Palestinians Employed in Israel Left Jobless, Without Benefits, by Coronavirus

A request to allow West Bank residents to draw on a fund that has financed their sick leave is under consideration

הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf
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Palestinian construction worker in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.
File photo of a Palestinian construction workers in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.Credit: Baz Ratner/ Reuters
הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf

Half of the roughly 80,000 Palestinians who work in Israel have been laid off due to coronavirus-related restrictions imposed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The 40,000 Palestinians who are thought to be affected are not entitled to unemployment benefits, creating a growing sense of insecurity over their financial futures.

The Kav LaOved worker’s hotline and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel are demanding that the Israeli government release sums to these employees that had been paid into a fund by their employers to cover the workers’ sick days. There is roughly 515 million shekels ($141 million) in the fund.

The government has not yet issued a response to the request, but the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority told Haaretz that consideration is currently being given by the relevant government ministries to freeing up the funds for the workers.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 71: A tale of two crises: Coronavirus vs. Constitution

The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has imposed strict limitations on its population to combat a coronavirus outbreak in the territories under its control. Last week the Israeli Defense Ministry gave West Bank Palestinians working in essential economic sectors, notably construction, agriculture and health, the option of continuing to work in Israel on the condition that they remain in Israel for two months without returning home.

It is estimated that since last Wednesday, some 47,000 West Bank Palestinians have chosen to remain in Israel so they could keep working. That represents roughly half of the Palestinians who under normal times would legally cross into Israel to work.

Residents of the West Bank Palestinian town of Bethlehem, where there has been a serious coronavirus outbreak, are not being permitted to come into Israel. Other Palestinians who have jobs in Israel have opted not to come to work because they did not want to be away from home for such an extended period, while others do not qualify to come to work because they are in fields that are not considered essential. Some of those who had opted to stay in Israel have changed their minds, returning home after a few days.

In addition to Israel’s restrictions, on Sunday evening the Palestinian Authority declared a general curfew in the West Bank, under which movement among cities and villages is barred and residents must remain at home. West Bank residents who work in Israeli settlements have also been instructed not to report to work.

Khaled, an agricultural worker from the Jenin district, had planned to work in Israel during the current period. He has worked for the past six years at a large strawberry farm in the center of the country. Last Wednesday he came to the farm with a bag packed for a two-month stay, but discovered that no one had arranged a place for him to sleep.

“I don’t know what the boss was thinking. Maybe that I’d sleep in the field?” he quipped. He collected his belongings and returned to the West Bank, but not before he said his employer threatened to cancel his Israeli work permit. Now he’s at home and has no idea how his family will manage in the short run, since he is the family’s main breadwinner.

In an effort to find a solution for these unemployed Palestinians, Kav LaOved and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel wrote to the interior, finance and labor ministers demanding that the 515 million shekels in the sick leave fund be released.

Until the beginning of 2019, employers had been automatically deducting 2.5 percent of the Palestinians’ salaries and paying it into the fund, which is managed by the Population and Immigration Authority. Over the years, hundreds of millions of shekels has accumulated, not least because making a claim required Palestinian workers to go through such a complicated procedure that claims were only made for serious injuries or illnesses.

In 2018, the government set up an interministerial committee to examine how the funds could best be put to use. As far as is known, the committee completed its work early last year, but as a result of Israel’s repeatedly inconclusive elections and the country’s ongoing governance by a caretaker administration, its recommendations have not been considered, let alone approved.

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