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Muhammad Nawaj’ah: Since the coronavirus pandemic started, I was away from home for 40 days. No one compensates the workers for lost workdays, so I prefer to suffer now and be away from my family.
From the field

Forty days away from home: Testimony of Muhammad Nawaj’ah

After the coronavirus broke out, Israel informed the Palestinians employed in its territory they had a choice: remain at their workplace in Israel, away from their families and entirely dependent on the mercy of their employers, or go home and give up on their jobs and income.

Muhammad Nawaj’ah (33), a construction worker from Yatta in the Hebron District, had just got a permit to work in Israel and was looking forward to starting his new life. The new restrictions cut his dream short. He gave his testimony to B’Tselem on 19 April 2020 while still in Tel Aviv, where he had spent 40 days in a row working on a construction site:

Three months ago, I finally got a permit to work in Israel, after I hired a lawyer and paid him 10,000 shekels (~2,860 USD). Until then, I’d worked in construction in Yatta, but the work was irregular. I didn’t earn much and as a result, I got into debts. I support my parents, my wife and my 8-month-old daughter. I also help pay university fees for two of my brothers. Receiving the Israeli work permit made us very happy. It seemed like we were starting a new journey and would be able to get out of debt. I was overjoyed.

After I got the permit, I started working in Tel Aviv. I left for work every day at 3:00 A.M. and reached Checkpoint 300, where I waited a long time with thousands of other workers in harsh, crowded conditions. After I passed through the checkpoint, I traveled to the construction site in Tel Aviv, worked all day and got home only around 9:00 P.M. That’s what my life looked like.

I pay 140 shekels (~40 USD) a day for the permit, which is 2,700 shekels (~770 USD) a month. The travel costs are about 100 shekels (~28 USD) a day. Yet even after all these expenses, I make double what I made in Yatta. Because I’m a floorer, I make about 500 shekels (~140 USD) a day. Unskilled laborers earn only 300 shekels (~85 USD) a day. They are left with 100 shekels (~28 USD) in hand, after deducting the permit and travel expenses. We’re all vulnerable to exploitation by the brokers who sell the permits. They even take a commission for days we don’t work, such as Jewish holidays.

When the pandemic broke out and Israel declared a state of emergency, it instructed Palestinian laborers to not go home and stay in Israel. I’m lucky, because the company I work for has rented an apartment for us close to the construction site. Many other workers are forced to sleep in the building sites, in very harsh conditions. I only leave the apartment to buy food at the supermarket.

I haven’t been home for 40 days and I’m still trying to adjust to the new reality, far from my family. I’m staying here for now. Going home would cost hundreds of shekels, because the taxi drivers are only allowed to drive one passenger at a time. Also, the Palestinian Authority has set up checkpoints near the Israeli military checkpoints and is forcing every laborer who comes back to self-isolate for 14 days. The problem is that no one compensates them for the lost workdays, so I prefer to remain far from my family. That way I can keep my job. I don’t know when I’ll get home, but I really hope I can spend at least some of Ramadan with my family.

Update: After more than 40 days, Muhammad Nawaj’ah returned home to spend the month of Ramadan with his family.

* The testimony was given to B'Tselem field researcher Musa Abu Hashhash on 19 April 2020 by telephone.