Israel signed an agreement with China on Sunday to bring in 6,000 Chinese construction workers, and agreed they will not work in the West Bank.
The move comes despite an ongoing Israeli government campaign to counter attempts to boycott West Bank or settlement products that has included calls to block boycott proponents from even entering the country.
Israeli media reports said Israel had acceded to Chinese demands that the laborers not work in Jewish settlements, citing safety concerns.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon confirmed the deal, telling reporters the agreement “is based on the concern for the safety and security of the workers,” and said that the two sides agreed on locations where the laborers will work.
However, in January, when the outline of the deal was announced, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry made clear that the real issue was not safety, but China’s objection to construction in the settlements.
Geng Shuang was asked about the whether Chinese workers would be taking part “in building Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories” and whether this would “change China’s position on the Palestine-Israel issue.”
He answered that “China’s position on the Palestine-Israel issue is consistent, clear and unchanged. We oppose building Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories including East Jerusalem and West Bank. The Resolution 2334 recently adopted at the Security Council also has clear stipulations on this.”
The deal to bring the Chinese workers was held up for a year and a half over this issue — last June, it was reported that a similar deal was snagged over making a distinction between Israel and the West Bank.
The workaround to avoiding an obvious distinction between Israel and the West Bank, according to Haaretz, was that Israel and China agreed on a list of locations where the laborers will work, to be updated at intervals, based on construction needs. None of the agreed locations are in the West Bank.
Efrat mayor Oded Revivi was critical of the agreement, saying that Israelis living in the West Bank also face a housing shortage.
“Unfortunately, the trade agreement with the Chinese government distinguishes between Efrat and Holon, between Shilo and Bat Yam,” he said. “This distinction contradicts equal rights for all Israeli citizens,” Haaretz quoted him as saying.
The agreement was signed in Jerusalem by Israeli Housing Minister Yoav Galant and Chinese International Trade Representative and Vice Minister of Commerce Fu Ziying, a spokesman for the minister said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached an agreement on broad outlines of the deal during a visit to China last month, the spokesman said.
The workers are part of the government’s plan to address a housing shortage contributing to high property prices.
In January, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said that the arrival of the Chinese workers would “energize efforts to solve the housing crisis.”
Housing costs in Israel have been rising steeply since 2008, according to Bank of Israel data, significantly impacting the cost of living and triggering a wave of street protests in 2011.
Kahlon, whose Kulanu party ran in the 2015 general election on a platform of lowering living costs, came under fire after an August government report showed apartment prices had risen by eight percent in a year.
According to the Calcalist website there were more than 50,000 Palestinian construction laborers working in Israel and the West Bank, as of December 2016 and more than 9,000 construction workers from other nations, almost 90% of them from the three countries of Moldova, China and Turkey, according to the interior ministry.