Workers from the Occupied Territories

Published: 
1 Jan 2011

Under international humanitarian law, as well as human rights law, the State of Israel is required to ensure the livelihood of the Palestinian residents in the Occupied Territories under its effective control, and guarantee their right to work and to an adequate standard of living. These obligations especially apply in this case given that, since the beginning of the occupation, Israel has deliberately prevented the creation of an independent Palestinian economy and has contributed to the grave economic hardship now existing in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Rather than help rectify the problem it caused, the State of Israel continues to deny many Palestinians their right to work and earn a livelihood. Not infrequently, Palestinian workers entering Israel also fall victim to exploitation by their employers and to abusive and cruel treatment by Israeli police officers and soldiers.

Dependence on work in Israel

From the beginning of the occupation, in 1967, to the beginning of the peace process (the Oslo agreements), in 1993, Israel administrated the economy in the Occupied Territories . Its policy during these years was aimed at underdevelopment of the Palestinian economy: Israel refrained from investing in the development of an independent Palestinian economy, and encouraged Palestinians to integrate themselves in the Israeli workforce. As a result, income from work in Israel formed a major part of Palestinian domestic output. On the eve of the Oslo peace process, some 115,000 Palestinians worked in Israel , and unemployment in the Occupied Territories had declined to under five percent. These workers, who comprised one-third of the workforce in the Occupied Territories , supported hundreds of thousands of dependants.

Following establishment of the Palestinian Authority and the transfer of some of the powers in economic matters to it, an independent and strong Palestinian economy failed to develop. Part of the reason for this is found in the Palestinian Authority's failures, but an appreciable amount of the responsibility lies with Israel , which retained key powers that enabled it to continue its control of the Palestinian economy. Over the years, and particularly since the outbreak of the second intifada, in September 2000, and the increasingly violent struggle against the occupation, Israel imposed harsh restrictions on the movement of Palestinians within and from the Occupied Territories and prevented the Palestinian Authority from obtaining vital funding sources. These measures led to a Palestinian economic crisis. The lack of resources in the Occupied Territories increased Palestinian dependence on wages earned from work in Israel . This dependence of many Palestinian on work in Israel did not stop Israel from imposing a tight closure on the Occupied Territories .

General and permanent closure

In March 1993, Israel imposed a general closure on the Occupied Territories "until further notice." This general closure has never been lifted. Under the closure, Palestinians without a permit are not allowed to enter Israel . After the second intifada erupted, Israel tightened the closure. In response to the severe violence at the time, on 8 October 2000 Israel imposed a comprehensive closure on the Occupied Territories and for several months prohibited Palestinians from moving between the Occupied Territories and Israel and between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The comprehensive closure was finally lifted, but the general closure has remained in effect since then, during which Israel has periodically imposed a comprehensive closure.

In the past, too, Israel issued a limited number of permits, but the general closure was not rigidly enforced and most Palestinian workers in Israel entered and stayed inside Israel without a permit. The situation has changed drastically. The perimeter fence around the Gaza Strip is guarded by military forces, which open fire whenever they identify someone trying to cross through the fence into Israel . As a result, very few Palestinians now enter Israel from Gaza without a permit. In the West Bank , the construction of the separation barrier is on its way to completion. The barrier has greatly reduced the possibility of avoiding the closure of the West Bank , and soldiers and Border Police stationed in the "seam zone" have further minimized violations of the closure. Along with the increase in enforcement, the Israeli authorities have reduced the number of permits they issue.

Poverty and unemployment

The tight closure on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in recent years has taken the bread off the tables of thousands of Palestinian workers. Just prior to the outbreak of the second intifada, 110,000 Palestinians worked in Israel , some one-fourth of the Palestinian workforce, and the unemployment rate stood at ten percent. When the intifada began, the unemployment rate in the Occupied Territories jumped and has remained high ever since.

By way of illustration, in the first quarter of 2007, some 68,000 Palestinians, less than one-tenth of the Palestinian workforce, worked in Israel and in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank . More than twenty percent of Palestinian jobseekers were unemployed. The Palestinians who had jobs were not guaranteed a suitable living, given the low wages in the Occupied Territories and the large number of persons dependent on the workers. More than one-half of the employees in the Occupied Territories earned a monthly wage that left them and their dependants under the poverty line.

Exploitation and cruel and abusive treatment

Tens of thousands of Palestinians desperate for a source of livelihood with which to support themselves and their dependents take the risk and enter Israel without a permit. Every Week, thousands of these workers are caught by Israeli security forces. Alongside the official procedure for handling them, in which most are returned to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and some are tried and sentenced to imprisonment or fined, the security forces have developed various informal patterns of operation - which entail abuse and humiliation - for handling Palestinians they catch. In many instances, Palestinians fall victim to violent assaults and severe maltreatment by police officers and soldiers. Although the Israeli authorities officially condemn such abusive conduct, in the overwhelming majority of cases they fail to prosecute those responsible for them, and both in their acts and omissions enable the phenomenon to exist and continue.

In addition, Israeli employers often exploit the hardship of Palestinian workers, especially workers who do not have permits to enter and stay in Israel , and pay them low wages and provide them with dismal conditions, while denying them their statutory rights.