Abu Omar went to bed hopeful in Ramallah, but woke up disappointed. The Israeli war cabinet had once again postponed a vote to allow 200,000 Palestinians like Omar to return to work in Israel and Jewish settlements in the West Bank. After the Hamas surprise attack on October 7 that killed 1,200 people, many were convinced that Gazans with work permits in Israel had been gathering intelligence on a daily basis. Israeli military commanders immediately froze work and travel permits for all Gazans and most of the workers from the West Bank, who have not been able to earn any income for over two months. These workers make up 22% of the West Bank workforce and their income is vital to the local economy.
Omar is resigned to hopeful waiting. He’s 56 years old and married with three children. He wants the same thing that many Israelis in the manufacturing, agriculture and construction industries want — for the Palestinians to return to work. “It’s not that we love each other. They need our hands and we need their money,” he said at the mosque in Ramallah where he prays. Omar used to earn a monthly wage of 10,000 shekels ($2,700), but since October 7, he has only worked two days in the West Bank, earning a third of what he used to make.
Even so, Omar considers himself fortunate because he owns a house. But the savings he put away for his son’s wedding has been slowly dwindling. Omar has been a construction worker in Israel for 40 years, and knows all about economic downturns. He’s been through two intifadas and the 1991 Gulf War when Iraq launched missiles into Israel in retaliation for the U.S. attack. “Back then, there were still some jobs available. But now, there’s no work for anyone. We’re all just in survival mode, not knowing what will happen tomorrow.”
Perhaps Omar will find out on December 17, when the Israeli war cabinet will vote again on the issue. Worried that he might lose the vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has delayed it twice According to economic advisor Avi Simhon, Netanyahu is in favor of reinstating West Bank workers to placate the Israeli employers who desperately need workers that speak some Hebrew. There are approximately 160,000 West Bank workers in Israel and an additional 40,000 in nearby settlements and industrial parks. “The construction and public works sectors have been completely shut down and is losing 10 billion shekels [$2.7 billion] a month,” said Simhon. Israel’s intelligence services and military also support a return to work for West Bank Palestinians, as they are concerned about the violence that could erupt among so many idle, poverty-stricken people. One proposal grants work permits to married men over 35, with strict monitoring using electronic ankle bracelets or similar means.
On December 10, the war cabinet discussed the issue but did not hold a vote. But a few days earlier, the socioeconomic cabinet led by the far-right Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich did vote – 13 of the 15 cabinet members were opposed and two abstained. Smotrich called for “alternative” solutions and 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.” Former minister Gideon Sa’ar accused supporters of “forgetting” how many married men over the age of 35 took part in the Hamas attack, and Economy Minister Nir Barkat said, “Do you want to bring the enemy to Israel? Are you crazy? You haven’t learned anything from October 7.”
Jaled is a 30-year-old Palestinian who wouldn’t be granted a work permit under the current proposal. For the last five years, he has been working in a bakery in the Atarot industrial park, on the Israeli side of the West Bank separation barrier. A friend who owns a café pays him $12-$25 a day to wait on tables and work the cash register. “It’s December and I haven’t paid my November rent yet. My landlord keeps asking me about it, and all I can say is, ‘I don’t have it. I’ll pay you as soon as I do,’” said Jalel. He feels dejected and ashamed of not being able to provide for his wife and two young children. “We’re living on the edge. Whatever I can earn, we spend on food. All our savings have gone to rent, electricity, diapers and water over the last two months.” His father can’t help – he used to build houses in Tel Aviv and is out of work too. Besides debts, Jaled also has fears. “Maybe they’ll never want us back. Or a settler will assault me when I do go back to work... Even though I really need the money, I’m thinking of waiting 10 days or so to see how everything is going before making a decision about returning.”
Reducing reliance on Palestinian workers
Assaf Adiv is the executive director of Maan, a well-known workers’ association that advocates for both Israelis and Palestinians. He says the current ban “is not only a problem for families but also for the communities” that partially rely on their interaction (Israel and Palestine use the same currency). Adiv notes that an additional 40,000 West Bank residents used to enter Israel on special agricultural and short-term work permits. Many also used to cross the barrier illegally but are now afraid.
Raja Khalidi, the director general of the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute (MAS), is concerned about the “recessionary impact” of the situation. He believes this crisis is distinct from when workers were expelled from Israel during the Second Intifada in 2000. The Palestinian National Authority that governs the West Bank has no capacity to absorb workers because it’s bankrupt and Israel has frozen all its funding. “It’s clearly going to be a long-term crisis. Even if they allow a temporary return to work, Israel will aim to reduce its reliance on Palestinian workers,” said Khalidi.
To reduce its reliance on Palestinian workers, Israel has been bringing in other foreigners to do undesirable jobs. They negotiate quotas with the countries of origin and require the foreign workers to leave after five years. This policy aims to prevent the absorption of non-Jewish populations.
According to Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority, the biggest groups of foreign workers were from Thailand (29,000), the Philippines (28,300), and China (12,000). The Thais primarily worked in agriculture, often in kibbutzim and fields near Gaza, which was why dozens were killed and kidnapped on October 7. The remaining Thais along with the Chinese have left the country. This has resulted in vacant fields and unfinished buildings, which Israel is addressing through volunteer efforts, temporary permits for Palestinians, and agreements with other nations. The Kenyan Ministry of Labor plans to send 1,500 farmworkers to Israel, and over 400 farmworkers from Malawi are already there.
Eldad Nitzan, the president of a staffing company that provides workers for the Israeli construction industry, recently expressed his concerns about labor shortages in Calcalist, an Israeli daily business newspaper. Nitzan noted that the lack of Palestinians could drive up labor costs by 20%. A recent debate in the Israeli Parliament’s Interior Committee concluded that filling labor gaps will be challenging due to the reluctance of many countries to send their citizens to a war zone.
In reality, there is still some Palestinian presence in Israel. A few thousand Palestinians have continued to enter Jewish settlements in occupied areas of the West Bank, at the request of local authorities. An additional 5,000 West Bank Palestinians work in Israel and other settlements in crucial sectors like hospitals, food and military uniform factories, which are considered vital during times of war.
Abdala is one of the Palestinians still working in Israel. He would only give his first name and declined to have his face photographed, acutely aware of the stigma attached to Palestinians working for Israel while Gaza is relentlessly bombed. Abdala suspects that the food he’s preparing at work is for Israeli soldiers, but says, “With or without me, those soldiers are going to eat. It’s just a job, so I don’t care.” Abdala is married with two daughters and can earn up to $2,700 a month in his current job. He earned less than a third of that in the West Bank.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition