Since the beginning of this Intifada in 2000, Israel has transformed the already harsh conditions under occupation into a nightmare of destruction and imprisonment. Economic life has severely suffered and unemployment has skyrocketed. Since September 2000, over 432 factories and 9,735 small shops and street seller stalls have been destroyed while Gaza’s industry has suffered complete breakdown due the destruction wrecked upon the Strip in the 2008/9 attack by Israel and the ongoing siege.
Palestinian workers are particularly suffering from this destruction and restrictions put on every aspect of life, which make reaching work places and earning a decent livelihood almost impossible. In its latest report on the situation of workers in Arab occupied territories, the ILO states that “no real improvement can take place unless restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation, and the occupation itself is removed”. For the Palestinian labour movement the struggle for self-determination and freedom has become an intrinsic component and precondition for achieving their working class demands.
The Great Revolt: One of the longest strikes in labour history
The Palestinian labor movement began in the early 1920s, and until the 1948 Nakba, grew in strength. While some Arab workers initially joined the Arab sections of the Histadrut, it soon became clear that the union privileged Jewish workers and had little interest in fighting for the rights of all workers. Up to 1948, and while the Histadrut lobbied strongly the colonial authorities against them, Palestinian trade unions fought both for the rights of Palestinian workers in the workplace as well as against Zionist discrimination.
During the Great Revolt of 1936, the Palestinian labor movement played a leading role. Key factors that sparked the revolt were land loss to the Zionist movement in the countryside, low wages and rising unemployment among Palestinian workers, in which the Histadrut’s “conquest of labor” campaigns, which aimed at replacing Arab workers with Jewish labor, played a role. The revolt grew into a national uprising when British colonial authorities killed resistance leader Sheikh Izz al Din al Qassam in 1935. Most notably, the Arab working classes launched a six month general strike, one of the longest such strikes in labor history.
With the end of the revolt in 1939, and despite the loss of leadership and causalities, the labor movement grew. Additional unions were formed, and organizing spread rapidly. However, following the Nakba of 1948, with the expulsion of much of the working class and union leadership outside of the newly created state of Israel, the labor movement was thrown into disarray. Inside Israel, the Histadrut and other Jewish Zionist institutions formed a set of para-statal bodies that continued to focus on strengthening Jewish labor against Palestinian workers. Trying to relegate Palestinian workers to low level and highly exploited labour, Zionist institutions sought to exclude Palestinians, as much as was possible, from the skilled labor market to ensure that new Jewish immigrants could find employment.
Palestinian citizens of Israel: From military rule to outright apartheid
From 1948 to 1966, the Israeli authorities imposed military rule on only one part of its population: the remaining Palestinians who had become citizens of Israel. This served, among others, as an important tool in regulating the Palestinian entrance into the labor market. When unemployment among the Jewish working class increased, the military authorities issued fewer permits (required for Palestinians wishing to leave their very villages) in order to protect Jewish workers from competition. However, with improvement of the economy in 1960s and the need for cheap labor, especially in the construction sector, such controls were relaxed.
However, today Palestinian citizens of Israel still face a system of discrimination and are literally denied their right to work. Arab workers are prohibited from working in what are defined as “security industries”, such as weapons producers, airports, ports and refineries, much of the hi-tech industry and are therefore effectively cut off from a significant part of the Israeli economy. Israeli firms may also require military service as a precondition for employment, effectively reserving these positions for Jews, as Palestinian citizens of Israel do not serve in the Israeli military. In 2009, the state-owned railway company decided to fire 150 Arab workers because they had not served in the military.
Discrimination in the public sector is rampant. In 2010, for instance, of the 12,000 workers employed by Israel’s national electricity company, only 1.3 were Arab. Across the board, there is usually less than 2% Arab employment in government companies and ministries. Those in the private sector fare little better. In 2009, it was reported that 15,000 Arab graduates were either unemployed or forced into work outside their professions. Numbers in Israel’s growing high-tech industry are also dismal; of 84,000 jobs, only 500 were filled by Arab engineers in 2010.
Arabs also receive far less state money; despite the fact that they make up 20% of the population, they receive less that 5% of the state budget. As a result, poverty is much higher in Arab communities, and a vast majority of towns (46 of 47 in 2001) with higher-than-average unemployment rates are Palestinian.
Work under occupation: Displaced from the land, exploited in the factory
In 1967, with the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the remainder of historical Palestine came under Israeli control. The Israeli state attempted to co-opt Palestinian labor and incorporate it into its economy and its expansion and settlement projects. Politically, the goal was to avoid a destabilizing impact of high unemployment, to dampen resistance to the occupation through employment in Israel and to obstruct any political solution that would force Israeli withdrawal from the territories. The ongoing theft of land, control of resources and restrictions on production and marketing and, last but not least, the damage caused to the educational system and vocational training opportunities for Palestinians all undermined the creation of a viable, independent Palestinian economy. The share of contribution of agricultural production to the livelihoods of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza dropped from 35% in 1967 to 8% today. As no significant other economic development was allowed by the occupation, the workforce from the fields had no other chance but seeking employment as cheap and unprotected labour in the Israeli economy.
As more Palestinians began to work in factories and urban centers, union activists began to organize. Seen as a threat by Israeli military authorities, union activists were harassed, jailed, and deported. Despite this repression, however, Palestinian labor activism increased, reaching a high point in the late 1970s. When in 1987 the first Intifada broke out – like the 1936 revolt – strikes and boycotts played an important role in the popular resistance.
Teachers and professors faced particularly harsh repression as the Israeli authorities saw – and sees – education as a political threat. In 1980, Israeli authorities got complete control over the Palestinian curriculum and instituted a “loyalty oath” to the occupation for teaching personnel from abroad. During the first Intifada universities were closed by military order most of the time and teaching even privately was “illegal” and punished by the military when discovered.
With the end of the Intifada and the signing of the Oslo “peace” process in 1993, Palestinian workers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip once again found themselves under the control of the same Zionist institutions that, since the foundation of the state, had applied discriminatory practices against them. The new agreements transformed areas under Palestinian control into Bantustans, or de facto labor reserves and workers often require a permit to travel and work outside of them. And again, Israel used this labor to continue to construct the ongoing expansion and creation of new settlements. In other words, Israel uses the exploitation of Palestinian labour to consolidate the colonization and “Bantustanization” of the West Bank.
Sustainable ghettos: Maquiladoras for Palestine
In 2002, construction of the Wall began, cementing the Bantustans. Farmers and agricultural workers are now more than ever blocked from reaching their fields, while other workers, especially around Jerusalem, found themselves unemployed as a result of not being able to reach their places of work. For example, after May 2006, the Wall cut off 75,000 people of Abu Dis and other Palestinian villages near Jerusalem and left them unable to reach the city where they worked.
The main form of control to regulate Palestinian workers from the West Bank and Gaza is the “permit system”. Many now rely on this system, and those that do obtain permits to work in Israel have to wait long hours every day at checkpoints to travel to their jobsite. These workers are in a precarious position; their permits are short term, and if they or a family member participate in political activities, they risk losing their permits, and thus their jobs and livelihoods.
Restrictions on permits make it difficult, if not impossible, for younger workers to obtain them, and many are forced to enter illegally or through buying black-market permits. Abuse of these “illegal” workers is common; they face live fire from Border Police and, if caught, hours of arbitrary detention involving degrading treatment, severe brutality and even torture. At least forty percent of the Palestinians who enter Israel daily to work are doing so without a “permit”.
The Wall and settlements have also created a situation where farmers are forced to obtain permits to work their own lands behind the Wall or near settlements. Applicants must satisfy the security considerations and submit land documents to prove a ‘connection to the land’. Those that obtain permits are often only allowed on their land for limited periods during the harvest season, making the upkeep of farmland impossible.
In Gaza, where the Israeli siege has sealed off the territory, the situation is worse. 60% of the population are under the poverty line and rely on aid, while unemployment is 38%, with young workers (under 30), forming nearly 60% of the jobless. Constant bombardments, coupled with the Israeli prohibition of transporting raw materials, have crippled most industries.
Rather than confront the Occupation, international development agencies, with Israeli support, are working in the West Bank on making the current situation sustainable by improving the movement of goods and labor between the ghettos and investing industrial zones.
All of the industrial zones require a cheap, mobile labor force that will draw from the de-development of the Palestinian economy. The jobs that they produce are highly vulnerable, and are dependent on the Israeli market and political situation. Labor laws have not yet been agreed upon, guaranteeing a period when workers will be without legal protection. The zones are growing rapidly, and by 2025, as many as 500,000 Palestinian laborers are expected to work in these industrial zones.
The zones effectively ensure that the cheap Palestinian labor force manufactures Israeli products, which are then either sold back to Palestinians, or are exported by Israeli firms to the US, EU, and Gulf markets. The West Bank and Gaza will continue to function as captive markets. Overall, Israeli exports to the West Bank and Gaza have risen from $0.8 billion in 1988 to $2.6 billion in 2007, solidifying the Palestinian economy’s dependence on Israel. International investment in the area will be controlled by the Israeli military administration, thus lending legitimacy to the land confiscations and overall occupation.
In the end, this will consolidate the Bantustan regime in the West Bank and Gaza and ensure Palestinians will remain nothing more but a pool of cheap labor, controlled by Israel. Resistance can be punished by closure and the devastation of the economy.
In front of these prospects, as Palestinian workers struggling against occupation we thank international organizations for their long standing solidarity with our people and its recent statements in support of our people against the Israeli occupation. It is time all world organisations decided to boycott all Israeli institutions implicated in the occupation and its practices, impose a military embargo on Israel, and end free trade agreements as long as Israel continues its occupation, denies the right of all Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland, keeps thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, builds and maintains the apartheid wall and its settlements on our land.