Coronavirus 'Disaster' at Israeli Factory Prompts Policy Revamp on Palestinian Workers

'I don't understand why I'm good enough to work in Israel but not good enough for the Israelis to test me,' says one worker in a Jerusalem area chicken factory, which Palestinians point to as the source of West Bank coronavirus outbreak

Hagar Shezaf
Hagar Shezaf
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Israeli health workers conduct coronavirus tests in the Arab city of Tira, near the West Bank, April 2, 2020.
Israeli health workers conduct coronavirus tests in the Arab city of Tira, near the West Bank, April 2, 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Hagar Shezaf
Hagar Shezaf

Israel said it would establish a procedure for testing Palestinian laborers suspected of having been infected by the coronavirus in Israel, as Palestinians point to a factory near Jerusalem as a possible source of the outbreak in the West Bank.

Israel had previously rejected the demand by the Palestinian Authority to test all laborers from the West Bank before they return there.

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The director of international relations in the Health Ministry, Asher Shalmon, told Haaretz that there was as yet no decision on whether the tests will take place in Israeli territory or in the West Bank.

According to Shalmon, safely transfering workers who develop coronavirus-like symptoms back to the West Bank might be preferred, because they can be better monitored by the Palestinian health system. He said it was hard to locate workers who had been tested in Israel once they returned to the West Bank.

The ministry said it still wasn’t known whether Israel would pay for the testing, or provide testing kits for the tests to be done in the West Bank, and that . Any procedure would be coordinated with the PA and Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories.

At the end of last week, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said 41 Palestinian workers who had worked in a factory in the Atarot Industrial zone outside Jerusalem and returned to PA territory had been diagnosed with . Palestinian workers are not covered by Israeli health insurance, except in cases of work accidents.

The PA had declared after a woman in the West Bank died of the coronavirus – the only such death there to date – that the source of infection had been laborers who had worked in Israel, because the son of the woman, who himself was infected, had worked in Israel. Now, because of the Passover holiday, the PA is expecting to its territory.

Yusuf Paka, mayor of Kafr Qatanna, northwest of Jerusalem, described the situation in his town as a “disaster.” He told Haaretz that in the town of 10,000, there are 48 people infected. Most residents of the town and its environs work in the Glatt Chicken factory in Atarot, where Israelis and Palestinians work together.

'Impossible reality'

A week ago the first worker there was diagnosed with the coronavirus – a Palestinian who worked in the slaughterhouse alongside the Israeli kashrut supervisors and inspectors. His coworkers said that a few days before being diagnosed he had gone home because he felt unwell, and began developing coronavirus symptoms. Several workers said there were Israeli workers who were also diagnosed with the virus. But unlike the Palestinian workers, who were sleeping in the factory, the Israeli workers come and go every day.

The Atarot Industrial Zone near Jerusalem, August 2017.
The Atarot Industrial Zone near Jerusalem, August 2017.Credit: Meirav Moran

During normal times, some 250 Palestinians work at Glatt Chicken. After the PA imposed a closure on the West Bank, the Palestinian workers were told that they would be housed in a Jerusalem hotel, but in the end, according to several workers, they were housed in several large warehouses on the factory grounds, sleeping between 15 to 20 people to a space while sharing the toilets and showers. They said they were never given face masks and that maintaining a distance of two meters between workers was impossible. “In a factory like ours you can’t maintain a distance of two meters; you’re working on an assembly line very close to each other,” a worker said.

As the days passed, some of the workers decided to leave the factory, fearing that they would contract the virus. Last Tuesday 25 workers were transported back to the West Bank, in coordination with the PA. Of the 25, 15 were eventually confirmed to be infected. According to one worker, the most recent group left the factory last Wednesday. “No one stopped us from going home,” said one of the workers. “But the week before Passover is the busiest period at the factory and all of us preferred to make some more money than to sit at home without earning anything.”

“What happened with the group of workers at Glatt Chicken demonstrates the impossible reality that tens of thousands of Palestinian workers find themselves in,” said Assaf Adiv, the director of the Maan trade union. “Having no choice and lacking any unemployment compensation, they are forced to agree to leave their families and work in Israel under a sleepover arrangement, which could lead them to get sick and endanger their lives.”

When the workers returned to the West Bank, the PA tested them for the coronavirus. Those who are infected are being housed in a hotel in PA territory. “I don’t understand why I’m good enough to work in Israel but not good enough for the Israelis to test me,” said one laborer. “Why should the PA be responsible for this? Did I work in the PA? No. So why was I sent back here the moment there was a coronavirus outbreak?”

In response, the Glatt Chicken factory said only, “This never happened.”

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