Despite ostensible ban, tens of thousands of Palestinians working in Israel — report

Although defense minister and IDF barred entry of laborers into Israel after October 7, TV network says some 2,400 businesses have been exempted for ‘humanitarian’ purposes

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Palestinian workers stand in line at the Erez crossing to Israel, September 28, 2023. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)
Palestinian workers stand in line at the Erez crossing to Israel, September 28, 2023. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

Despite a general ban imposed on the entry of Palestinian laborers into Israel following the October 7 Hamas attacks, tens of thousands of permit-carrying workers from the West Bank have been entering Israel on a daily basis, according to a new report.

Channel 13 news said a long list of Israeli businesses have managed to gain exemptions on “humanitarian” grounds, allowing them to employ workers, despite the work in question having little to no apparent connection to any pressing humanitarian need — including hotels, bakeries and furniture companies.

Some 150,000 Palestinian workers from the West Bank and an additional 18,500 from the Gaza Strip used to enter Israel daily before October 7, but the permits were frozen by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi for security reasons following the devastating Hamas assault.

Far-right ministers including National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich have repeatedly objected to lifting the ban.

As a result, the economy has suffered a severe shortfall in manpower, with the construction and agriculture sectors particularly badly hit.

The ban on using Palestinian labor imposed by the Defense Ministry and the army was meant to encompass almost the entire economy, but an exemption process was granted for hospitals, burial organizations, some essential businesses and other humanitarian necessities.

Palestinian workers from the Gaza Strip who had been detained in Israel since the beginning of the war on October 7, return to Gaza via the Kerem Shalom border, November 3, 2023. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

According to Channel 13, some 2,396 businesses and institutions have obtained exemptions, many of which cannot be described as having any humanitarian necessity.

Major Israeli companies such as food giant Osem, the Aminach mattress and furniture business, and the Berman bakery company have all managed to obtain permits to bring in workers.

Hotels, food producers, bakeries, a car mechanic, a window factory, an events production company and a trash processing company were all among those who’ve managed to obtain permits to bring in Palestinian laborers.

The report said tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers have been entering Israel to work as a result.

The IDF told Channel 13 that it was the Economy Ministry that was responsible for issuing the exemptions to the numerous businesses — but the ministry strongly denied that it was responsible.

“The only authorized agency that can approve the entry of [West Bank] workers into Israel is the [Defense Ministry’s] Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories in accordance with the policies of the government,” the ministry said.

Neither the Defense Ministry nor COGAT, an agency of the Defense Ministry, responded to a request for comment.

The Economy Ministry said it was “firmly opposed to allowing Palestinian laborers in to work in Israel and is working to bring in laborers from peaceful countries.”

Indeed, Economy Minister Nir Barkat clashed recently over the issue of foreign workers with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accusing the premier of delaying a cabinet decision that would allow the arrival of larger numbers of foreign workers to replace Palestinian laborers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a meeting of the Socio-Economic Cabinet, October 31, 2023 (Haim Zah, Government Press Office)

A source in the Economy Ministry said that the so-called economics cabinet, comprised of several senior ministers and government officials, was empowered to determine which businesses could get exemptions to the ban, but that the panel had not authorized the thousands of businesses who have obtained permits for Palestinians workers since October 7.

Last week, an Israeli business community leader said businesses were “generally in favor” of bringing back Palestinian workers, largely due to the major shortage in manpower due to the ban.

“Today, we are talking about a slowdown of almost 50 percent in activity in [the construction] sector,” Dan Catarivas, president of the Israeli Federation of Bi-national Chambers of Commerce, told AFP.

“But there is also a big lack in what we call ‘essential’ businesses such as food, pharmaceuticals, maintenance of sanitation infrastructure for example,” he added.

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