Palestinian workers in Israel: Seizing opportunity or being exploited?

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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 described 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…



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