The Plight of the Palestinian Laborer

Poverty and unemployment in the West Bank - a direct result of the occupation - drive Palestinian laborers to endure the pain and humiliation of working in Israel.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Just another day. Palestinians on their way to work go through an army checkpoint near Jenin.
Just another day. Palestinians on their way to work go through an army checkpoint near Jenin. Credit: AP
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Israelis see them and they don’t see them. They are on the scaffold of the building going up next to ours. We see them and we don’t see them. We have no idea what they endure and we don’t care. The people who build our homes and pave our roads left their own homes at around 2 A.M. last night. They will return in the evening, after a long, exhausting day of work, nearly 24 hours of hard labor, hard traveling and humiliation. Tonight they will again leave their homes for jobs in Israel. While some Israelis come to work bleary-eyed because their baby woke them up two or three times during the night, these people know no day or night.

They are divided into the lucky and the unlucky. A few tens of thousands have work permits for Israel — 47,350 as of March — and a few tens of thousands sneak in without permits. Those with permits travel this Via Dolorosa each night; those who sneak in will stay at the construction site for two or three weeks, passing long, cold nights in fear of getting caught. They are the illegals. If caught they will be treated like hunted animals. After a few hours of questioning they will be dumped on the other side of the checkpoint, like garbage. Sometimes they will be arrested or fined. They will return. They have no choice. Some pay with their lives for this journey in search of work.

They come to Israel on account of the poverty and unemployment of the West Bank, which are the direct result of the closure and the occupation imposed by Israel. Their working and living conditions are worse even than those of sweatshop workers in the Far East. There once can at least fall asleep at one’s machine, the (miserable) quarters are next to the factory and there are no “illegals.” It is doubtful that Chinese workers are humiliated the way their Palestinian counterparts are, even if the Palestinians are paid much more.

Israel needs them and knows how to exploit their weakness. They pay thousands of shekels to makhers who arrange work permits for them every few months and they are willing to suffer any hardship because they have no choice. Last week they stood tall for a moment: Around 5,000 Palestinians who work in Israel went “on strike” to protest the intolerable conditions at the Irtah (Sha’ar Ephraim) checkpoint, west of Tul Karm, which is being renovated. The next day conditions improved and they returned to work and to humiliation.

But Irtah is not alone. Every crossing has the same terrible overcrowding in narrow, barred passageways that resemble cattle chutes more than they do crossings for people: with shoving, hitting and fainting, the only human contact in the form of the voices, of those who see and are unseen, on the public address system. I saw this with my own eyes at Bethlehem’s Checkpoint 300, and again last week in a disturbing Channel 1 television report last week by Yoram Cohen. “Nobody knows the system like we do,” said Machsom Watch – Women for Human Rights volunteers Rachel, Riki and Amira in their report on the Irtah checkpoint. “The system is to oppress, humiliate and make things worse so that the subjects will be more afraid.”

To reiterate: These are people with work permits, who have passed all the security checks, most of them relatively old.

That’s the way it is night after night, and the ritual of security excusing everything. It is difficult to understand how all this does not explode. How the hatred that accumulates at night does not burst into terrible violence. How they agree, night after night, to endure this — and keep quiet. And how most Israelis do not care.

The next time an Israeli with a conscience refrains from buying sneakers or a cellphone made in Asian sweatshops, he or she should remember: The most brutal sweatshop is next to their homes. Just look once at the sad face of the worker building your home; try to imagine what he went through and put yourself in his shoes. He too is a human being.

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