Reporter's notebook40,000 Palestinian laborers may now work illegally in Israel

West Bank Palestinian laborers in despair after eight months without jobs in Israel

Before Oct. 7, 200,000 West Bankers commuted across the border for work. Now they sit home in uncertainty, while security officials warn of the potential threat of mass unemployment

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Illustrative: Palestinian construction workers at a building site in the Israeli settlement of Efrat in the West Bank, on September 29, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Illustrative: Palestinian construction workers at a building site in the Israeli settlement of Efrat in the West Bank, on September 29, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Ibrahim, a father of four, sat with friends in his living room in the Palestinian village of Hizme,  just outside Jerusalem, to talk about the hardship of unemployment over the past eight months: “The Israeli government cannot wage war on every Palestinian as if we are all guilty [of Hamas’s crimes],” he said.

A professional tiler in his late forties, Ibrahim has been at home on most days since October 7, when Hamas terrorists rampaged through southern Israel, killing nearly 1,200 people and taking 251 hostage to Gaza.

Within hours of the onslaught, the Israeli government announced the suspension of work permits for about 150,000 West Bank Palestinians who had been commuting daily to work inside Israel, plus another 18,500 Palestinians from Gaza, leaving an economic hole on both sides of the border.

It is estimated that besides permit holders, an additional 50,000 West Bank laborers were sneaking through the border illegally each day before October 7.

Among those who found themselves unable to work in Israel, where salaries are considerably higher than in the West Bank, were around 80,000 Palestinians who used to work on Israeli construction sites, many of them highly specialized in sectors such as ironwork, flooring, formwork and plastering.

In Israel, Ibrahim earned on average NIS 600 a day ($160) and could live a comfortable life in his hometown of Hizme, halfway between Jerusalem and Ramallah, right outside one of the checkpoints at the entrance to Jerusalem.

Before October 7, many of the 8,000 residents of the village would commute daily to work in the greater Jerusalem area, a short drive away.

The Palestinian town of Hizma. (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
The Palestinian town of Hizma. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

About 3,000 East Jerusalemites have also moved into the town in recent years, attracted by its lower cost of living and the easy commute into the capital through the nearby checkpoint.

Today, Ibrahim spends most of the time at home, gripped by uncertainty for his and his family’s future. He occasionally gets work in the West Bank, but it pays half what he used to make in Israel — about NIS 300 a day ($80).

When he gets hired, he will often take some struggling local laborers with him to share his daily wages with them, he said. One of them is a father of seven, and frequently calls him asking him for a NIS 100 ($27) handout to buy food.

“People here are hungry,” Ibrahim said.

The loss of wages has compounded the economic impact of the war against Hamas. A recent International Labor Organization report said unemployment in the West Bank now stands at 32 percent. The private sector suffered a 27% reduction in production value, equivalent to $1.5 billion, during the first four months of the war.

For Israel, the acute shortage of Palestinian workers following October 7 brought building to a shuddering halt. Residential construction fell by 95% late last year, contributing to an overall 19% slump in economic activity.

View of workers in a construction site in Jerusalem, March 5, 2024 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Other sectors, such as agriculture and services, were also hit, but none as much as construction, which accounts for 6% of Israel’s $500 billion economy.

Ibrahim said he often gets phone calls from Israeli customers, asking him when he will return to work.

Living in limbo

“Many Palestinians live in a state of uncertainty. Their work permits are officially still valid and are even being renewed automatically, but if the permit holder goes up to a checkpoint to enter Israel, they won’t be allowed through. It’s an unprecedented situation,” said Assaf Adiv, the executive director of WAC-Ma’an, a union that represents Israeli and Palestinian workers.

“Nobody really knows when Palestinians will be allowed back in. A whole ‘rumor industry’ has developed that feeds on partial news from the media, Israeli contractors who call up their workers and promise them checkpoints will open the following week or after the next holiday. Palestinian officials also spread rumors in a bid to show that they have good connections. People’s despair causes them to believe any hearsay,” said Adiv.

Like Ibrahim, other Hizme residents agreed to speak with The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal for talking with the Israeli press. Their real names have been replaced.

Khaled is a father of three who is officially still employed by an Israeli company but is not allowed to return to work and has not been receiving his salary. He was worried that if one of his children gets sick, he would not be able to pay a doctor’s fee of NIS 50 or cover treatment costs in a private facility, given that the nearest public hospital is in Ramallah and the care there is considered “unreliable.”

Palestinian laborers work at a construction site in Ma’ale Adumim, in the West Bank, on February 29, 2024. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)

Mahmoud, an educated man in his early forties, used to work as a journalist for a Palestinian newspaper, earning less than NIS 4,000 a month, but a few years ago he decided to become a self-employed shiputznik in Israel, i.e., a contractor who undertakes to remodel homes and apartments.

His standard of living increased significantly, as testified by his spacious and impeccably decorated apartment in Hizme. His monthly earnings jumped to NIS 10,000 a month ($2,700), or even NIS 15,000 ($4,000). It allowed him “to not have to ask how much something costs if I want to buy it,” and to afford a private school for his three children.

For comparison, he said a close relative of his is a doctor in Ramallah who normally earns NIS 8,000 a month, but over the past months, he has suffered a 50% pay cut, as did 130,000 public employees in the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Israel has withheld a total of around NIS 6 billion ($1.61 billion) in tax revenues to the PA, according to an estimate by the Palestinian finance ministry, which is today too cash-strapped to pay public workers’ salaries in full.

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)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has justified the withholding the funds by saying that the Palestinian Authority incentivizes terrorism by disbursing stipends to security prisoners and the families of slain attackers.

Mahmoud said that since his entry permit was suspended on October 7, he has been living off his savings and doing some design work online. He also gets a small monthly income from an apartment he rents out.

Over the past eight months, he has had to radically change his lifestyle and tighten the purse strings. He has been considering relocating to the US, where he has family, if the war in Gaza drags on for much longer.

For now, he only got visas to the US for his wife and children. “I don’t really like the idea of moving abroad. I want to stay here. But we may not have a choice if the situation remains the same — and I think it will. The Lebanon front will open, the Gaza war will continue indefinitely. Here in the West Bank we are also at war. You can go out for a walk and get assaulted by a settler,” Mahmoud said.

Trade union leader Adiv agreed that the Palestinian presence in the Israeli job market is unlikely to bounce back to pre-October 7 levels. “It will not return to what it used to be.”

Masked settlers gather on a hill overlooking the village of Mughayir near Ramallah in the West Bank on April 13, 2024 (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

A pilot in West Bank settlements?

Some Israeli West Bank settlements have managed to obtain work permits for Palestinian workers since the red tape for those areas is lighter than inside Israel proper.

Before October 7, 40,000 Palestinians were employed in West Bank settlements. After the outbreak of the war, about 12,000 such authorizations have been granted, following decisions by individual local councils.

Some permits have been granted for cleaners and construction laborers inside the towns, but the large bulk (about 8,000, according to Israeli news source Ynet) have been reserved for factory workers in the Atarot and Mishor Adumim industrial zones outside Jerusalem, and in the Barkan industrial zone further north, near Ariel.

The Palestinians who managed to receive one of those permits have “won the lottery,” Ibrahim the tiler commented.

Trade unionist Adiv said that factory foremen in Mishor Adumim managed to get permits issued three weeks after October 7 by pressing the authorities. A tight security protocol was put in place: Daily laborers there are escorted to the factory floor by security officers and are not left alone for one second, nor are they allowed to circulate freely outside the complex, for instance to buy a sandwich at a nearby supermarket, the way they used to be before October 7.

Palestinians work at a SodaStream factory in the Mishor Adumim industrial park (now closed), next to Maale Adumim, February 2, 2014. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“The Mishor Adumim case could be taken by Israeli authorities as a pilot project, to ascertain whether Palestinians who pass background checks can be allowed to work in factories that are outside city centers, and if there are any security issues. There haven’t been any,” Adiv said.

“The same goes for the few thousand that are still working in West Bank residential areas. There are Palestinians employed in a geriatric hospital in [the West Bank town of] Maale Adumim, and in some of the Dead Sea hotels, and nothing has happened.”

Adiv added that despite repeated requests from his trade union, and despite the favorable stance of the Shin Bet security service and of COGAT — the Defense Ministry body governing civilian affairs in the Palestinian territories — that say that allowing Palestinians to work will ease tensions in the West Bank, government authorities have refused to consider the idea of extending the Mishor Adumim pilot to other areas. (COGAT did not reply to repeated requests for information.)

A Palestinian woman works at a SodaStream factory (now closed) on February 2, 2014 in the Mishor Adumim industrial park, next to Maale Adumim. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Estimated 40,000 working illegally inside Israel

Security sources recently quoted by Ynet estimated that there may be as many as 40,000 Palestinian laborers working illegally inside Israel.

Security officials told the news outlet that the high unemployment rate in the West Bank is a threat to stability in the area, and have requested decision-makers to reconsider the closure policy, noting that it’s preferable to allow laborers to enter legally and under supervision than to rely on illegal ones.

A debate on the subject has already been postponed four times, the paper noted.

Hizme residents who spoke with The Times of Israel say they would not take the risk of entering Israel illegally for work.

“I don’t want to go to jail,” said Mahmoud. “And if the employer decides not to pay your wages, you have nobody to defend you. The police will side with him.”

“The moment the soldiers catch you, they’ll beat you up,” Khaled said.

Palestinian laborers 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)

No easy replacement

Raul Sargo, president of the Israel Builders Association, told a Knesset committee on December 25 that the construction 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.”

“We are in very dire straits,” he said.

The Kan public broadcaster reported a few weeks later that the Israeli government was arranging to recruit 80,000 foreign workers from India, Sri Lanka, and other Asian countries to make up for the manpower shortage in construction and agriculture.

Trade unionist Adiv said that so far, only about 5,000 have been flown in, mainly from India.

“It’s a huge bureaucratic effort to screen them and get them permits. If the government wants to plug the gap in construction with Indians, it will take at least 3-4 years to find tens of thousands who are qualified. Those who are coming now barely speak English,” he said.

Building workers pour 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)

“Meanwhile, contractors are going crazy to find workers. Our trade union has been working since October 2023 to convince the authorities that Palestinians should be allowed to go back to their workplaces, because workers in the West Bank have no alternative and also as it is clear there is no way to bring tens of thousands of laborers from India within few months. But our appeal to reason fell on deaf ears,” he added.

Foreign workers from East Asia present an extra cost for employers, who need to pay for their visas and provide them with a translator and with accommodation, while Palestinian laborers commute daily from their homes and generally speak and understand some Hebrew.

“Israelis are used to working with Palestinians,” said Mahmoud. “We are professional and we speak Hebrew. And if you look at the mentality, even the food, you’ll see that we are the same.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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