Security cabinet skips vote on allowing return of West Bank Palestinian workers

PM said to back move, but feared he didn’t have a majority; ministers argued that despite economic needs, move would endanger Israelis, urged different, long-term labor solutions

File: Palestinian workers crossing into Israel at the Tarkumiya checkpoint near the southern city of Kiryat Gat, November 14, 2019. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)
File: Palestinian workers crossing into Israel at the Tarkumiya checkpoint near the southern city of Kiryat Gat, November 14, 2019. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

The security cabinet late Sunday discussed, but did not bring to a vote, a proposal to allow Palestinian laborers to enter Israel from the West Bank, which would potentially allow thousands to return to work for the first time since October 7.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who apparently supported the move, did not bring the issue to a vote amid reported disagreements between security cabinet ministers and fears he would not have a majority.

The proposal to allow Palestinian workers back into Israel following the unprecedented October 7 massacre was rejected earlier Sunday by the 15-member socioeconomic cabinet.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who heads the socioeconomic cabinet, said in a statement on Sunday evening that 13 of the cabinet members had voted against the move and the other two, Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter and Labor Minister Yoav Ben Tzur, had abstained.

He said the socioeconomic cabinet recommended that the security cabinet not reinstate the passage of Palestinian laborers into Israel, and said that Israel “can and must advance alternatives that will provide a different solution to the economy.”

Citing a source who attended the security cabinet meeting late Sunday, the Walla news site reported that Israel Defense Forces representatives, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, known by its acronym COGAT, and the Shin Bet expressed support for the proposal while representatives of the Israel Police voiced opposition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on December 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The source noted that some cabinet ministers also expressed their opposition, leading Netanyahu to skip the vote for now.

According to Walla, Netanyahu also removed a vote from the cabinet’s agenda on the issue of transferring tax money to the Palestinian Authority, a move that is strongly opposed by Smotrich, who views it as a terror-supporting body.

“The fear of making decisions also accompanied this cabinet meeting,” the source told Walla.

In his statement earlier Sunday, Smotrich said: “Money and building permits do not buy peace. Anyone who killed us when there was no money will kill us also when there is money. The security of the citizens of Israel comes first.”

Since the shock Hamas assault on October 7, in which more than 1,200 people were killed and some 240 were taken hostage as thousands of terrorists flooded into southern Israel from Gaza, more than 150,000 West Bank Palestinians have found themselves unable to enter Israel for work.

Prior to the Hamas attack and subsequent war in Gaza, some 150,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and an additional 17,000 from the Gaza Strip had permits to enter legally Israel for work.

Their current inability to enter for work, combined with departure of the majority of the roughly 30,000 Thai farmhands who worked in Israel until October 7, has left a severe shortage of laborers in the agricultural sector.

According to Hebrew media reports, the National Security Council, along with the IDF and Shin Bet, called for the cabinet to allow Palestinians from the West Bank to return to work with increased security measures — such as directly busing them into worksites and not letting them walk around freely — as they believe it will prevent the war in Gaza from spilling over into the West Bank as economic distress there intensifies.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich arrives to a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on December 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The increased security measures would see work permits limited to married men who are over the age of 35.

The Kan public broadcaster reported Sunday that the defense establishment has proposed allowing workers in under an advanced monitoring system, without providing additional details.

Minister without a portfolio Gideon Sa’ar criticized the National Security Council’s proposed security measures, saying that they “forgot to mention how many attacks [on October 7] were committed by married men over the age of 35.”

Netanyahu’s economic adviser Avi Simhon, who was present at the socioeconomic cabinet meeting, told the attendees that Netanyahu himself is in favor of the move and warned them that blocking it would result in a heavy blow to Israel’s economy.

“The construction and infrastructure sector is shut down. This is a loss of ten billion shekels a month,” he said. “At least in this sector, workers must be brought in.”

However, the majority of socioeconomic cabinet members remained adamant that reinstating work permits would endanger Israeli lives.

File: Damage is seen to the Erez Crossing with the Gaza Strip, October 17, 2023, after it was attacked by Hamas terrorists on October 7. (Defense Ministry)

Economy Minister Nir Barkat attacked those in the government who are in favor of allowing Palestinians to return to work in Israel, accusing them of failing to learn from the October 7 attacks.

“You live in October 6; you refuse to accept that the world order has changed,” he said. “The days when Israel depended on the working hands of Palestinian laborers are over. We must create alternatives. You want to bring the enemy into Israel? Are you crazy? You didn’t learn anything from October 7.”

“Gone are the days when we are dependent on Palestinian laborers,” an unnamed minister said, according to a Channel 12 news report. “If we want, it is possible to replace all the workers with foreigners within a week to two weeks.”

At the end of the meeting, the cabinet ministers issued a call for Netanyahu to hold a meeting in the immediate future regarding the status of Palestinian workers employed inside Jewish settlements in the West Bank, some 8,000 of whom are reported to have already returned to work.

“The criteria for the entry of West Bank Palestinians must also extend to West Bank settlements,” Smotrich insisted. “We must not discriminate between lives, and the security of all citizens of Israel must be placed above all other considerations.”

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