General Strike Highlights Israel's Dependency on Palestinian Workers

The Israel Builders Association said the strike over the situation in Gaza, Jerusalem and in mixed cities across Israel paralyzed building sites, causing estimated losses of nearly $40 million

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The general strike in Ramallah, yesterday
The general strike in Ramallah, yesterdayCredit: Nasser Nasser,AP
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

A hundred East Jerusalem residents have been working for years as street cleaners in Modi’in. There had never been any friction or conflict between them and the city’s residents. Every day they would leave Shoafat, go through two checkpoints to arrive at 5:30 A.M. in the Israeli city, collect garbage until the afternoon, and go home. Modi’in residents are pleased with how their city looks, and would at times send messages to the municipality complimenting the cleaners’ work.

On Tuesday, as a result of the strike called by the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee in Israel to protest the situation in Gaza, Jerusalem, and the country’s mixed cities, the longtime cleaners did not come to work. In the evening, other Arab workers came to the city to clean the streets.

The residents’ response surprised the cleaners. “This is the perfect time to fix this distortion and start to employ only Jews! Or Arabs who are loyal to the State of Israel and declare so openly,” one resident wrote to City Hall. Another added, “Fire them, it’s identifying with terror,” and another raged, “Now employ only Jews and they can go to hell.” Only one resident countered these comments, writing, “People are losing their homes and lives these days, but Modi’in’s garbage hasn’t been collected. Too bad that the garbage that comes out of people’s mouths is harder to collect.”

A cleaner in Modi'inCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Avi Mizrahi, chairman of the Union of Cleaning Companies, who is also the employer of these workers, said some had wanted to come to work but when they got to checkpoints they were subjected to pressure not to break the strike. “We felt their absence all over the country,” Mizrahi said. “We can’t work without them, they’re part of us.”

According to the organization, some 5,000 cleaning workers (6.5 percent) of all the Arab cleaning workers didn’t come to work Tuesday. And while in Modi’in’s case the calls to fire the strikers were ignored, in other cases workers were dismissed, after being warned they’d be fired if they didn’t show up.

According to the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, the level of response to the call to strike was “unprecedented.” Mudar Younis, chairman of the Committee of Arab Local Council Heads, said he believes more than half the Arab public participated in the strike. “Everything was closed, people held a quiet protest to remind the Israeli public that we are a substantial part, that you can’t manage without Arab citizens,” he said.

Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh added, “From doctors to taxi drivers and high-tech workers, everyone joined the general strike as an act of unity that’s a source of pride for Arab citizens. Weeks of the Netanyahu government’s provocative and violent policy of repression have failed and will not succeed in repressing our struggle or diverting us from our path – an organized and just civil struggle against the occupation, the blockade, the attack on Gaza and for peace and equality.”

In Beit Shemesh, which is experiencing a construction boom, all the cranes were silent on Tuesday. One crane operator said that many operators are Arabs who were striking, and added, “If we would all fight that way for workers’ rights maybe we would achieve something.” The Israel Builders Association said Palestinian workers had observed the strike, with only 150 of the 65,000 Palestinian construction workers coming to work in Israel. This paralyzed building sites, causing losses estimated at 130 million shekels (nearly $40 million). But even before the strike, since the beginning of the operation in Gaza, only 6,000 to 8,000 Palestinians were coming to work every day. According to Yehuda Katav, vice president of the builder’s association, construction has slowed to a snail’s pace. “We cannot build without them,” he said.

Users of public transportation also felt the strike; the Transportation Ministry said 910 drivers, some 10 percent of all bus drivers, didn’t show up for work Tuesday. Egged spokesman Ron Ratner said nearly 300 journeys had to be canceled, while the Kavim bus company warned riders to expect disruptions and avoid unnecessary trips that day.

Just 150 out of 65,000 Palestinian construction workers arrived at their jobs yesterdayCredit: Ilan Assayag

By contrast, most health care workers did not strike. Although 47 percent of pharmacists are Arab, the overwhelming majority of the country’s pharmacies were open. Hospitals, the Health Ministry and the health maintenance organizations (HMOs) reported that only 1,494 medical workers were absent Tuesday due to the strike.

In the four branches of Ahmad Zuhdi Market in Baka al-Garbiyeh, it was Jews who were missing this week. Despite numerous items on sale, Jewish customers hadn’t patronized the stores for days. On Tuesday Mohammed Athamna told his 120 employees to strike as called for by the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee and tried to explain his reasons.

“Many Jews didn’t understand our intentions,” he said. “We don’t favor violence, on the contrary, with this quiet and peaceful protest we are saying we favor equality. The Jewish public isn’t aware of some of the injustices against us.” He added: “The start of the solution is when they will give an Arab child education like a Jewish child, with the same budget. I pay taxes just like you, I deserve to be an equal citizen.”

Many in the Arab community felt that their protest had been taken hostage by radicals and therefore did not gain wide Jewish support. Haaretz called dozens of leading employers and asked for their opinion about the strike. None agreed to comment for the record. “We support the workers, but every word we say will be used against us,” said a company owner from the center of the country.

Closed businesses in East Jerusalem as Palestinians went on general strike, yesterdayCredit: Emil Salman

Joint List lawmaker Aida Touma-Sliman decried this lack of support. “Unlike the women’s strike three years ago, which was backed by all of society, yesterday’s strike was strongly opposed by the media, the right, and large parts of the public,” she said. “The day after things calm down, the Israeli public will have to look in the mirror and decide what kind of relationship it wants to have with the minority it lives with."

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