Government to mull plan to replace Palestinian laborers with 80,000 foreign workers

Proposal calls for Israel to recruit tens of thousands from Sri Lanka, China, India, Thailand and Moldova as construction and agriculture industries struggle with shortage of hands

A worker milking cows at a cowshed in the Golan Heights, on October 26, 2023. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
A worker milking cows at a cowshed in the Golan Heights, on October 26, 2023. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

The government is reportedly set to consider a plan that would seek to replace thousands of Palestinian laborers with workers flown in from abroad, as the country attempts to recover from the shocking attacks of October 7.

The ambitious proposal is designed to address a perceived security threat by allowing the continued barring of most Palestinians, but it carries the risk of fueling fresh anger and disillusionment in the West Bank by removing what many policymakers see as a key economic valve keeping the motivation for terror in check.

Under the reported plan, Israel would bring in over 80,000 workers, mainly from Asia, for jobs in construction and agriculture normally filled by Palestinians.

Israel sharply restricted Palestinian entry to Israel after the Hamas attacks of October 7, in which thousands of Gazan terrorists rampaged across southern Israel, slaughtering some 1,200 people and taking 240 hostage.

Thousands of foreign farmhands in southern Israel left the country in the wake of the attacks. Dozens of foreign nationals, most of them from Thailand, were killed or kidnapped during the assault, and some remain hostage in Gaza.

The labor gap has also been exacerbated by hundreds of thousands of able-bodied Israelis being called up for the war.

Foreign workers at an onion farm near the city of Modiin, on August 12, 2016. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

According to the Kan public broadcaster, the proposal, the brainchild of a body set up to coordinate between ministries, calls for Israel to arrange for the entry of 25,500 workers from Sri Lanka, 20,000 from China, 17,000 from India, 13,000 from Thailand and 6,000 from Moldova.

It’s unclear, though, if Israel will be able to recruit enough workers to plug the gap during the ongoing war, despite offering higher wages than their home countries for manual labor.

Prior to the Hamas attack and subsequent war in Gaza, some 150,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and an additional 18,500 from the Gaza Strip had permits to enter Israel for work, according to the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT).

Thousands more Palestinians are thought to enter illegally for work as well, a phenomenon Israel had largely turned a blind eye to before cracking down in recent years over security concerns.

The new plan is said to have been okayed by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, with the economic ministerial cabinet set to discuss it in two weeks, followed by a government vote.

According to the report, the government also intends to incentivize Israelis to work in construction and agriculture, as well as promote technologies that could cut the number of employees needed in these fields.

Representatives from both the agriculture and construction sectors have put pressure on the government to begin allowing in Palestinians or to recruit more foreign laborers, with construction largely halted and farmers complaining of massive shortages.

Palestinian laborers wait to cross illegally into Israeli areas through a hole in Israel’s security barrier on November 20, 2019, near the southern Israeli city of Beersheba (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

“We are in very dire straits,” Raul Sargo, president of the Israel Builders Association, told a Knesset committee on December 25. “The industry is at a complete standstill and is only 30 percent productive. Fifty percent of the sites are closed and there is an impact on Israel’s economy and the housing market.”

In a presentation to the panel, the Agriculture Ministry said 10,000 out of 29,900 Thai farm workers had left Israel since the war, though over 3,000 had returned. An additional 10,000 to 20,000 Palestinian seasonal workers were being kept from entering Israel.

It said it was seeking permits for an additional 15,000 foreign agricultural workers, bringing the number to 70,000.

The Housing and Construction ministry said in late October it was seeking an additional 20,000 permits for foreign workers for a total of 50,000 permits.

Building workers pouring concrete on the first floor of a new gas station in the Industrial zone of the northern town of Katzrin, Golan Heights on September 9, 2023. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

In mid-December, the IDF said between 8,000 and 10,000 Palestinian laborers from the West Bank could soon return to their jobs in Israeli West Bank settlements and businesses.

Nonetheless, the high-level security cabinet has pushed off voting on a proposal to allow Palestinian laborers to enter Israel from the West Bank for work. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who apparently supported the move, did not bring the issue to a vote due to reported disagreements between security cabinet ministers, including hardline settlement backers who say doing so would constitute a major threat.

Israeli policymakers have for years sought to maintain labor permits for Palestinians, who can earn significantly higher wages in Israel. Proponents have pointed to the fact that permitted workers are thoroughly vetted by the Shin Bet security service and terror attacks by them are exceedingly rare. In addition, the higher wages help bolster the sputtering Palestinian economy and decrease the motivation for attacks, they say.

At the December 25 committee meeting, lawmakers were told that the cost of continuing to ban Palestinian workers could run to NIS 3 billion ($830 million) per month.

“The State of Israel must decide whether it is assisted by Palestinian hands or not,” Likud MK Eliyahu Revivo, chairman of foreign workers committee, declared. “As long as no solutions are provided, the state is still dependent on Palestinian workers. The government is dragging its feet on this issue.”

Sam Sokol contributed to this report.

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