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Citing discrimination, court orders KKL-JNF to rehire fired Palestinian workers

10 employees will be reinstated and compensated after ruling, which says organization signed agreements that effectively discriminated against workers from Palestinian areas

Illustrative: KKL-JNF workers and volunteers in the Masrik Forest in northern Israel, October 25, 2018. (Anat Hermony/Flash90)
Illustrative: KKL-JNF workers and volunteers in the Masrik Forest in northern Israel, October 25, 2018. (Anat Hermony/Flash90)

A Tel Aviv court ruled on Tuesday that 10 Palestinians who were employed by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) for decades without proper employee rights and who were fired were discriminated against due to their origin.

The Tel Aviv Labor Court ordered the 10 workers be rehired and compensated. Eight of them will become permanent employees, The Times of Israel’s sister site Zman Yisrael reported.

Some KKL-JNF officials and the lawyer for the fired employees had charged that the layoffs stemmed from “nationalist and racist” motives, in order to replace Arab workers with Jewish ones. Some KKL-JNF officials were critical of the management’s layoff scheme following The Times of Israel reporting. (The Jewish National Fund-KKL is unrelated to Jewish National Fund-USA.)

They said last year that the management was attempting to abide by the conditions of the new labor agreement that was signed with the workers’ committee by laying off Palestinian workers who were not protected by the agreement.

The court accused the organization of deliberately signing collective agreements that discriminated against workers from Palestinian areas. It also said there was discrimination in the decision to prevent some veteran workers from receiving the status of permanent employees.

KKL-JNF argued that there was “no factual or legal basis for the employees’ claim of discrimination” and the firings were carried out as part of a program to reduce the organization’s workforce.

KKL-JNF also said that the list of those laid off included “Jews, Arabs, women, men, Israeli citizens and residents of the Palestinian Authority.” The organization also acknowledged that employing Palestinian workers was legally and practically complex.

The Palestinian workers were employed for decades with no pension or other benefits. The Times of Israel reported last year that the planned layoffs of dozens of longtime employees would mostly affect workers who belonged to minority groups and were classified by KKL-JNF as temporary employees regardless of their tenure.

The head of the KKL-JNF national workers’ union, Yisrael Goldstein, had called on the organization’s management to cancel the dismissals.

Yisrael Goldstein, head of the KKL-JNF national workers’ union. (Facebook)

While the workers’ union did not formally represent the temporary workers, after an outcry within the organization, it decided to take a stand on behalf of those facing dismissal.

Goldstein said last year that his union did not represent the temporary Arab workers, and that a January 2018 agreement between the employee union and KKL-JNF obligates the management to lay off temporary workers all over Israel. The agreement was aimed at restoring order to what sources throughout the organization called a chaotic and unaccountable infrastructure.

But he rejected the claim of racism in the organization. “There is no racist background here,” Goldstein said. “The opposite is true. As soon as the management learned that most of the workers set to be laid off are Arabs, they acceded to our request. They didn’t even know it. But there is nothing we can do about the fact that more than 90 percent of the temporary workers are Arabs.”

Separately, KKL-JNF has come under fire recently for a controversial plan to purchase lands in the West Bank. The organization’s board of directors narrowly voted to advance the allocation of NIS 38 million ($11.58 million) to buy the lands last month. The board will meet again after the March 23 elections to rule on whether to give the plan final approval.

The lands it may purchase are adjacent to or inside of settlements, but it will not buy areas for new settlements.

KKL-JNF, established in 1901 to buy and develop land for Jewish settlement and best known for the hundreds of millions of trees it has planted throughout Israel, serves as the Jewish people’s custodian for some 15 percent of the land in the country, the management of which is carried out by the Israel Lands Authority.

A type of NGO officially registered as a company for the benefit of the public, KKL-JNF works in the fields of forestry, water, education, community development, tourism, and research and development. The World Zionist Organization is its parent body.

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