Thousands of Palestinians gathered Wednesday in front of the offices of the local chamber of commerce in the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip to request a permit to work in Israel or the West Bank. A crowd of about the same size gathered in Khan Yunis in the southern of the Strip for the coveted permit, but there, the chamber of commerce offices were closed.
The Palestinians, all men, had arrived clutching their personal documentation after the chamber of commerce announced that it would be issuing the work permits, with Israel’s agreement. Even though the announcement made clear that the permits would only be issued to merchants, thousands of ordinary laborers showed up anyway. All told, 10,447 applications were submitted in Jabalya alone, the chamber said.
Israeli officials involved in the permit process told Haaretz that it was the political leadership in the Hamas-administered Strip that had decided to allocate the 7,000 permits to merchants rather than to laborers.
The Gaza laborers’ union blamed the chambers of commerce for the mass confusion, after it was only later announced that the permits would be limited to merchants. As of Wednesday, roughly 4,000 had been issued, leaving another 3,000 to be distributed.
Gazans said the masses of people who gathered outside the chambers’ offices attested to the extent of the humanitarian crisis in the enclave and the financial distress that hundreds of thousands of families face amid growing levels of unemployment.
The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics said the official jobless rate was close to 50 percent in the first quarter of 2021, and that was prior to Hamas’ war with Israel in May, which inflicted major damage to Gaza’s infrastructure and economy. It is thought that the real jobless rate is much higher.
“I have met construction workers who are willing to work 12-hour shifts for just 20 shekels [$6.20],” said Samir Zaqout, deputy director general of the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. “In conditions like this, people don’t have a lot of options, so when a man hears that he can register to work in Israel for 200 to 250 shekels a day, he jumps at the chance. Unfortunately, only a small number of people will be getting permits relative to the huge demand.”
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According to the chamber of commerce in northern Gaza, applications are only being accepted from men between the ages of 26 and 58 who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus and who are not employed by the Hamas government in Gaza. The exclusion of women has been a particular source of anger.
“Barring women from applying for a permit amounts to double or triple discrimination against them,” M., a female Gaza resident, told Haaretz. “A wife and mother carries all the weight of the family on her shoulders. It’s not as if when a man is unemployed, the wife is quietly sitting around at home. A woman has to fight for every piece of bread for her children and will take any kind of work that she can to ensure basic food for her kids. But the chamber of commerce isn’t including her in the permit quota.”
Among the crowd at the chamber’s offices on Wednesday was Ahmed, a Jabalya resident and father of four who said he has no source of livelihood.
“I came to sign up,” he said. “Now, they’re telling us it’s only for merchants and the question of who is a merchant isn’t clear to a lot of people. People also had the feeling that they would be registered today and get approved the same day, but it’s [now] clear that all the lists are going to Israel and that they will decide there who gets approved and who doesn’t. After all the tumult, it’s obvious that very few people will actually get the hoped for permit.”
A senior official in the Hamas government in Gaza told Haaretz that there are more than 300,000 job-seekers in Gaza and that the 7,000 permits that Israel had granted won’t make a big dent in that figure. He believed, he said, that Israel was issuing the permits to ease tensions in the Strip and in response to an Egyptian request to alleviate conditions for ordinary Gazans.
If similar future steps are not taken, such as issuing additional permits or allowing more goods and building materials to enter Gaza, the 7,000 permits wouldn’t have a real impact on the humanitarian situation, he added.
“The crowds of people [applying] only underscore the deep distress, and that should send a signal to everyone – Israel, Egypt and the international community,” the official said.