Palestinians workers in Israel

Traditionally, Palestinians seek work inside Israel as a result of the lack of work opportunities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and because the wages offered there are higher. On the other hand, Israeli employers benefit from this cheap labour force. Before the Oslo Peace Process, over one third of West Bank and Gaza workers were employed in Israel, the majority of which in construction. With Israeli policy of closure, which was formalised in 1993 by Rabin and institutionalised with Oslo, the number of workers dropped significantly (see table). Closure consists of banning movement of labour, goods and the factors of production between the Occupied Territories and Israel, as well as between, and within, the West Bank and Gaza.

The reduction in days of closure between 1997 and 2000 helped increase the inflow of Palestinian workers in Israel. In 2000, as much as 25% of the work force in the West Bank and 20 % overall could rely on work in Israel.

Since the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000, however, the imposition of prolonged closures on the West Bank and Gaza, coupled with the severe movement restrictions caused by the separation fence currently under construction, has seriously impeded the inflow of workers. Consequently, unemployment levels have soared, having a damaging impact on the Palestinian economy.

The overall number of Palestinians working in Israel has decreased by about 100.000 compared to pre-Intifada levels. One may notice a consistent strategy of diminishing the Palestinian workforce, in the way of replacing it gradually by migrant workers from the Philippines, China, Thailand and Eastern European countries. The Israeli government was forced to partially reopen its labour market to Palestinian workers due to the needs of Israeli economy and international pressure. However, it imposed very harsh, restrictive and inhuman conditions on workers, violating fundamental rights to work and to be treated humanely.

The actual number of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza working in Israel is highly dependent on the continuously changing restrictions on the movement of persons within the occupied territories and into Israel.  For this reason, work in Israel for Palestinians has become much more erratic, depending on quota numbers decided unilaterally by the Israeli authorities, on the issuance of valid permits subject to one level of security checks, on actual entry into Israel subject to another level of security checks and on day-to-day decisions of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) regarding the opening and closing of checkpoints. Income derived from work in Israel is therefore extremely volatile. The share of women, estimated at 4.2 % in 2004, is much lower than in employment in the occupied territories.

Obtaining permission to work inside Israel presents a whole host of obstacles, which not many can surmount. Palestinian men applying for work must be married with children and over 35 years. A lower age limit of 25 years is applied to workers in industrial estates. Workers have to obtain magnetic cards, then a work permit from an Israeli employer. A valid work permit, however, is no guarantee of actual employment, particularly for those workers who have to enter Israel. In reality, a continuous discrepancy exists between permits issued and actual labour flows.

Many international organisations and NGOs have pointed to the inhumane conditions under which workers are required to undergo security checks. These involve long hours of waiting, submission to daily humiliation and personal risk at checkpoints. One worker died from suffocation at Erez checkpoint in early 2004 as a result of these conditions. Moreover, numerous violations of the rights of workers have been signalled, including daily hire or not being officially registered as employed. These practices mean they are denied the rights provided for workers under Israeli law, such as severance pay, benefits or insurance.  Workers also face direct and indirect discrimination in terms of salaries and working conditions.  Palestinian workers have no job security, and may be subject to pressure by their employers, capable of dismissing them or withdrawing their work permit without constraint.

Israeli work, though degrading, provides the best income, and Palestinians will continue to work for Israelis as long as there are no better alternatives in the Palestinian labour market.

Number of Palestinians allowed to work in Israel, in Israeli-controlled industrial zones, and in Israeli settlements:

1987 (1) 1991 (2) 1992 1993 (3) 1996 1998 January 2000 (4) mid-2002 end-2002 January 2004 March 2004
180,000 100,000 116,000 65,000 35,000 56,000 125,000 7,532 31,018 17,000 33,386

(1) before the first Intifada

(2) after the Gulf war

(3) following the closure policy initiated by the Rabin government in April

(4) before the second Intifada

Sources:

Middle East International, May 1998; Middle East Report 217, 2000; International Labour Conference, 91st Session, The Situation of workers of the occupied Arab territories, 2003; International Labour Conference, 92nd Session, The Situation of workers of the occupied Arab territories, 2004.