Palestinian workers, the victims of two pandemics
By Imad Freij
RAMALLAH, May 8, 2020 (WAFA) — Every early morning, thousands of Palestinian laborers in the occupied West Bank pick up their backpacks and head to the Israeli checkpoints separating the territory and the 1948 land, awaiting for Israeli border officials to allow them into their workplaces inside the Green Line.
During this arduous journey, which sometimes lasts for two or three hours in the way to the work, the laborers are exposed to multiple forms of suffering and humiliation by Israeli soldiers, often forcing them to gather in groups of hundreds before they are okayed in. This has become a daily reality and an odious cost for getting a living.
In recent years, dozens of laborers were either killed by Israeli soldiers at the “checkpoints of humiliation” or died at their workplace due to a work injury, usually resulting from Israeli employers’ failure to provide the necessary safety and health requirements.
In many instances, Palestinian laborers in Israel are victimized by the so-called “permit-brokers”, who collaborate with Israeli employers to smuggle laborers from the West Bank into Israel through openings in the Israeli Segregation Barrier, in return for an unreasonable fee paid by the workers.
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, more than 133,000 Palestinian laborers work inside Israel and in the illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, with an average daily wage of about 254 shekels per worker, meaning that these workers earn a total of about $10 million per day.
With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Palestinian laborers working in Israel came to the center of attention, given the rapid spread of the pandemic there and the increasing fears for their health and the health of their families. Unfortunately, these fears became true as many laborers and their families have tested positive for the disease.
Coronavirus infection rate among Palestinian laborers and those who came into contact with them reached about 75 percent of the total cases confirmed in Palestine until April 30. This means the laborers have fallen victim to a new pandemic, added to the “occupation” pandemic.
The Israel occupation’s government has made false promises to the Palestinian laborers that they could be accommodated in their workplaces inside Israel. However, these promises soon proved false, when the Israeli army mercilessly threw a number of laborers near military checkpoints on suspicion of coronavirus infection, without offering them any medical assistance.
Later, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called on all Palestinian laborers to return to their homes in order to maintain their safety and the safety of their families. Meanwhile, the Palestinian government deployed medical and security teams near the Israeli checkpoints, with the task of conducting the necessary medical checks for everyone showing symptoms of coronavirus infection. The teams would also ask laborers returning to the West Bank to undergo a 14-day quarantine and to have no contact with anyone during that period.
The Secretary-General of the Federation of Palestinian Trade Unions (PGFTU), Shaher Saad, said that a number of Palestinian laborers were asked by their Israeli employer to work in dangerous places. He mentioned a case in which laborers working in the illegal Israeli settlement of Karni Shamron were asked to clean up quarantine places for those infected with the virus, without providing them with the minimum safety requirements.
International and even Israeli laws require Israeli employers to treat the Palestinian laborers on an equal footing with their Israeli counterparts, in terms of the financial, social and health rights. However, the occupation government has failed to do so thus far.
In a letter sent to the Director-General of the International Labor Organization, Guy Ryder, Saad called on the ILO to pressure Israel to treat Palestinian workers equally with their Israeli counterparts in the event of a forced absence, like during the recent state of emergency declared to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
He said, “After reviewing the international labor regulations and the Israeli Labor Law, it was found that they all unanimously agree on granting workers all their financial and social rights. However, the Israeli law did not stipulate that breaching its provisions is considered a criminal violation that requires accountability.”
According to the Israeli Labor Law, all workers have the right to a full salary in the event of forced absence for a period of 100 days, starting from the first day of the forced absence. This salary is to be paid from the insurance fund, which deducts an average of 11–16 percent of the Palestinian worker’s wage in normal times, meaning that regular Palestinian workers have the right to benefit from the savings of this fund.
On the other hand, thousands of Palestinian laborers enter Israel through holes in the Segregation Barrier or through the wastewater tunnels beneath the barrier, or even through the gates of the military checkpoints that the Israeli soldiers leave open sometimes in order to disrupt the Palestinian government’s measures to contain the virus.
A Palestinian worker who usually enters Israel through these openings told WAFA that the Israeli occupation authorities have eased their security measures on the Palestinian workers during the pandemic.
The PGFTU has warned about the phenomenon of smuggling Palestinian workers into the Israeli labor market by exploiting their poverty and the need for work. It said that since the outbreak of the pandemic, the occupation authorities have allowed the opening of 300 holes in the Segregation Barrier, for Palestinian workers to enter and exit.
Israeli journalist and author Gideon Levy said: “Suddenly, the Palestinians are allowed to sleep inside Israel, and are no longer time bombs sleeping near our and our children’s bedrooms.”
“For 20 years, they [the Israeli government] warned us about them, and since 2000 we did not allow them to sleep here, and suddenly this danger ended and they were allowed to sleep,” said Levy, as he referred to the false security pretexts that have been promoted by the occupation government over the years.
He pointed out that with the end of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of Palestinian workers will once again be forced to return to the journey of suffering, having to travel to Israel in the early morning every day and return to their homes in the evening.