Six Palestinian workers share how the COVID-19 crisis has affected their livelihoods while navigating Israeli checkpoints, permits, and restrictions.
8 July 2021, by Activestills, 972mag
Palestinians who work inside the Green Line or in West Bank settlements face a litany of day-to-day difficulties. If they find a job, they have to apply for a travel permit with Israel’s military authorities. Many leave their homes before 4 a.m. to line up at long and crowded checkpoints, where they are often subjected to humiliating inspections. Those who are not able to secure a permit risk crossing the West Bank separation barrier undocumented. The workers go through this ordeal knowing they can be fired and replaced at any moment.
With the spread of COVID-19 since March of last year, however, those challenges have compounded. Many Palestinian workers were laid off or sent home on unpaid leave. When the Israeli government decided to shut down several of the major checkpoints to curb the spread of the coronavirus, tens of thousands of Palestinian workers were made to stay in accommodations provided by their Israeli employers for weeks, without the ability to return home.
The pandemic has brought the problems of Palestinian workers back to the fore, said Assaf Adiv, the executive director of the workers union WAC-MAAN. “Workers faced obstacles globally, but for Palestinian workers, their social conditions, their social safety, is already so weak and unstable to encounter such a crisis,” he added.
In June 2020, the Israeli High Court rejected a petition filed by labor rights groups, including WAC-MAAN, to compensate Palestinian workers who lost their income during the public health crisis. The case, which was first brought to the Israeli Supreme Court in 2016, argued that Palestinian workers are entitled to use the decades-old sick leave fund, which was maintained by automatically deducting a small percentage of their wages every month. While the case was already dated, Adiv said that the COVID-19 crisis was the right time to demand workers be able to access the fund, which is now worth around NIS 500 million ($150 million).
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 133,000 Palestinians were employed inside the Green Line or in West Bank settlements in 2019, amounting to 17.8 percent of employed Palestinians. The number is likely higher due to undocumented Palestinian workers, estimated to be in the tens of thousands. Most work in construction, and the pay gap has allowed Israel to reduce its costs in a lucrative industry. Meanwhile, remittances from the Israeli labor market in 2019 made up 13 percent of the Palestinian GDP.
But with rising unemployment and poverty levels, the Palestinian economy was approaching a breaking point even before the coronavirus outbreak. According to the 2019 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report, this decline is primarily due to Israel’s tightening military rule over Palestinians.
+972 Magazine spoke to five Palestinians, documented and undocumented, who work on both sides of the Green Line to understand how their lives have changed due to the COVID-19 crisis.
‘We were not compensated’
On a Sunday in late March, Mahmoud Awad, 38, lined up at the Tarqumiya checkpoint near Hebron at dawn, to cross over into the Israeli side of the Green Line for work. Awad, who has been working in construction for 12 years, said he had to stay home for about three months with no income at the beginning of the pandemic.
“We were not compensated, neither by the Israelis nor the Palestinian Authority,” Awad said. The Tarqumiya checkpoint was closed to Palestinian workers for most of 2020 and only returned to operate regularly several months ago, he said. And yet, a checkpoint built for Israeli settlers on Road 35, just a few meters from where Awad crosses, remained open during the pandemic, allowing Israeli citizens to move freely.
Around June, undocumented Palestinian workers started crossing through breaches in the separation barrier in the Hebron area, Awad recalled. On some occasions, workers even crossed over with Israeli forces watching and turning a blind eye, he added.
According to Awad, no health or safety measures were taken when the checkpoint was partly reopened in 2020. “Both the workers and the Israelis didn’t care. Workers didn’t social distance at the crowded checkpoint. You could find 30 people squeezed inside a small inspection room where workers are randomly selected for an extra security check,” he said.
Following a wave of international criticism toward Israel for refusing to help vaccinate the Palestinians it occupies in the West Bank, Israel announced in March of this year that it would start providing vaccines to workers with a valid entry permit at several checkpoints. By late March, the Civil Administration, the arm of Israel’s military that rules over West Bank Palestinians, announced that over 100,000 Palestinian workers were given their first vaccine dose, and Awad was one of them.
To date, about 65 percent of Israel’s citizens have received at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while the Palestinian Authority has only managed to provide a first dose for around 10 percent of its population.
‘The permit always occupies my mind’
At around 6:00 a.m., Ahmad Atawneh, 50, from the village of Beit Kahel, was trying to take cover from tear gas while waiting for a potential employer to pick up some workers at Tarqumiya checkpoint. Israeli forces had fired tear gas at a nearby hill to disperse undocumented workers who were trying to cross through a hole in the separation wall.
Atawneh, who has a permit, said that staying at home was not a choice for him, since he must pay NIS 2,600 ($780) every month to a middleman who sells him an entry permit on the black market. “I’ve been paying for permits for the past 13 years. Whether or not you have an income, you have to pay. Otherwise you lose your permit,” Atawneh explained. He was not exempted from the payment even during the two months he was forced to stay at home at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, he said.
His friend and neighbor, Haidar Atawneh, 44, also from Beit Kahel, agreed that securing a permit was the most critical issue for Palestinian workers. “The permit always occupies my mind. It is my whole life and the way I make a living. Workers may sell anything to pay for their permits and avoid losing them.”
The Civil Administration has long threatened to put an end to the phenomenon of selling permits, which Israeli employers are supposed to provide for free, on the black market. But to this day, no new regulations have been put into effect.
Both said they obeyed the Israeli authorities’ health directives and did not return home from work often for about four months. Instead, their employer had them sleep inside the building under construction where they work and installed temporary walls and windows as shelter, they said. There was no restroom yet, and they had to go to the toilet located outside.
Haidar said that workers were turned away at checkpoints even in cases in which a distant relative, who did not live in the same house, had been infected with COVID-19. He believed the Palestinian Authority provided the data to the Israeli Health Ministry as part of their coordination to confront the health crisis. “We were used to being turned away for ‘security’ reasons. Now there is a coronavirus ban, which lasts for around 21 days,” he said.
Both Ahmad, who holds a bachelor’s degree as a medical lab technologist, and Haidar, who studied physical education, said that working for Israelis on either side of the Green Line is not a long-term ambition for Palestinians. “We have no life. What kind of job makes you wake up at 3:00 a.m.? Some people in our village don’t know us. Our social life is nonexistent,” they said.
“They need us as workers and not for anything else. We have no access to other normal jobs. We are not even allowed to drive a car after crossing the checkpoint.”
‘We know closures very well’
At the Israeli checkpoint near Qalqilya, in the northwest West Bank, Maher Al-Sheikh, 53, who has been working in Israeli factories for 16 years, was waiting for his vaccine.
“Military closures are something we [Palestinians] know very well,” he said. “They were imposed several times a year even before the coronavirus pandemic.”
The Israeli military government imposes full closures on West Bank Palestinians during Jewish and national holidays, citing “security measures.” But these policies do not affect the dozens of checkpoints built to facilitate movement of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank.
Even when COVID-19 struck, Al-Sheikh never expected Israel to give up on its means of control. “Israel built the wall for this system of movement. Riding a bus from home to my workplace like a normal person is never an option for Israel. We have to line up at checkpoints. We’re not Israelis,” he said.
However, Al-Sheikh did notice improved conditions at his factory, where he continued receiving wages even during the three weeks he was furloughed. “My accommodation was good. Workers in the industrial sector usually have better conditions,” he added.
Al-Sheikh said that at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the PA viewed workers like him as a threat to public health, since they were interacting with Israelis who had higher infection rates compared to Palestinians at the time. The PA even installed several makeshift checkpoints at the entrance to his village of Sanniriya, near Qalqilya, to prevent workers from reaching the Israeli checkpoint, he recalled. But it did not help.
“We used to find our way in the end,” he said. “I asked [the Palestinian authorities] whether the PA could provide me with a salary like other countries in the world. Of course they said no, so no one should prevent me from going to work.”
‘There are no choices in this country’
Emadaddin Takroori, 28, is an engineer who has been working in Israeli settlements in the West Bank for the past two-and-a-half years. Takroori lost his job a few months into the pandemic. “In Israeli settlements, there is always a situation of instability. This has massively increased during the COVID-19 crisis,” he said.
After two months of looking for another job, Takroori was hired at a West Bank factory in Salfit, but was let go five months later. “One day, I was notified that the factory’s situation is not the best and we, the employees, may face some changes soon. The following day, I received my termination letter,” Takroori recalled. He is currently working in a different factory, the third in less than a year.
According to Takroori, who studied civil engineering and is now a civil designer, layoffs have become common in some West Bank settlements, particularly since the COVID-19 crisis. “There is never a contract for our jobs. We don’t sign any document when we start. At the same time, almost everyone eventually secures their rights. The issue is that there is no stability,” he said.
The difficult economic situation in the West Bank is what forces Palestinian youth to work for Israelis, he said. “No one is attracted to the idea of working for our occupiers, but there are no choices in this country.”
‘We may be killed, wounded, or arrested on our way to work’
South of the West Bank town of Tulkarem, near the village of Far’un, one can find several gaps in the Israeli separation barrier. Both Palestinian workers and the Israeli army know of these breaches. For the past year, this crossing point, among others, has been an escape route for Palestinian workers who do not hold permits and want to reach their workplaces beyond the Green Line. Due to the frequent closures of Palestinian-only checkpoints, these gaps have become a daily destination even for workers who do hold valid permits.
F.S., 33, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, told +972 he has been commuting through these gaps for the past four years. “Sometimes it is very risky and sometimes very calm. In both conditions, we have to cross. There is no other choice,” he said.
F.S. said he tried to apply for a permit in the past, but was refused. The Civil Administration usually blacklists Palestinians who have been deemed by Israel a “security threat,” though without always providing evidence or explanation.
During the COVID-19 crisis, F.S. said he witnessed more foot traffic through these gaps due to movement restrictions imposed on those who hold permits. “Some weeks, the army turned a blind eye. In others, they opened fire at workers.”
According to F.S., Israeli forces have fired live rounds, rubber-coated bullets, and tear gas at workers trying to cross through holes in the separation barrier. “All of us know that we may be killed, wounded, or arrested every morning on our way to work,” he said.
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