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occupied territories

The Wall and the Sweatshops

Palestinian Workers in Abu Dis near Jerusalem


INCE MAY 2006, the 75,000 people of Abu Dis and other Arab villages near Jerusalem have been cut off from the city by the separation wall. Until then there were still openings here and there, but in April of that year occurred two events that led the army to seal them. One was a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. The bomber, who came from the PA Territories, had entered Israel via Jerusalem by sneaking through an opening. A few days later the High Court decided to permit completion of the "Jerusalem envelope," as it is called. The result has left tens of thousands of breadwinners outside the city and jobless.

In April 2007, we visited the Muna Center in Abu Dis and spoke with victims of the wall. Marwan M'tir, 35, married and a father of two, worked seven years in an East Jerusalem old-age home. He has been out of a job for a year. "The area cut off by the separation barrier includes Abu Dis, al-Eizarya, Sawahre al-Sharqiyya and Sheikh Sa'ad. All are suburbs of Jerusalem. Around other West Bank cities, such as Nablus, Ramalah and Hebron, the outlying villages have been able to keep their connections to the urban center. Not so with us. We have no infrastructure of institutions, hospitals, places of work. We are connected only to Jerusalem. To cut us off is to deal us a death blow."

In 2005 the government of Ariel Sharon decided that by 2008 there should be no more Palestinians working in Israel. During 40 years of Occupation, Israel exploited the Territories as a commodities and labor market, undermining any possibility of an independent economy. Now it washes its hands of its former laborers. The line of the wall fits this decision, excluding as many Arabs as possible from Jerusalem.

The lucky ones with permits who can still get through must endure the ordeal of the checkpoints. Nasser Obeidat, Secretary of the Union of Public Service Workers in Abu Dis, told us: "A worker has to arrive on the job by 7 a.m. Geographically, the distance from his home is ten minutes, but because of the checkpoints he must leave his house at 4 a.m. Sometimes he waits for hours on line. The soldiers like to play with them. They treat them like dogs. Or no, I imagine they treat their dogs better. You can sometimes see the soldiers smoking and joking while they slowly check one after another, taking 20 minutes for each, while the workers fret in fear they'll be late." (The front cover shows a similar line before dawn near the West Bank city of Tulkarm.)

Obeidat continued: "The Israeli pretext for building the wall is security, but in reality who are these 'dangerous' people? They worked for years in hospitals, schools and old age homes. How could they be a threat? This suggests something else: that the wall's purpose is to pressure the Palestinians so they'll accept any solution offered, if only they can live normal lives and support their families."

Three special gate-complexes have been built: at Qalandia in the north, on the Mt. of Olives to the east, and in Bethlehem to the south. Their erection gave the High Court the excuse it wanted in order to allow completion of the envelope.

The results of the Court's decision can be read on the faces of the workers whom we met in Abu Dis. There were men in their twenties, ineligible for work permits (the rules say one must be at least 30); their path toward marriage and family is blocked. There were men and women who do have families—but for the last year have not been able to provide for them.

One of those present, Muhammad Abed Rabo, 45, is the sole breadwinner in a family of nine. He worked thirty years in construction. Until a year ago he had a job in the area of Modi'in, west of Jerusalem, under another contractor from the PA Territories. Since May 2006, which the workers call "Black May," he and all his co-workers, including the contractor, have sat at home.

Abed Rabo informs us about a black market in work permits. They are sold for thousands of shekels each, but behind them there is no workplace. It's just a permit in the name of a fictive employer, and it's limited to three months. That's a great risk: the workers pay as much as 3000 NIS for one of these, and sometimes they don't find jobs or are caught and deported. "In any case," says Abed Rabo, "I cannot afford it."

Hassan Mahmoud, 26, of al-Eizarya laughs bitterly when we ask if he's married. "How can I marry if I don't have work? How will I support a family? I completed a course in hotel services in Jordan. I tried to find work in all the hotels and restaurants in Jerusalem and wound up in the kitchen of an orthodox yeshiva. But after I'd put in a year without a pay slip at 12 NIS [$3] per hour, the police raided the place, arrested all of us from the Territories and deported us. Since then the director refuses to take us back, and the best I can find are occasional spot jobs. When I apply for a work permit, I'm sent to see the security officer. He explains that without my collaboration—in other words, unless I become a traitor to my people—I don't have a chance."

Hassan, as well as Ali Awad,20, and Muhammad Bassa, 22, had no recourse but to work at the factories of Mishor Adumim, a big industrial area in the West Bank east of Jerusalem. (Because this area is not in Israel, Palestinians have easier access to it.) But the bosses here have a huge reserve of unemployed to choose from. Bassa: "In the textile plant, they worked me from 7 a.m. till midnight at 5 NIS ($1.25) per hour. Other factories in Mishor Adumim work people for 12 hours at a pittance. They treat us like animals."

The situation of these workers, unfortunately, is not high on the priority list of Palestinian negotiators. They are more interested in persuading the European donor nations to release funds withheld since the Hamas victory.

For the workers we met this issue is secondary. "It's not donations that matter to us," Nasser Obeidat said. "What we want are jobs, and this means, above all, the right to enter Israel without fines, arrests or extortion by the Shin Bet. We call on the workers and unions of the world to put pressure on Israel's government so that it will end this inhumane behavior and open the gates. Our demand is a simple one: Let us work in dignity!"

The Terror of Losing the Work Permit

Salwa Alinat of Kav la'Oved addressed WAC's international delegation of labor unions (see p. 6) on April 29, 2007. Here are excerpts from her remarks:

"We help Palestinians who work in Israel's West Bank settlements such as Mishor Adumim and the Jordan valley. Most live in terror. The job shortage is so bad that many feel the employers are doing them a favor by keeping them. They fear losing their work permits more than losing the particular job itself. The permit is their key to life. When I interview them, their eyes are always flitting about to see if an informer is watching.

"In agriculture, we see more women in the fields because it is easier for them to get permits. They earn 45 NIS per day ($11).

"Children can enter without permits. They earn 30 NIS a day ($7.5). They come to the Jordan Valley from Jenin and Nablus. They sleep in camps, children of 13 to 16. We find them working at night in the packing house of Beit Ha'arava, a settlement. It's difficult to sue the employers, because there's usually no documentation. Of course they don't get pay slips."

Alinat screened a film by Kav la'Oved entitled Strangers in their own Land. One segment includes workers stranded for hours in the blazing sun at the tops of palm trees. In the settlements of the Jordan Valley, during the season of pruning the date palms, a crane lifts each worker to the top of a palm, one per tree, and he has no way of getting down until the boss sees fit to lower him.

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