Israel Doesn't Oversee Palestinian Workers' Health Amid Coronavirus

20,000 Palestinian workers are currently in Israel working 'essential' jobs, yet governmental bodies are avoiding responsibility for their health and living conditions despite high rate of infection

Hagar Shezaf
Hagar Shezaf
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Palestinians at the Qalandiyah checkpoint, last month.
Palestinians at the Qalandiyah checkpoint, last month.
Hagar Shezaf
Hagar Shezaf

The Israeli government does not conduct coronavirus tests for the Palestinian workers coming from the West Bank, and is refusing the Palestinian Authority's request to test workers returning to the West Bank.

Additionally, no one is monitoring the housing and work conditions of the 20,000 Palestinian workers currently sleeping in Israel and working at jobs defined as "essential.”

This is despite the fact that according to PA statistics, over half of patients in the West Bank are workers who were infected in Israel, or people infected by them.

About a month ago the Defense Ministry approved the entry of Palestinian workers into Israel on condition that they promised not to return to the West Bank for weeks. Tens of thousands of Palestinian workers entered Israel for a prolonged period, before the crossings were closed, and since then the only way for Palestinians to enter Israel is by infiltrating via breaches in the separation barrier - without being tested and without follow-up.

But the absence of supervision is even more blatant while they are staying in Israel. According to a decision by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, the employers are responsible for housing their workers. In the wake of the decision, the Construction and Housing Ministry published a document  in which employers promise to ensure reasonable housing conditions for their workers. 

A week later the Health Ministry published directives regarding sleeping arrangements and safety in the workplace, including the obligation to take the workers' temperature on every work day and a limit on the number of workers per room - four at most.

In the past month Haaretz has received testimonies from workers in agriculture, construction and industry regarding their unfit and dangerous sleeping conditions. At the Glatt Off slaughterhouse in the Atarot industrial area, 15-20 workers sleep in the same room in contradiction to the directives, and a number of the factory workers contracted the coronavirus. In another case, an agricultural worker said it was suggested that he sleep in a tent. 

Construction workers getting their temperatures checked in Tel Aviv, March 30, 2020.
Construction workers getting their temperatures checked in Tel Aviv, March 30, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Abed Dari, the field coordinator for Palestinian workers at the Kav Laoved workers' hotline, said that in recent days he received requests from workers who wanted to return home, but their employer threatened them that if they do so - their work visa would be cancelled or they would be laid off.

This month the coalition for the prevention of construction and industrial accidents sent a letter to the prime minister and to the ministers of social services, housing and health, warning of an absence of binding instructions for preserving workers' health and an enforcement mechanism for the existing directives. 

But no government body is taking responsibility for enforcing the directives. The Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry, which includes the Safety and Operational Health Administration, said that its supervisors are not enforcing the Health Ministry guidelines. Answering a question by Haaretz, the Population and Immigration Authority, which monitors the conditions of migrant workers, said that the subject is the responsibility of the housing and health ministries and that "the immigration supervisors are presently reinforcing the police."

Hadas Tagari, the director of the coalition against construction and industrial accidents, said "the rejection of responsibility by all the relevant ministries is infuriating, but worst of all is the attitude of the Labor and Social Services Ministry, since the Safety and Operational Health Administration that operates under its aegis is legally responsible for protecting the workers' health and safety, and has the relevant knowledge, manpower and means."

The Health Ministry said that the directives are enforced broadly by the Israel Police, but the police said that "you have to ask the government ministries in charge of the matter," adding that it does not have the authority to enforce steps such as taking temperatures or wearing masks in the workplace. The Housing Ministry said that the enforcement is under the authority of the police and the Population and Immigration Authority. The Housing Ministry also said that the Contractors' Association is operating a "sleeping arrangements patrol" and that the Contractors' Registrar supervisors began conducting inspections at construction sites on the eve of Passover, although this has not been defined as being under the office's responsibility.

At present Palestinian workers are insured only against work accidents. According to Health Ministry directives regarding the workers' housing, the employers were supposed to provide health insurance for the workers prior to their entry into Israel. But the memorandum of the law requiring employers to insure their Palestinian workers until the pandemic is over has yet to be approved, and today there are thousands of Palestinian workers living in Israel without health insurance, who are prevented from returning to the West Bank to receive treatment if they want to continue to work. 

Palestinians at the Qalandiyah checkpoint, last month.
Palestinians at the Qalandiyah checkpoint, last month. Credit: Emil Salman

The Health Ministry said that "there were comments from the public regarding the memo that was published, which are still being clarified from the legal aspect."

Israel is also not conducting a follow-up on the number of Palestinians returning to the West Bank. Before Passover the PA demanded that Israel administer coronavirus tests to all the workers returning to its territory. Israel refused, but the Health Ministry said that it would draw up a procedure for testing workers suffering from the symptoms of COVID-19 or would send them to the PA to be tested.

No such procedure was drawn up. However, due to a case in which a worker suspected of suffering from the virus was abandoned at a checkpoint, the ministry explained to hospital directors that the return of workers to the PA must be coordinated with the Civil Administration. In effect, only a few workers underwent coronavirus testing in Israel. The PA says that during the holiday 8,000 Palestinian workers returned home.

According to PA figures, of 319 carriers of the virus in the West Bank, 85 were infected while working in Israel and another 101 were infected by them. Last week a spokesman for the Palestinian government, Ibrahim Melhem, claimed that the workplaces in Israel and in the settlements are "incubators" for the pandemic and that "Israel is suffering from Israelis' failure to obey the preventive steps because they love money and want to continue to operate the wheel of production."

In recent weeks there have even been complaints in the West Bank to the effect that Israel is allowing the virus to spread in the region. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon, even said that these accusations are "a crossing of a red line and a blow to the great efforts being made in Israel to cope with the shared challenge and the crisis affecting the region."

Meanwhile the Palestinians themselves are taking steps to counter the unsupervised entry and exit of workers. A Palestinian security worker from the town of Beta near Nablus told Haaretz that in the region it was decided to confiscate cars that transport workers to Israel. 

Marwan al-sheikh from the town of Deir al-Ghusun near the separation barrier in the Qalqilya area, said there is a team of volunteers who wait for the workers crossing in both directions through breaches in the barrier, in order to instruct them to self-isolate when they return from Israel. He said that many of the workers prefer not to return to the West Bank via the checkpoints "because they film them, check them in front of everyone, and they feel that they're being labeled as ill."

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