Israeli Right-wing Party Drops Bid to Have Labor Law Apply in West Bank

Farmers argue they can’t afford to pay Palestinians the wages paid in Israel.

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Palestinians working at a grove of date palms in the Jordan Valley.
Palestinians working at a grove of date palms in the Jordan Valley. Credit: Michal Fattal
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

Habayit Hayehudi is halting a two-year effort to have Israeli labor law apply in the West Bank, after farmers argued that improving Palestinian work terms to Israeli levels would bankrupt them.

Legislation to use Israeli labor law in the West Bank was one of the right-wing party’s flagship bills in the previous Knesset. It was sponsored by former MK Orit Strock.

She initiated it after hearing that a pregnant worker in the Barkan industrial zone had been fired, even though firing a pregnant woman is illegal without special permission from the Economy Ministry. When the woman complained to the ministry, she was told Israeli laws protecting pregnant women do not apply in the West Bank.

When Strock submitted her bill in August 2013, it caused a political storm and a clash with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who opposed it on grounds it could be interpreted as annexation of the territories. Habayit Hayehudi argued that it addressed an important human rights and women’s rights issue.

In the cabinet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supported the bill. “Israeli citizens, including those who live in Judea and Samaria, must have equal rights,” he said. “I am committed to this.”

Bennett in the Habayit Hayehudi election headquarters after the release of the exit polls, March 18, 2015.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Habayit Hayehudi chief Naftali Bennett, who was economy minister at the time, gave a fiery speech to the cabinet. He called on Netanyahu “not to lend a hand to parts of the left that are trying in every way to delegitimize the Jews of Judea and Samaria and harm the image of the normalcy of Israeli life in those parts of the country.”

In the end a compromise was reached: The attorney general envisioned labor laws applied via a military order signed by the head of Central Command. It was agreed that if the preparatory work took too long, the cabinet would support the legislation.

The army took the issue seriously and military prosecutors worked for a year to research the law, eventually combining parts of 40 different labor laws into one tentative order.

One obstacle was that there are no labor courts in the West Bank. Israel has never set up state courts there because Israeli law does not fully apply there.

On the other hand, it was argued, Palestinians have a hard time filing suit in Israeli courts because they cannot enter Israel freely. The Justice Ministry eventually proposed local courts in Ariel, Kiryat Arba and Ma’aleh Adumim to handle labor cases.

Local wages

But all the work has turned out for naught with Habayit Hayehudi withdrawing the bill. Sources told Haaretz that Jordan Valley farmers put heavy pressure on Bennett to drop the issue, saying the increased wages and benefits they would have to pay their Palestinian workers would drive them out of business.

“If we paid for water like they pay in Israel, and get services like in Israel, we’d be prepared to accept the law here,” a farmer told Haaretz. “We very much respect our Palestinian workers, but there’s no reason for them to get an Israeli salary when they live in the Palestinian Authority.

Also, the government is hypocritical, the farmer said.

“If they want us to pay Palestinians like they pay in Israel, then go all the way. Let the government also do its part,” he added. “Why not pay them unemployment benefits from the National Insurance Institute budget?”

Bennett’s media adviser did not respond to requests for comment. According to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s office, “The draft versions of the [military] orders reached us only recently and it hasn’t been decided which courts will deal with the matter.”

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