Arab Town Looks to Build Awareness of Deaths on Construction Sites

Deir Hanna has lost four locals to work accidents in Israel's construction industry, where five times more employees are injured than in Britain.

Khaled and Adawiyah Salem, the parents of Majdi Salem, who died at a construction site in Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael earlier this month, May 23, 2016.
Rami Shllush

The residents of Deir Hanna are used to political demonstrations. But the Arab town in Lower Galilee had never witnessed a rally like the one that took place there two weeks ago when hundreds of people – women and men, young and old – attended an event in memory of victims of work accidents throughout Israel.

Over the past decade, the town has lost four residents to work accidents. The ceremony began with marchers carrying pictures of the victims.

Shadi Hamud, a site foreman and one of the event’s organizers, said the purpose was to raise public awareness – in the Arab community in particular, and among Israelis in general – of the growing number of work accidents, especially on construction sites.

“There’s no doubt there’s whitewashing, and there are those who feel themselves immune from the law and thumb their noses at it,” he said. “It’s impossible to talk about a healthy society as long as construction workers are being killed like this.”

A construction worker at a building site in Ashkelon, November 25, 2014.
Ilan Assayag

Israel has one of the highest rates of construction accidents in the Western world – more than twice the European average and more than five times the British average – according to a report published earlier this month.

Ten Arab construction workers have been killed in Israel so far this year, including two men from Deir Hanna. In addition, 92 Arabs were injured in such accidents, according to Mateh Hama’avak B’teunot Ha’avoda, an organization that seeks to prevent work accidents. Of the injured, 35 were seriously injured and suffered permanent disabilities.

Majdi Salem, 25, a promising sixth-year medical student, was killed after he fell from a height of 8 meters (26 feet) at a construction site in Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael earlier this month, on his very first day on the job. His death shocked the Arab community, especially fellow residents of Deir Hanna.

His father, Khaled Salem, tries to be strong, but his eyes fill with tears whenever his son’s name is mentioned. His wife, Adawiyah, doesn’t open her mouth. She just looks at Majdi’s picture and cries.

Majdi is also survived by an older brother – a special-needs adult who lives in an institution – and two younger sisters.

Khaled Salem said thousands of people from all over the country had come to pay condolence calls. There have been many construction accidents in recent years, he said, “but our feeling is that Majdi’s case touched everyone’s heart.”

Though Majdi attended medical school in Romania, “he returned to Israel whenever he could to work, even if only for a few days,” his father said. This time, he used a two-week vacation to join his uncles at the Ma’agan Michael construction site, where an events hall was getting a new roof.

“We’re still having trouble digesting what happened,” Khaled Salem continued. “I was waiting for my son to return to me in another few weeks with a medical degree, and suddenly I’m burying him. You hear on the news about a worker being killed on a construction site as if it’s something that has become routine – and perhaps for the establishment it’s just another statistic. But for the families, it’s their entire world.”

The mother and brother of Khair Khalila, who was killed after falling at a construction site in November 2013, May 23, 2016.
Rami Shllush

The father said he has yet to receive any official information about what happened, or who is investigating the incident. “But I have no doubt it could have been prevented” if the contractor had taken all required safety measures, he alleged, and if the government actually enforced the law. After all, he explained, people wear seatbelts in cars not just because it’s safer, but because they fear getting a ticket. “But unfortunately, at most construction sites there’s no enforcement and no deterrence.”

On March 10, another Deir Hanna resident, Daher Shibli, 37, was killed after falling down an elevator shaft at a construction site in Kiryat Motzkin, near Haifa, leaving behind a wife and two daughters. His brother, Amal Shibli, said the family was told an investigation had been opened, but to this day they haven’t heard anything about its findings.

Amal Shibli said many factors contribute to the problem. “The workers themselves are willing to work in difficult conditions, and sometimes without any safety measures, due to economic distress,” he said. “At the same time, the contractors want to make money and reduce costs on everything, including safety measures.”

Khair Khalila, 35, of the nearby town of Arabeh, was killed after falling from a height at a construction site in November 2013. His brother, Khaled, said none of the site’s workers were following safety regulations. Today, he makes sure workers at his sites do so, but that isn’t the case at most sites, he warned.

Moreover, he added, the investigation into his brother’s death was lackadaisical, “as if it were obvious that Arab workers are killed in work accidents.”

Two construction workers from the north, who asked to remain anonymous, said one building site manager had forced them to sign a document saying they had been trained in how to work safely at heights, even though they hadn’t.

Contractors readily sign commitments to uphold safety regulations, the workers added, but few do so in practice. Most workers don’t even wear hard hats.

Hamud, the demonstration organizer, said most of those killed at construction sites are Arabs, whether Israeli Arabs or West Bank Palestinians, “and it’s clear to everyone that if this weren’t the case, the state’s conduct would be completely different.”

He added that laws and regulations on workplace safety aren’t worth much unless they are effectively enforced. That doesn’t happen currently, which is the state’s fault, he said. But at the same time, he stressed, workers “need to understand that it’s their obligation to insist that all safety regulations be obeyed – and if not, they’ll sit at home and not work.”