As KKL-JNF puts workers on chopping block, three Palestinians first to be cut

Ahead of wider layoffs, 3 veteran foresters are fired and 25 are summoned, most of them Arabs; spokesperson denies allegations of racism

Chief investigative reporter for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel's sister Hebrew website

Illustrative: The Jewish National Fund together with volunteers from the Czech Republic worked to reforest and revive Masrik Forest in northern Israel, marking the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovakia, on October 25, 2018. (Anat Hermony/Flash90)
Illustrative: The Jewish National Fund together with volunteers from the Czech Republic worked to reforest and revive Masrik Forest in northern Israel, marking the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovakia, on October 25, 2018. (Anat Hermony/Flash90)

KKL-JNF is expected to begin large-scale layoffs nationwide, and the first pink slips have been handed out to three Palestinians who have worked for the organization for many years, as so-called “temporary employees” with no benefits.

High-ranking KKL-JNF officials and the lawyer for the fired employees have charged that the layoffs, initiated by the management, are being carried out for “nationalist and racist” motives, in order to replace Arab workers with Jewish ones. They told The Times of Israel that the management is attempting to abide by the conditions of the new labor agreement that was signed with the workers’ committee by laying off Palestinian workers who are not protected by the agreement.

Three employees from the village of Yatta near Hebron, who worked as foresters in the Yatir district for more than 30 years, have received letters of dismissal over the past several days, the officials said. Iyad Abu Aram worked for KKL-JNF for 30 years, Izat Abu Taha for 31 years, and Ismail Gabour for 32 years.

All three were employed at minimum wage with no pension or other benefits. They were called in approximately a month ago for a pre-dismissal hearing with one day’s notice, with no time granted to find out the reasons for the hearing.

A spokesperson for the agency denied any discriminatory practice and said the dismissals would be reconsidered. As of Sunday, however, the workers had not heard that their firings were being reconsidered.

Another 25 temporary workers from the Yatir district in southern Israel, most of them Arabs, have also been summoned for pre-dismissal hearings, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official reason given for the layoffs was “cutbacks.”

“We loved KKL-JNF, and now they have struck at our hearts,” said Abu Aram. “I’m 50 years old, Izat is 52, and Ismail is 62. Who is going to hire us at our ages? I’m a forester. I’ve been a forester all my life. I planted millions of trees in the Yatir district. What kind of work am I supposed to do at my age — construction? I don’t know a thing about construction.

“The people at KKL-JNF told me over the years that they never leave anyone behind, that KKL-JNF is like a family. But the management doesn’t seem to care about that anymore,” he added.

Snow in Yatir Forest near Beer Sheba, at a cold winter day. March 2, 2012. (Doron Horowitz/ Flash 90)

Iyad said that during his 30-year employment, he earned the minimum wage of NIS 29 per hour (about USD 7.99), with no pension or other benefits. In recent years he earned between NIS 6,000 and NIS 7,000 (between approximately USD 1,650 and 1,930) per month.

“My pay used to be lower,” he said.

A racially motivated move?

Some KKL-JNF officials claimed that there is a deliberate policy of discrimination in the dismissals that will spread to more regions in Israel.

Attorney Mor Stoller, who is representing the three employees, alleged that KKL-JNF’s policy is racist.

“It is extremely infuriating to see that these workers were treated like objects for so many years — given tasks such as forestry, which is one of KKL-JNF’s core areas of activity, under such miserable and unfair conditions,” she said.

“The fact that they were never counted as regular employees makes it easier for the system to kick them out on the pretext that they are ‘temporary workers.’ But we should bear in mind that an employee of 32 years is no temporary worker. What began as an injustice is culminating in an even greater injustice.”

In a letter to Danny Atar, world chairman of KKL-JNF, Stoller demanded that the workers’ dismissals be revoked immediately, claiming that they constituted deliberate discrimination “on the basis of ethnic origin or of citizenship, in order to replace them with Jewish workers,” and without giving them a proper chance to hear the reasons for their dismissal. The attorney wrote further that unless the dismissals were revoked, the three employees would appeal the firings in labor court.

A spokesperson for KKL-JNF denied the firings were racially tinged and said the dismissals would be reconsidered.

“It was decided during the consultation held last week to freeze the decision regarding the workers’ dismissals until a further hearing is held on the subject within the next several days,” the spokesperson said.

“In any case, this is a purely professional decision that has to do with ending the employment of temporary workers in the organization, a decision whose purpose is to create order and efficiency and improve the types of employment in KKL-JNF,” the spokesperson added. “Of course, this decision has nothing to do with the employees’ identities, and the attempt to create a link between it and the fact that they are members of minority groups is utterly baseless and shows only the overactive imagination of anyone who would even mention such an idea in an attempt to besmirch KKL-JNF.”

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