Post by Maayan Niezna. Maayan is a PhD student at Kent Law School and a visiting research fellow at TraffLab: Labor Perspective to Human Trafficking project at Tel-Aviv University. Her research focuses on the elements of unfree migrant labour in Israel. She previously worked as a human rights lawyer in Israel. This post is part of our themed series on border control and Covid-19.

The COVID-19 outbreak led to rapid transformations in the regulation of entry and living conditions of Palestinian workers in Israel, changing their situation from commuters, returning home at the end of each day or week, to de-facto seasonal workers, staying in the country for weeks or months. This post considers which aspects changed and which persisted, in order to reflect on how mobility control shapes the lived experiences of Palestinian workers. 

Since the late 1960s, Palestinian workers from the newly occupied territories have been part of the Israeli labour market. They were employed in low-paid, precarious sectors, primarily agriculture and construction. However, the numbers of Palestinian workers in Israel fluctuated over the years, reflecting political changes in the country and the preferences of policy-makers and employers. At the end of the 1980s, the first Intifada (the political uprising of Palestinian residents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that began in 1987) led to border closures which prevented Palestinian workers from entering Israel, and later, to employers’ reluctance to employ Palestinian workers due to cost and security concerns. The resulting shortage of workers brought about efforts to replace Palestinian workers with migrant workers from overseas (mostly from Thailand and Romania, and later from other countries in South-East Asia and Eastern Europe). While growing numbers of migrant workers were recruited, Palestinian workers were never completely replaced. In the construction sector, that employs the largest number of them, their quota more than quadrupled over the last decade, to almost 65,000 workers, before the outbreak.

These changing trends of employment took place in a context of occupation and political conflict. In this case, the border between home and work is the border between an occupied territory and the land of the occupier; a border marked by a dynamic of power and subordination, which also becomes evident in the relationship between Israeli employers and Palestinian workers. For the Israeli market, Palestinian workers provide cheap labour. Nevertheless, compared to the situation in the West Bank, their salaries are high, and losing their job is daunting. Their already weak bargaining power, as Paz-Fuchs and Ronen argue, is further weakened by economic dependence, restrictions of free movement, and the political power which Israeli employers have and Palestinian workers lack.

Palestinian workers, Bethlehem checkpoint, West Bank, 19.3.2017 (Photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz, Activestills)

The Israeli policies restricting the development of the Palestinian economy and labour market are key causes to Palestinians’ need to search for work in Israel. Political control shapes economic dependency, which in turn influences transborder mobility. In addition, fears that Palestinians entering Israel might be involved in terrorist activities, have framed migration control as an issue of national security, directly affecting the daily lives of Palestinian workers. While they spend several hours each day in crowded checkpoints before crossing the border, their commuting becomes about as long as their actual work day. The alternative is to stay in Israel overnight - a precarious situation that received more attention as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

Due to fears over the rapid spread of the virus, the Israeli government recently decided to issue stay permits for 30 or 60 days, forcing thousands of workers to stay in the country. This highlighted the control Palestinian workers are subject to, and the disregard to their lives outside of work. First, while the new permit required employers to provide housing, the formal requirements were lower to the ones provided to other foreign national workers. As a result, inhumane living conditions were reported in some of these housing sites (e.g. no beds, toilets or running water) (in Hebrew). Second, Palestinian workers were not provided with health insurance amidst the pandemic.

Following an urgent petition submitted by NGOs, the government addressed these key issues by adopting regulations that will extend health insurance to Palestinian workers, and ensure appropriate housing. For those hoping that the crisis may be an opportunity to reconsider structural causes for vulnerability, however, the control and restrictions of workers’ basic freedoms as a whole remained.  

Due to security concerns, prior to the outbreak, employers of Palestinian workers were required to constantly monitor the whereabouts of their employees and report any suspicious or irregular behaviour. What behaviour could be regarded as ‘irregular’ and deemed worthy of reporting was however not clear, thus opening a space of ambiguity that might allow employers to use ‘security reasons’ to punish workers for demanding their rights. Furthermore, constant supervision and retention of identity documents, as it was also part of the COVID-19 related regulations, lasting day and night for weeks, and depriving workers of free time outside of work, become unbearable and are strong indicators of forced labour and trafficking for labour exploitation.

Palestinian workers, Bethlehem checkpoint, West Bank, 19.3.2017 (Photo: Haidi Motola, Activestills)

Following the NGOs’ petition, the demand to confiscate documents was removed from the new regulation, allegedly because it had been based on an older version, and was included by mistake in the first place. Yet, the requirements for constant supervision and reporting of ‘irregular’ behaviour were retained.

While the Israeli government and the labour market seem to welcome the cheap labour force Palestinian workers offer, promptly promulgating provisions to keep them in the country in times of the pandemic, the utter control of their freedom of movement, which remained one of the basic elements of the new regulation, signals the exclusion from social life of the actual people behind this force. National security concerns, real or imagined, are used to repress and dispossess them of basic rights, and to keep them in a condition of extreme exploitation. This situation is exacerbated by the current outbreak, which also exposes them to increased risks to their life and health.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Niezna, M. (2020). Under Control: Palestinian Workers in Israel During COVID-19. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/07/under-control [date]