Three recently discharged Israeli army officers who served in the Civil Administration in the West Bank are determined to succeed where they say the military habitually fails: the fight against the exploitation of Palestinian workers, who are often forced to buy entry permits to work in Israel at a monthly cost between 1,500 and 2,500 shekels ($730).
Israeli contractors, along with Israeli and Palestinian middlemen – and maybe even officials who look the other way – pocket this easy money, over 120 million shekels of net profits a year. “We were in the system, we know how hard it is to move and change,” said one of these officers, now in the reserves, at the launch of their civilian initiative around two weeks ago at a hotel in East Jerusalem.
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The doubts the three have about the huge ship’s ability to change direction have a basis in reality, but in that reality, not only is the military system involved but also the civilian one.
A reminder: At the end of 2016, the government ordered a reform in the way Palestinians are employed (and this was because of a state comptroller’s report on the matter). This is supposed to be carried out with the Finance Ministry, the Defense Ministry (the army’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories), the Construction and Housing Ministry and the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority.
Government spokespeople who voice a desire to end this horrible exploitation have been promising for over a year that the reform is about to be implemented – after a pilot program and a few preliminary steps that have been taken. In November, two officials who requested anonymity told Haaretz that the reform would start being implemented in January and begin with the construction industry, which has the highest number of Palestinian workers, 65,000.
January came and went, and a third official told Haaretz last week that from the beginning the intention was to begin in mid-February, but this has been delayed because Israel only has a caretaker government amid the three general elections within a year. Also last week, a fourth official said the budgets for the reforms are ready.
The main aspect of the reform is to stop tying every worker to a specific employer as a condition for receiving an entry permit.
To achieve this, an online database of workers is planned, to be managed by the Civil Administration and the Housing Ministry. Palestinians seeking to work in Israel will be registered there (if they pass a security check) – “like you submit an application for a visa to the United States,” the fourth official said. The workers will undergo training and take an exam, and the employers will have access to the database so they can contact the workers.
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This is approximately what the three former Civil Administration officers have managed to do in civilian life: They built an online registration page (a landing page, in the professional jargon) called Better Jobz. Later it will be a more developed website, which will be expensive to build “because of the need to protect the information entered on it, so we’re now in the stage of raising donations to operate it,” one of the three former officers said.
So far, 1,000 Palestinians looking for an employer have registered on the landing page, say the three reserve officers, who promise that the site will remain free for workers. Later, employers will pay just 200 shekels each. This is the first initiative among a number of socioeconomic projects planned by the ex-officers’ nonprofit group, Gesher Hashalom (Bridge of Peace).
It’s an interesting initiative. So far, we have only seen former senior military and intelligence officers (including senior members of the Civil Administration and COGAT) who exploited their past positions as the direct rulers of the Palestinians. They used their connections to make money in the business sector.
Unrelated to its chances, Bridge of Peace, aware of the military’s shortcomings, is trying to compete with the government and privatize the official reform that has been planned, talked about and delayed.
The three reserve officers – Daniel Moshe, Adi Shapira and Omri Dan – all left the military and the Civil Administration between the end of 2017 and the end of 2019 after serving in the army for five to six years. Moshe was responsible for the infrastructure in the area of Khan al-Akhmar east of Jerusalem in the West Bank, and was also an officer in security coordination with the Palestinians.
Shapira was the deputy head of the international organizations unit and Dan was the deputy commander of the COGAT unit at the Allenby Bridge crossing. In other words, their positions didn’t relate to the system that issues permits for workers. They say that only after they left the army did they learn about – in shock – the outrageous and long-running phenomenon of the profiteering in entry permits and the heavy financial burden it imposes on Palestinian workers – revealed by a Bank of Israel study in the middle of last year.
They believe that a database of names managed by the army – for example, the official Arabic Facebook page of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories – will put off Palestinians. In fact, if you respond to the COGAT page you’re summoned for an interrogation by the Palestinian security agencies, Moshe said at the launch.
Hundreds of fictitious Israeli front companies have been established just to trade in the entry permits, the three said at the launch. “They are registered in Israel as companies,” Shapira told the 20 people in the hall. “They don’t do anything, they hire a few Palestinians to broker between [real] Israeli companies and the workers.”
This is a severe figure, which the third and fourth officials who requested anonymity told Haaretz they don’t know about. But the fourth official said: “In a structured manner, Israeli law and regulations create the mechanism of brokering. Why? Because the Israeli employer is not able to enter the area of the Palestinian Authority and look for workers.
“You need an intermediary to find them. So there are all sorts of intermediaries in the business, brokers. Today the permit belongs to the employer, and the worker pays the employer so they will continue to employ him. The reform will do away with all this.”
In the current system, the government sets a quota for Palestinian workers in every sector – construction, agriculture and industry – according to the needs as defined by the relevant government ministries. The companies that want to hire Palestinians sign up in the payments department of the Population and Immigration Authority and submit a request for permits – after they have proved that they pay taxes and are registered with the relevant government ministry. A special committee allocates to every registrant its quota of work permits.
With the permits and paperwork in hand, the employer looks for a worker and registers him with the payments department. Only then does the worker receive his permit – and the name of the employer is listed on it. If it so desires, the employer can cancel the permit. The Civil Administration and Shin Bet are responsible for investigating the workers. The Population Authority and the government ministries are supposed to supervise the companies and the accuracy of their reports.
The Bridge of Peace quartet (they have a fourth partner, Moshe Kwiat, who “decided to move to Israel to contribute to the region”) also used a tried-and-true low-tech method: a face-to-face encounter.
“There are cities that don’t know how to overcome the methods of employment,” Kwiat said. “We started in Afula. There are dozens of Palestinians who enter [the city] legally to find work. All they do is to sit on the street and wait for someone to come and hire them – not even in their profession.
“We talked to the municipality about how to connect employers to workers. Above all, we have to create a specific and known place where workers can wait and employers will know where it is and where to go – a covered space not exposed to the sun, wind and rain where there will be coffee and tea, for example.”
Dan lives in Haifa, which he says has great demand for Palestinian workers, “but I discovered that employers don’t know how the process is conducted. They need someone to simplify it for them. We know all the rules because we’re former army officers. It’s an advantage that we bring with us,” Dan said.
It seems they hoped that many diplomats and other foreigners would attend the launch event. They say that seven of them arrived. Bridge of Peace’s founders say that the PA has shown interest in their initiative and that they will receive some type of document from a senior Palestinian official – “more senior than Hussein al-Sheikh,” the minister who heads the PA’s Civil Affairs Ministry. Last week they said they still haven’t received the letter because “the recent events have kept the PA very busy.”
In the hall were a number of Palestinians from villages west of Bethlehem along with a resident of Tzur Hadassah near Jerusalem and a few settlers from the Gush Etzion bloc – all of whom are involved in initiatives for dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. Representatives of an East Jerusalem construction company were present too; because of the sensitivity of the situation they weren’t introduced by name but they praised the initiative.
Maybe it’s the relatively young age of the four that let them say at the launch – in complete seriousness – statements like “implementing a vision of a better world,” “we’re not asking you to help us but to create change with us” and “in the past month we’ve worked night and day to produce a platform that will make the Middle East a better place.”
Dan said: “We joined the army and, with time, changed our minds. As we matured, we realized that there are two nations here who don’t understand each other. To bring people together and feel comfortable with one another, we must find a common basis. Our goal is to create personal relationships that are based on understanding, trust and joint interests through economic initiatives.” They stressed a number of times that they and their organization are apolitical.
The Population and Immigration Authority said “permits to employ Palestinian workers in Israel are not granted to manpower contractors and those who work in brokering manpower. When there is proven evidence that the holder of a permit is in practice a manpower broker or transfers his workers to another employer, the authority acts to revoke his permit, according to the authority based on the foreign workers law.”
Spokespeople for the Population Authority and Housing Ministry have repeatedly described the brokering of workers as “improper,” and told Haaretz that preparations for the implementation of the government reforms are in a very advanced stage.
COGAT said: “Registration of employers and companies, as permitted for employing Palestinian workers, falls under the responsibility of the Housing Ministry and the Population and Immigration Authority.
“Therefore, any law-enforcement activity against noncompliance with the employment regulations is conducted by those ministries. The security agencies are only responsible for checking the workers’ eligibility to receive work permits.”