Will the Palestinian Government Fight the Work-permit Collaborators With Israel?

Robbing Palestinians is Israel’s daily bread. But it remains to be seen whether the Ramallah government will keep its promise to fight the Palestinian profiteers who help Israeli employers illegally trade in work permits

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Palestinians pass through the Qalandiyah crossing into Israel, June 16, 2019.
Palestinians pass through the Qalandiyah crossing into Israel, June 16, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The Palestinian Authority does a good job keeping track of writers of Facebook posts that criticize it – and arrests them. Its security services keep Hamas and its members away from the public space in the enclaves of the West Bank. The Palestinian police arrest anyone who eats in public on Ramadan.

But none of these security services touches Palestinian brokers who with Israeli employers are running a black market in work permits. The profiteers achieve this by helping exploit tens of thousands of Palestinians a year – in broad daylight.

It’s no surprise that the Israeli authorities know about the illegal trade, and despite promises of reform, allow it to exist. The Israelis who profit from this directly are constituencies, potential supporters of politicians. They also know which official can be persuaded to turn a blind eye, and presumably how much of a bribe he should receive.

The Israeli companies are registered, supervised, known. It’s not a big problem to discover who’s employing Palestinians in accordance with his quotas and who’s providing a false report.

But for us Israeli Jews, robbing Palestinians is our daily bread. Land. Water. Space. Springs. Houses. Nature – as well as the customs and taxes that we don’t return to the PA treasury and for which we even collect fat commissions. And the high fines imposed by the military courts. And so on and so on. The list is endless, and it’s not our subject now. In short: Thievery is part of domination.

We’re in the post-Romantic era, so we’re not surprised that there are Palestinians who assist in the exploitation of their brothers and sisters who spend 18 hours a day working in Israel (including traveling there and returning home) in order to support their families honorably. What is surprising is that the Palestinian authorities have been standing aside, because there are things that they – and Palestinian society in general – can do, and stopping the permit scalpers is one of them.

The Palestinian government announced two weeks ago that it would take steps to stop the phenomenon, without explaining how. It’s embarrassing to conclude that what spurred it to make this decision is a report by the Bank of Israel, which tried to estimate the profits being raked in by Israeli employers and Palestinian and Israeli brokers in the wide-open permits market (120 million shekels – $34 million – in 2018, at a conservative estimate).

Kav LaOved, an Israeli rights group that offers legal aid and advice to workers from various communities, has tried for years to convince the authorities in Ramallah to take action. Apparently only now, when its findings and warnings have also been supported in a study by an official body of the occupying state, someone in the Palestinian government noticed the extent of the disgrace and neglect.

And maybe I’m just a nasty woman, and the change can be attributed to the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, which is trying “to sever the Palestinian economy from dependence on Israel.” Shaher Sa’ad, the eternal secretary-general (about 30 years in the job, without elections) of the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions, went to the media with an announcement of support for his government’s steps. But declarations alone are worthless.

The Bank of Israel study estimates that about one-third of the Palestinian workers in Israel are forced to buy their work permits for large sums of money. The 2014 Kav La’Oved report came to the same conclusion. But according to a more recent and comprehensive report it published this year (appropriately dubbed “The Conquer of Labor”), the estimate has already soared: About half of the Palestinian workers are forced to buy permits.

Some people have the impression that the percentage of buyers is far higher. Here is what A.T, an old acquaintance, wrote to me: “Some people have the impression that the percentage of buyers is far higher. To the best of my knowledge, no Palestinian worker doesn’t pay for the right to work in Israel (in construction and agriculture). That simply doesn’t exist. I’ve spoken about that with dozens of workers. They were all forced to buy their entry permits from Israeli permit contractors who earn tens and hundreds of thousands of shekels a month from speculating in permits.”

That’s the impression of another friend, about 60 years old, a Palestinian who worked in Israel without any permit for around 30 years. “Everyone around me who isn’t barred from entering Israel bought their permit to work,” he said.

Another friend bought his first work permit from a collaborator, whom he knew from school. In 1995 the collaborator demanded 700 shekels and explained that most of it would go to the employer. At the time the phenomenon was relatively new. It began after 1991, when Israel introduced the regime of restricting the movement of Palestinians (which is called “closure”). In the meantime it has become a force of nature.

This has happened to the point where a resident of Bethlehem who works in Jerusalem (she doesn’t have to buy a permit, and her employers ensure her rights), told me about the limits of her expectations. “Every month my son has to pay 2,500 shekels for a permit and then look for work, and if he’s lucky, he’ll earn 5,000 or 6,000 shekels; 2,500 is a lot. At least let them sell it for only 700 shekels. We could manage with that.”

About 20 or 25 years ago, people spoke in a whisper about the phenomenon, and even asked that nothing be written about it so as not to harm the chance to work. Now, when permit prices have soared and the number of sellers and buyers is constantly increasing, the ability to tolerate this exploitation has plummeted. Will Shtayyeh’s government keep its promise and combat the Palestinian profiteers?

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