relationship with them,” and part of that dignity is ensuring that they can remain gainfully employed. “The Palestinian population can be divided into three: A small minority that supports terror, a large majority that has nationalistic aspirations but does not act on them, and a smaller group that has accepted Israel. Our objective is to move as many people [as possible] into the third category, or at least to ensure they remain in the second.” The way to do that is through “proper and positive civilian administration,” which includes providing Palestinians with work permits for lucrative jobs inside Israel.

In other words, employing Palestinians in Israel actually increases the security of Israelis. A security official quoted by online media site AL-Monitor, considered by many an objective voice in analyzing issues concerning the Middle East, said that Israel needed to continue employing Palestinians — even if, on occasion, a terrorist takes advantage of the program to enter Israel and carry out a terror attack. “While there are risks, the greater risk is in halting the program,” the source said. “In many respects, enabling Palestinians to work inside Israel is helping to temper Palestinian rage, making us more secure.”

While that remains the sentiment of government and security officials, residents of some communities are less enthusiastic. Ramat Beit Shemesh, a community with a great deal of construction going on, is one place where the sight of Palestinian laborers is not rare — and some residents aren’t comfortable with that. One resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh said that the community was “inundated” with Arab workers, both legal and illegal. “The problem is that there is no way you can tell which ones are which,” said the resident, who asked not to be identified. “Legal workers can at least be tracked in case of a problem, but the illegal workers can’t be identified. There are regular break-ins in some neighborhoods here, and kids have been harassed on their way to or from school.” Residents of the Beit Shemesh area have attributed many local break-ins and thefts to the large illegal Palestinian population that remains in the area during the night and over weekends — a population that would not be there if it were not for the permit program.

In communities in Yehudah and Shomron that are surrounded by security fences, there are no Palestinians roaming around at night or on weekends — but residents there have other complaints, namely the “takeover” of the bus routes they depend upon. “The bus to Kfar Sava stops at the security checkpoint and picks up the Palestinian workers, and from that moment on the ride is awful,” said Ruth F., a resident of the central Shomron town of Karnei Shomron. “They stuff them onto the buses, and you can’t breathe. Meanwhile, you are sitting there watching them watch you. It’s a very creepy situation.”

A relatively new problem, Palestinians can now be found on buses throughout the Tel Aviv and Sharon areas — the result of a 2014 decision by the State Attorney that banned the practice of preventing Palestinians from boarding Israeli buses. Banning Palestinians from the bus would result in a lawsuit that the government would lose, the State Attorney said — and with proper security measures, officials would be able to accommodate Palestinian workers on public buses to and from Shomron. The ruling has had a very negative impact on Israelis, according to Ruth, who said that Israelis who ride buses daily are forced to put up with loud conversation, intimidation, and even violence. “The bus drivers are too scared to do anything, and so are we,” she said.

Police said in a statement that they responded to all complaints, and that they would continue to enforce the law in all communities throughout Israel. The Afikim bus company, which operates the buses to and from Shomron, said that it looked carefully into all complaints that were reported to its customer service department. Regardless of the feelings of residents, the permit program appears to be here to stay, at least for now; the integration of Palestinians into the Israeli economy has come too far. As the IDF’s Gofman put it, “In Gush Etzion we have a shopping center where at any time you can have 300 Palestinians shopping or working along with Jews. Keeping them out would cause this place to go bankrupt in a day.” Despite the risks, Palestinian workers are part of the landscape of modern Israel — and will remain so.