The High Court of Justice on Tuesday unanimously rejected a petition by civil rights groups to compel the government to compensate West Bank Palestinians employed in Israel who were furloughed during the coronavirus pandemic.
In a unanimous 3-0 ruling on Wednesday, the High Court panel, chaired by Justice Esther Hayut, agreed with the government’s position.
The legal aid group Kav LaOved and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel had appealed to the court in late March to issue an interim order ordering the use of a decades-old sick leave fund of NIS 515 million ($147 million) specifically created for use by Palestinians working in Israel.
WAC Maan, a labor rights group, filed an amicus curiae brief in the case supporting the plaintiffs. “How can we leave all this money lying in a fund while people die of hunger?” WAC Maan Executive Director Assaf Adiv told The Times of Israel.
Until 2019, 2.5 percent of Palestinian workers’ wages were automatically deducted and transferred to a sick leave fund managed by the Population, Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA). The fund currently holds over NIS 515 million, the Interior Ministry told The Times of Israel.
Filing claims with the PIBA, however, is a long and complicated process. In 2013, 41,000 workers had wages transferred to the Payments Department, but only 421 workers received paid sick leave, even though most Palestinians have jobs in high-risk sectors such as construction and heavy industry, Kav LaOved reported.
Kav LaOved, ACRI, and the Histadrut brought a case in 2016 to the Supreme Court arguing that all Palestinian workers are entitled to some of the funds. Even when they were sick, many could not realistically file claims and receive compensation, the plaintiffs argued. The case is still pending.
“What happened in practice is that many never received any money, even as 2.5% was deducted every month from their wages,” Adiv said.
In briefs filed with the Supreme Court, lawyers representing PIBA argued that the interim order which Kav LaOved and WAC-Ma’an sought amounted to a request for illegal judicial activism. To compensate the workers with the funds at this time would constitute using judicial power to change the status quo — essentially, setting policy from the bench.
The petition “asks this court to replace the opinion of the administrative authority with its own,” the government’s brief argued.
Approximately 100,000 West Bank Palestinians are legally employed in Israel or in West Bank settlements, according to Kav LaOved. They constitute a large part of the Palestinian economy — approximately 15-20% of employed Palestinians work in Israel.
During the coronavirus crisis, Palestinians who work in Israel were largely unable to enter the country, though at several points tens of thousands of workers were allowed to come in, on the condition that they remain in Israel for several weeks at a time.
As of May 31, Palestinian workers can enter and leave Israel again on a daily basis. But as fears of a second wave in Israel grow, the Palestinian Authority may soon restrict such freedom of movement again. Nearly all West Bank coronavirus infections to date originated with Palestinian workers returning from Israel, Palestinian health ministry official Osama al-Najjar told The Times of Israel last week.
At a press conference last week, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said that the Palestinian Authority government was willing to reinstate all previous lockdown restrictions in the event of a second wave.
Many Israelis and Palestinians have suffered heavy financial losses during the pandemic, but Palestinians who work in Israel are in an especially precarious situation, according to WAC-Ma’an’s Adiv.
“When workers in Israel go on furlough now, they are eligible for benefits — health insurance, unemployment insurance and so on, for anywhere from two to seven months. Palestinian workers don’t get anything. Not a penny,” Adiv said.
A Palestinian worker from a village outside Nablus who agreed to speak to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity described the crisis of Palestinians who work in Israel. He enters Israel every week to work at a hotel before returning to his wife and two children for weekends.
“At one point, we had to make NIS 100 ($29) last two weeks. Everything had to be rationed,” he said.
After being furloughed on March 13, the worker returned to the West Bank. Only after getting home, however, did he discover that he would receive no compensation, he said.
“Our employer gave us a note saying that national insurance, Bituach Leumi, would cover us during our furlough. After I got back [to the West Bank] I sent my forms for insurance to a friend of mine in Acre and I discovered that Israeli insurance does not cover us, as Palestinian workers, during corona,” the worker said.
While the border has recently reopened, the Palestinian worker said his debts had grown substantially over the two months in which he had been on unpaid leave. He expressed serious concern over his ability to settle them, even after returning to work.
“We pay for our insurance, pensions, just like any Israeli worker. True, we’re Palestinian, we’re from the West Bank, but at the end of the day, Israel is responsible for us,” he said.