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Palestinian workers in Israel: Seizing opportunity or being exploited?

CM 29/07/2021

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 “It isn’t a lot of money, but I’m treated well and it’s important to me to have work,” says Amjad, a Palestinian employee at a restaurant in the Gush Etzion settlement of Efrat. He’s one of the more than 100,000 Palestinians who earn their livelihood working for Israelis, both inside and outside the Green Line.

“There are four Palestinians who work for me,” says Amjad’s boss. “They’re good workers… they help with the cleaning and food preparation.”
The two men describe their work this week to The Jerusalem Post, seemingly unaware of the fierce debate surrounding their relationship. To some, Amjad has been exploited for his labor. To others, his employer has provided him with opportunity. Even as the two men cooperate, the sides of the debate have been irreconcilable.
The question of exploitation or opportunity broke out recently on the Facebook page Secret Jerusalem, with the announcement of Design City, a mall in Mishor Adumim, the industrial area of Ma’aleh Adumim where 4,800 Palestinians already work. Commenters announced they wouldn’t patronize the project, due to exploitation of Palestinian workers.
When Ben & Jerry’s issued a ban on business within the West Bank, the topic rose again, this time over concern that Palestinian employees of distributors would lose jobs with declining business.

For some, like A., a Palestinian dry cleaner who works in Efrat, the debate is trivial.
“What’s the problem? I don’t understand. We have work.”
Yet the concerns expressed in response to Design City and Ben & Jerry’s are not new, and are significant to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The tenuous symbiotic relationship between Israeli-Jewish employers and Palestinian employees has developed since the 1960s.
In 2020 80,000-90,000 Palestinians officially worked in Israel, and 30,000-40,000 in Israeli settlements. The International Labor Organization estimated around 26,000 illegal Palestinian workers in Israel and the settlements.
On Wednesday, the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories announced that Israel is due to increase the number of permits it grants to Palestinians to work in Israel by 13%, in an effort to boost the flagging economy in the West Bank territory under the auspices of the PA.
The PA is lukewarm to its citizens working for Israelis. Calcalist reported that in 2011 the PA sought to reduce employment in settlements, but was hindered by its inability to produce alternative jobs. But the PA also benefits from wages brought into its territory by workers.
“The Palestinian Authority is delighted to have Palestinians working in those 15 [Israeli] industrial areas, because they don’t have enough positions to offer,” says Dan Diker, an analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
The acceptance of the phenomenon by the PA is evident in that the work permit increase was developed in cooperation with Palestinian officials.
Israeli officials have been positive about the work relationship. A Ma’aleh Adumim official tells the Post the city is “proud and happy of the existing cooperation in the industrial area, which provides a respectable livelihood for thousands of working families.”
Diker relates he knows “from personal experience, speaking to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett – before he was prime minister – that he has expressed a great interest in improving the socioeconomic situation” for Palestinians.
Regardless of official positions, as the debate continues, it rarely includes the parties to the relationship. Not only that, the issues of importance to Palestinian workers and their employers are often eclipsed by the benchmarks set by outside observers for whether the relationship is exploitative or beneficial.
RESTING ON the verdant hilltops south of Jerusalem lies Efrat, an Israeli town beyond the Green Line. There the Post had the opportunity to hear about the issues that matter to workers, contractors and employers. For them, the question of opportunity or oppression is not about political opinion, but life.
“We believe in building bridges, and we don’t believe in building fences,” Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi tells the Post. “Right up until today [Efrat] is not surrounded by a fence. Efrat until today has many very solid bridges to many Arab villages around [it] which are based on trust, on an ongoing relationship, on a give-and-take relationship, on assistance from both sides to one another.”
A. has worked in Efrat for 27 years. He has four daughters and a son. He works alongside his brother at the dry cleaners, and his nephew works nearby at a fast-food restaurant.
“My profession is in demand here. In the Palestinian Authority they don’t give me a good wage. Here they do,” A. says.
Amjad also expresses the importance of a higher wage.
Revivi explains to the Post that the workers “don’t have enough work in their own towns and cities. They are excited to go out and work in Jewish towns and cities within the State of Israel. And they know that when they work for an Israeli employer and those social security payments are being paid, their insurance is being paid, [and] they’re being paid on time. And in most instances, they’re being paid between three to five times more than what they would get paid by an Arab employer.”
Amjad’s employer acknowledges that he is receiving a minimum wage, which some have criticized.
“Regarding them receiving opportunities: People say the same thing for sweatshop workers,” says an Israeli construction contractor who was disillusioned with the process in settlements.
“On an individual level that may be true, but I think the system is really messed up.”
Revivi notes that “it’s all a matter of comparison. If you compare it to what somebody would get paid in Tel Aviv, you would probably be right that the workers here get paid less. If you would compare it to what they would get paid in Bethlehem, you would probably be wrong because they would get paid here much more.”
Mijal Corech, spokeswoman for Israeli workers rights NGO Kav LaOved, explains to the Post that while Palestinian workers are supposed to receive minimum wages and rights, in practice these are often not implemented.
According to Kav LaOved reports, only 12.6% of surveyed workers received proper pay slips. Many that ask for sick pay don’t receive it. Further, many have had pay cut by mismanaged pension funds.
Revivi’s past as a lawyer gives him a different perspective.
“I used to represent workers,” says Revivi. “I can give you examples of Jewish people who weren’t treated properly by the Jewish employers. I don’t know that as being the norm.”
Diker echoes Revivi, and adds that there are comparatively more rights afforded to Palestinian workers.
“Palestinian law does not does not have built-in protections of their labor force,” says Diker. “Whenever we talk about Palestinian workers in Israel, compare it to any other situations where Palestinians live and work.”
Rights and wages are not the only items that define the relationship for Palestinian workers – respect is often mentioned.
“We know everyone here, and they know us,” Nasser, an east Jerusalemite who has worked in Efrat for 20 years, tells the Post. “Everyone is good to us. There’s respect, you know, we sit and drink coffee with one another.
“I’ve never encountered racism in Efrat,” says Nasser. “Once, in Betar Illit… I tried to help someone, and they started cursing me. But never in Efrat.”
A. relates that “there was an incident 20 years ago in which I was told to leave because I’m a Palestinian, but everyone else disagreed with him.”
“Inside Efrat, there are no problems. We do our work, no one bothers us,” says Majid, a Palestinian construction contractor.
WHILE PALESTINIAN workers are positive about their relationship with the residents of Efrat, issues of respect arise with security, and entering the town.
“All day with security, we come in lines with the magnet cards. It hurts spiritually,” says Majid. “Security treats us like terrorists, people that work in Efrat for years; the security personnel treat us like flies.
“There is a way to speak to people. When someone doesn’t have a permit, say ‘I’m sorry, you can’t enter’; don’t tell them ‘Go away from here,’” says Majid.
According to Majid, it is a problem endemic to all settlements. “It’s not just Efrat.
“The army does have security measures that we need to follow and a protocol,” Revivi says on the issue. “And basically we do try and make it as friendly as possible. But the guidelines are the ones which are set by the security forces.”
“They need to stand at checkpoints two hours, then it takes two hours to return home. These are awful things,” says Corech.
“I think that if I had to be escorted with a gun into my place of work, it would be quite humiliating – and obviously the security situation warrants it, but that’s exactly what I mean by a systemic problem,” says the anonymous Israeli construction contractor.
Security personnel in Efrat note that it is rare that the workers have to wait in line. From their perspective, they have been cordial. They also note that the situation is constantly improving. Even a month ago, one checkpoint received a major upgrade to be more comfortable for incoming workers. They argue that assessments about the security infrastructure become outdated within a few months.
The experience with security differs with region. Nasser’s group comes from east Jerusalem, and simply drives straight into Efrat. For others, the issue is permits.
ACCORDING TO Kav LaOved, the work permits, despite attempts at reform, have allowed corruption. In 2019, 45% of workers bought their permits or paid brokerage fees, resulting in major cuts to their salaries.
Majid complains about the efforts needed to secure permits for his men. There are simply not enough.
Despite these issues, many of the workers express a surprising positivity, including discussion of coexistence.
“It does create coexistence, it helps if there are people who think we are all terrorists, but us being here flips the picture,” says A.
“I think that is definitely a model that can be copied,” Revivi says of the relationship of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in Efrat.
Some Israelis are more critical of the talk of coexistence.
“There’s just this general attitude of ‘Oh we’re so into coexistence because we all shop at Rami Levy,’ but it just feels so unequal,” says the Israeli contractor. “Every interaction I saw was perfectly friendly. It didn’t feel abusive in that way, just the whole vibe of a gated community bringing in poor people from the villages to do their hard labor felt very bad to me.”
“I am willing to take the blame that we’ve turned that into a tourist attraction,” Revivi says of all the talk of coexistence. “And we definitely try and present it out, in order for more and more people to hear about it, because I think it’s something that people can actually imitate and try.”
THE DEBATE of whether Palestinian workers are being exploited or given opportunity is unlikely to be resolved soon. Based on what Corech explained to the Post, the dichotomy is flawed. There is both opportunity and oppression – they are not mutually exclusive. It depends on the place, the sector and the people. There will always be complexity, especially in a region in conflict.
What is certain is that as the debate continues, so, too, will Israelis and Palestinians in places like Efrat continue to work and develop relationships on an individual level. And according to A., therein lies the greatest of opportunities.
“I’m glad to be given the opportunity to say what should have been said a long time ago. We have an opportunity to live together,” A. tells the Post. “The peace process hasn’t yet died.”•

Source: Jerusalem Post

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