Palestinians worry about expenses as virus blocks way to work in Israel

Palestinians worry about expenses as virus blocks way to work in Israel

With West Bank shuttered off, laborers say they don’t know whether they’ll be able to afford groceries in coming days; unionist suggests Israel can help alleviate crisis

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Palestinian workers seen during construction work on new building apartment buildings in the Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa, East Jerusalem, on October 28, 2014. (Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90)
File: Palestinian workers during construction work on new building apartment buildings in the Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa, East Jerusalem, on October 28, 2014 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Ali Hamdan, 58, woke up early in the morning of March 8 at his home in Bethlehem, gathered his belongings and started to make his way to a construction site in Jerusalem.

When he reached the large pedestrian checkpoint separating the West Bank city from Jerusalem, Israeli security officers instructed him to turn around. They told him he was coming from an area under closure due to several reported cases of coronavirus.

Hamdan, who has labored in Israel for some four decades, pleaded with the officers to let him into Jerusalem but they refused. He subsequently returned to his home, where he has since spent the majority of his time.

Hamdan is one of tens of thousands of Palestinians with jobs in Israel and the settlements who have recently been out of work as the highly contagious virus proliferates throughout the West Bank and the Jewish state.

Palestinians earn significantly higher wages in Israel and the settlements compared to what they would be paid in the Palestinian market.

Palestinian health official carries out a test for coronavirus on a man in Bethlehem on March 31, 2020. (Credit: Wafa)

“For me, work is life. So when work stops, life stops,” Hamdan, who usually earns NIS 3,000-4,000 ($850-$1,100) per month, said. “I know that the virus is dangerous and I understand why these restrictions have been enacted, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford groceries at the supermarket next week.”

Since the first confirmed cases of the virus emerged in the West Bank on March 5, the Palestinian Authority and Israel have gradually taken measures restricting freedom of movement.

The PA has instructed the Palestinian public to remain in their homes save a handful of circumstances, such as visiting the supermarket or health institutions.

Israel has barred the vast majority of Palestinians from crossing into its territory, but agreed to permit some 75,000 Palestinian workers in “essential sectors” to do so nearly two weeks ago, on the condition that they spend one to two months in the country. Only 35,000-45,000 took up the offer.

But laborers from the Bethlehem area and others places under closure, those not employed in “essential sectors” and many who cannot leave their families for extended periods of time have been unable to reach their workplaces in Israel and the settlements.

PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has also said that the 35,000-45,000 workers currently in Israel will return to the West Bank in the next two weeks.

So far, Palestinian authorities have said that 117 people have been infected by the virus in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while the Health Ministry has confirmed more than 5,000 cases in Israel.

Mohammed Hamuda, 60, said he hasn’t been able to report to work at a food canning factory in the Atarot Industrial Zone in Jerusalem since several people tested positive for the virus last week in Biddu and nearby villages in the central West Bank, including where he resides.

“I have to stay home because we are not allowed to leave,” said Hamuda, who ordinarily earns NIS 5,000 ($1,400) per month. “We are planning to cut our expenses by purchasing cheaper food at the market and avoiding unnecessary costs.”

Palestinian security forces wearing face masks block the entrance to the West Bank city of Bethlehem, March 8, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Israel has made an exception for Palestinians laborers in “vital factories” in Atarot to travel between their homes and workplaces on a daily basis.

Hamuda, who has been working at the canning factory for eight years, said that he believes both Israel and the PA should provide him and other workers who are unable to reach their jobs with economic relief.

“We deserve compensation so we can pay for our basic needs until the end of this crisis,” he said. “I know it’s dangerous to be outside and understand the logic of these measures, but both governments have a responsibility to help us.”

Even though many Palestinians have worked in Israel for decades, Israel’s National Insurance Institute does not offer them unemployment benefits.

However, Assaf Adiv, the executive director of WAC-Ma’an, a labor union that represents Israeli and Palestinian workers, argued that Israel could take some measures to provide Palestinians employed in the country with economic relief.

“These workers put 18.5 percent of their salaries in pension funds every month. The government can make a decision to allow them to receive small amounts from their pensions as long as the current situation continues,” Adiv said.

Israeli employers, Adiv added, contribute monthly to a “sick day fund” for Palestinian workers, which is presently valued at NIS 500 million.

Assaf Adiv, the executive director of WAC-Ma’an, a union that represents Israeli and Palestinian workers, delivering a lecture. (Screenshot: Wac-Ma’an)

“The government could provide some of these funds to the Palestinian workers to help them make it through this period,” he noted.

Asked whether Israeli authorities had a plan to help Palestinian workers who are unable to get to their jobs in Israel and the settlements, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Defense Ministry body responsible for liaising with the Palestinians, did not respond.

Adiv also said that he thought it was in Israel’s interest to do everything it can to mitigate an economic crisis in the West Bank.

“If Palestinians cannot go to work and the virus continues to spread, we may witness a disaster in the West Bank — one which could spill over into Israel,” he said. “That is why it is so important that we do everything we can now to help the workers.”

Jafar Sadaka, an expert on the Palestinian economy, said that the PA, which has pledged to assemble an NIS 20 million ($5.5 million) fund to support workers affected by the crisis, would not be able to provide significant compensation to Palestinians who labor in Israel.

“The workers in Israel and the settlements usually bring NIS 1-1.2 billion ($280-$340 million) shekels into our economy every month. NIS 20 million won’t make up for that,” he said. “The Authority also is going to be taking in significantly less taxes next month and probably will find it very difficult to provide further aid.”

A member of the Palestinian Authority Civil Defense spraying water and chlorine in a public space in Bethlehem on March 31, 2020. (Credit: Wafa)

In recent normal times, some 120,000-130,000 Palestinians had permits to work in Israel and the settlements, and tens of thousand of others worked in the Jewish state illegally without permits.

Sadaka also warned that if the 35,000-45,000 Palestinian laborers currently in Israel return to the West Bank in the coming two weeks and the other Palestinians who work for Israelis still cannot reach their workplaces, the Palestinian economy will suffer significant consequences.

“We are talking about workers who provide for entire families,” he said. “Their salaries make up for about a quarter of all the salaries in the West Bank. If they can’t go back to work for a long time, we will be facing serious economic instability.”

Nassim Abu George, 60 and a resident of Beit Sahour in the Bethlehem area, said he was deeply frustrated that he hasn’t been able to get to his job at a car garage in the Mishor Adumim Industrial Park near the Ma’ale Adumim settlement for over the past three weeks.

“If this situation goes on for a month or two, it will be impossible,” said Abu George, who usually earns around NIS 7,000 ($2,000) per month. “Who is going to pay for the food, medications, the phone bill and everything else?”

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