For Palestinian Construction Workers in Israel, the Coronavirus Is Just One More Danger

Tens of thousands of laborers from West Bank continue to work in Israel – without protective masks or gloves – because construction is deemed essential to the economy

Lee Yaron
Hagar Shezaf
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Construction workers in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2020.
Construction workers in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani
Lee Yaron
Hagar Shezaf

“I’m afraid of the corona, but I’m more afraid of not being able to feed my children or getting killed in a fall,” Ibrahim (not his real name), a Palestinian construction worker, said yesterday at a construction site in central Tel Aviv. As opposed to most Israelis, who were told to stay at home out of fear of contracting the coronavirus, construction workers have been showing up for work as usual. The power of the contractors has been enough to overcome even a pandemic – and led the government to deem construction work “essential to the economy.”

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Anyone who lives near a construction site need only look out of their window to see that nothing has changed. Not only is work continuing apace (the labor, social affairs and welfare minister has approved employing construction workers for up to 14 hours a day), but many workers are on the job without protective masks or gloves – and without maintaining the required two meters’ distance between one another. And so, in addition to the usual dangers at construction sites (the number of workers killed in construction accidents in Israel is double the average in OECD countries), the laborers have been abandoned to the coronavirus crisis.

It should look different. This week, the chairman of the construction workers’ union, Yitzhak Moyal, sent a letter to contractors. After praising their important business activities, he added a demand to provide masks, gloves and sanitizers to every worker and ensure that they are able to maintain the required distance between them.

But demands are one thing and reality is something else.

“I trust in God,” said another construction worker, an Israeli citizen working at another site in the Tel Aviv area. He had no protective equipment of any kind. There were similar scenes in Herzliya. “It’s fun; here nobody remembers there’s corona, everything is as usual,” said a construction worker, who is an asylum seeker, at a Herzliya building site. “They didn’t give us any equipment and they didn’t ask us to be careful,” he added.

Palestinian workers entering Israel for a two-month stay, March 18, 2020.
Palestinian workers entering Israel for a two-month stay, March 18, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

But not everyone is sanguine. “Construction work is hugely important economically, but continuing as usual is insane,” said Dr. Hadas Tagari, head of a group fighting construction and industrial accidents. “Construction doesn’t provide essential infrastructure that we can’t do without for a time, and in most cases [the industry] is not prepared for maintaining strict rules of social distance and hygiene. These decisions show deep disrespect for the life and health of construction workers and endanger the entire public,” Tagari said.

But the challenge of maintaining the rules of social distancing extends beyond the work day of the laborers. At night, Ibrahim sleeps next to 21 other Palestinians in a makeshift bedroom near the building site. The space they have would be unhygienic even in normal times. When Ibrahim heard that the Health Ministry has mandated a distance of two meters between people, he laughed. There’s not even half a meter between the beds – that is, between the mattresses spread out on the floor. But it’s hard to say he was surprised. “I’ve been working in construction for 20 years, our lives are in danger every day,” he said. A reminder of that came on Wednesday when Salah Nabulsi, from the Aqabat Jaber refugee camp near Jericho fell from a construction crane at a factory in Ma’aleh Adumim – the tenth construction worker killed on the job since the beginning of the year.

“I’ve seen friends who fell and were injured; I worry about that more than the corona,” Ibrahim said, in a hurry to get back to work. “Maybe if we were Jews they would protect us better and wouldn’t send us to work like this,” he added.

Unlike Ibrahim, Israeli laborers can go home at the end of the day. But for Palestinians the situation is more complicated. On ordinary days the security establishment worries about Palestinians remaining overnight in Israel. But now the main concern is that they’ll go back and forth between Israel and the West Bank and become carriers of the virus on both sides of the fence. For that reason, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett decided that only laborers who agree to stay overnight in Israel for two months can continue to work at jobs considered “essential.” If a worker goes back to the West Bank, his work permit will be revoked.

It’s also not clear whether workers who don’t agree to this condition and go home for the two months will receive unemployment benefits from Israel.

Ibrahim is one of the workers who did agree to the “deal.” He’ll remain in Israel for the duration of the crisis and won’t go home for many weeks. “I prefer to be home like the Jews and like you, with a mask. But what will my wife say if we don’t have money? It’s a choice of no-choice,” he told Haaretz.

A construction site in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2020.
A construction site in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

And in fact, it’s not at all clear when and how the workers will be able to return to the territories, even for a visit. According to the Defense Ministry directives, during the crisis Palestinians must stay overnight in Israel for 60 days, but contractors signed a document that states that the workers must be allowed to go home on weekends and holidays in keeping with their work permit. As if things were not already complicated enough. Meanwhile the Palestinian Authority has announced that beginning on Sunday, people will not be allowed to move between Israel and the West Bank.

Room at the inn

According to Netanel Lapidot, deputy director for strategy at the Construction and Housing Ministry, the distance between people mandated by the Health Ministry must be maintained. But there is no limitation on how many workers may sleep in one room. And even that’s not standard practice. The contractor’s association recently issued a call to hotel owners to house construction workers from the territories for a predetermined payment.

That worked, at least for a time. So far, 11,000 beds have been found. No one is sleeping alone, but there are no more than three or four to a room and they have “at least proper and acceptable conditions,” the call for accommodations states.

Another overnight option is prefab structures on construction sites. Yet another, in the south, is a plan under consideration by the Construction and Housing Ministry to house workers in the Holot detention center in the Negev, where asylum seekers were formerly housed.

Lapidot says that the decision to house Palestinian workers in Israel is due to concern over the collapse of the industry as well as damage to the Palestinian economy if workers are kept out.

Palestinian workers entering Israel for a two-month stay, March 18, 2020.
Palestinian workers entering Israel for a two-month stay, March 18, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

As for ensuring that the workers themselves are not required to pay for their own overnight accommodations, the Construction and Housing Ministry told Haaretz that it has not yet resolved this issue.

Employers’ obligations

The contractors’ association and the Defense Ministry told Haaretz that they are putting special emphasis on following the Health Ministry regulations and protecting the workers’ health. They also said that employers are required to provide proper sanitation, food and security. A security person will be on duty at night in the workers’ sleeping quarters to make sure they don’t leave. If a Palestinian is infected with the coronavirus during his stay in Israel for work, he will be treated in Israel and then returned to the West Bank. However, attorney Gadeer Nikola from the workers’ rights group Kav La’Oved told Haaretz that Palestinians do not have Israeli health insurance except for work accidents – and therefore it is not clear who would pay for such treatment.

An estimated 26,000 Palestinian workers out of a total of 70,000 holders of work permits entered Israel yesterday. In addition to those employed in construction, Palestinians working in agriculture, industry and health care were also allowed to enter Israel and stay overnight.

At first it was decided that only workers under the age of 50, who are at lower risk of becoming ill from the coronavirus, would be allowed in. But later last week it was decided to let older workers in as well, except for those from the Bethlehem area, which is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the West Bank.

The younger workers, like the older ones, are to have their temperature taken at the crossing into Israel, according to Health Ministry regulations. But most of those who crossed into Israel yesterday said their temperature was not taken.

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