2016 has seen two important – and victorious – labour struggles in the settlement factories in Tulkarem. This article tells their story and gives the background of systematic exploitation and oppression of the workers by the Israeli apartheid system and its industries. We are tell below about the ongoing struggle of the Palestinian workers, especially in the Tulkarem settlement industrial zone, and outline the initial destruction of the Palestinian agricultural sector in the region and the exploitation of the surplus labour created in this manner.
Workers struggles in the Israeli settlement industrial zone in Tulkarem
For Israel, the occupation of the West Bank brings significant economic profits and the case of Tulkarem and the settlement industrial zones operating there are central in this. However, Palestinian workers are fighting back. The New Unions have been leading workers in victorious struggles in two Israeli factories in the settlement industrial zone of Tulkarem.
At the Yamit factory, which employs 116 workers and produces liquid fertilizers and filters for agricultural use, workers organised a successful strike during 2016. Established in 1990, Yamit moved from Sha’re Efrine, inside the Green Line, to the Tulkarem settlement industrial zone. Workers in the company went on strike in order to protest low salaries and lacking security systems. After a hard battle, Yamit had to sign an agreement with the workers guaranteeing their rights and raising salaries.
In the same settlement industrial zone, workers of the Tal-El factory, which provides waste collection services, including to the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim and to the Jerusalem municipality as well as to the Israeli military, started to mobilise for their rights and started a court case against Tal-El. The company, which employs 123 workers in the Tulkarem settlement industrial zone, won the case against the factory when the court ordered Tal-El to pay the workers 3 million Shekel in compensation for exploitatively low wages. Subsequently, Tal-El sold off the factory and the new investor reached an agreement with the workers that grants them their rights according to Israeli labor law.
The Palestinian New Federation of Trade Unions (New Unions), which comprises 27 unions and union branches with a membership of over ten thousand workers, was itself born out of similar strikes in this settlement industrial zone in 2010. The New Unions continue their regular presence at the Israeli workers terminals, in particular in Tulkarem and Qalqliyia, where at dawn they meet with workers to discuss their problems, raise awareness, encourage organising and offer support where possible. New Union cadres pay regular visits to Palestinian factories, where they talk with them about their problems and needs and encourage them to unionise.
Loosing land and livelihoods
Tulkarem, located in the northwest of the West Bank. The area has undergone a dramatic process of land grab, pollution of land, and destruction of its trade – all forced upon the area by Israeli apartheid policies. As a result many Palestinian workers are now forced to either cross the Green Line to work or to accept jobs in the settlement factories in the area as cheap labour.
Land confiscation by Israel has been part of the experience of Palestinian farmers in Tulkarem since Israel occupied the area in 1967. Some x settlements have been created in the district over the last decades stealing land and water resources.
Israeli walls have been a reality for Palestinians in Tulkarem already since the 1990s, years before today’s project of the over 700 km long apartheid Wall has been started. In 1994, a wall was constructed along the Green Line to separate Tulkarem from the Israeli community Bat Hefer, located east of Netanya. This seemingly ‘successful’ model of oppression has lead Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak to approve the first project of the construction of the apartheid Wall – which then started in 2002 to become reality on the ground. Construction continues until today, provoking demolitions, isolation and displacement for the Palestinians people. Just as all over the West Bank, the Wall has become a form of open air prison. Half of Tulkarem’s population today lives partially or completely isolated from their lands, trade and basic services by the apartheid Wall.
Another factor has been central in destroying Tulkarem’s agriculture – the environmental pollution created by Israel’s chemical factories in the settlement industrial zones. According to the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment the pollution created by the Israeli-operated industry around Tulkarem has resulted in a reduction of agricultural profits by 21.5 percent between 1992 and 1997. The Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture estimates that 17 percent of Tulkarem’s agricultural land has been affected by pollution originating at the six Israeli concerns located in the Tulkarem area.
This loss of land, markets, and resources, results in the inability of communities to sustain themselves adequately and with dignity. Around 45% of the population are unemployed and a matching 45% of Palestinian households suffers poverty.
Exploiting Palestinian labour
Tulkarem is on the east of the Israeli industrial hub of Netanya, where many Palestinian workers from the district are forced to seek jobs. Only that, in order to get there, workers have first to pass through extenuating and humiliating procedures at the al-Tabya workers checkpoint. Approximately 15,000 West Bank labours cross Al-Tabia checkpoint every day. Although there are hundreds of checkpoint and military obstruction which control the flow of Palestinians, Al-Tabya is one of the few number which permit the passage of Palestinian workers to Israel.
Passing across this checkpoint is possible only with ‘permit’ issued by Israeli military and which has to be renewed periodically in order to control workers will not engage in any political activity. Once obtained the permit, workers have to wait endlessly at the checkpoint. This adds many hours to the daily routine of the workers. Palestinian workers have to around 4am at al Tabya checkpoint as it takes 3 hours or more to cross and reach their jobs. Passage goes through metal turnstiles, metal detectors and inspection stations. All processes are slow and the fact that permits often are valid only during specific hours adds pressure on the workers. If a worker isn’t able to cross the checkpoint before their permit expires, then they won’t be able to get to work that day.
The conditions of the Al-Tabya passage can be very dangerous. In 2014, two workers died in the checkpoint in two differents periods of the year. Witnesses said 59-year-old Adel Muhammad Yakoub and 39-year-old Ahmad Samih Bdeir were crushed to death as a result of extreme overcrowding on the checkpoint lines.
The Tulkarem settlement industrial zone
A second option for Palestinian workers is to accept jobs in the Tulkarem settlement industrial zone, which like other Israeli chemical factories built in the West Bank have grown into powerful means of oppression for Palestinians communities living and working on those regions.
The Tulkarem settlement industrial zone, ironically called ‘Buds of Peace’ (Nitzanei Shalom) has a strategic importance to the Israeli economy. The area contains many factories specialising in waste recycling, nylon manufacture, plastics, water filters, fertilizers and pesticides. Those factories started to move to Tulkarem in the 1980’s following public Israeli outcry against pollution in cities inside present-day Israel. The irresponsible industry production in this zone has impacted heavily on people's life and health in the area.
Tulkarem has the highest cancer rate in Palestine. Instances of leukaemia, cancer and lymphoma show serious discrepancies between the different districts in the West Bank. 20 percent of all cancer and leukaemia cases in the West Bank occur in Tulkarem, despite the population amounts to just 5 per cent of the total. People also have to put up with the horrible smell and intense smoke, which in turn suggest the existence of high levels of toxics, which leads to various respiratory problems, including higher susceptibility to infections.
The region is also a scenario of accidents and explosions. In September 2013, a massive explosion followed by a huge fire in a nylon factory in Nitzanei Shalom endangered the entire area. The flames ranged between 10 and 15 meters in height and as factories are very close to the people’s houses, this put them under serious risk and contaminated their water and destroyed other natural resources.
Unequal Palestinians labour conditions
The location of the factories in the West Bank means that the employees are almost exclusively Palestinians. The factory owners abuse the dire living conditions of Palestinians under occupation and the old Jordanian labour law still partially applied in the West Bank to exploit Palestinian workers. The old Jordanian laws do not require employers to pay pensions, nor do they force employers to compensate workers for sick leave after the third day of absence and provide only minimal vacation days and low severance packages.
Factory owners force workers to work nine hour per day, although Israeli law provides for an eight hours working day. The Palestinians wage is less than the wage of Israeli workers. Working condition in many settlement factories are putting the health and lives of workers at risk.
In 2007, the High Court of Justice issued a major ruling that Palestinians who live in West Bank but work for Israeli employer in the Givat Ze’ev settlement, five kilometres northwest of Jerusalem, would have the right to the same minimum level work conditions as Israeli workers. In Givat Ze’ev settlement, Palestinians can therefore be no longer be employed under old Jordanian law.
However this is not the reality of Palestinian labour in all of the occupied territory. Workers from Tulkarem still face dramatically exploitative conditions. The employers have argued that the industrial zone near Tulkarem falls into a special category under the Oslo Accords, so that the Palestinians workers from Nitzanei Shalom settlement continue to be subject to the Jordanian labor laws, rather than Israeli laws.
While the ultimate aim of the Palestinian workers and their struggle is the liberation, justice and return of the refugees, including an end to the Israeli settlements and their industry, the struggle of the workers against these conditions is crucial to ensure that Israel cannot unchallenged draw profit from its occupation and apartheid regime.
It is evident how the factories in this settlement industrial zone and their profits feed Israel’s racist policies. They become a core element in the Israeli colonisation project through the illegal use of Palestinian natural resources and labour left without other means to gain their livelihoods.