How Israel withholds labour rights from the West Bank’s Palestinian workers

Palestinian workers on the West Bank. Reuters/Ammar Awad

As Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories edges towards its 50th year, violent incidents in the West Bank remain fairly sporadic. The political and economic reality of coexistence in the Palestinian territories has made Palestinians and Israelis deeply interdependent – and especially Palestinian workers and Israeli employers and corporations.

That relationship has always been legally tangled, but in recent weeks, there’ve been new developments that could make things even worse.

To begin with, the Israeli National Labour Court found that Israeli law does not apply to Palestinians working for Israelis in the Jordan Valley, an area of the West Bank that has become infamous for child labour.

Meanwhile, the leader of the right-wing party Jewish Home, Naftali Bennett, succumbed to pressure placed by Israeli farmers in the Jordan Valley and stepped back from his previous commitment to apply Israeli labour law in the West Bank.

That spells misery for West Bank Palestinians working for Israeli employers and corporations, and doubles down on a regime of profound legal inequality.

Choked

Tens of thousands of Israelis are moving into existing settlements and establishing new ones (often on private Palestinian land) –not for ideological reasons, but because the costs are lower and the standard of living is higher than in Israel proper. For the same reason, a great many Israeli businesses are moving to the settlements and to industrial zones. Many of these businesses, especially in sectors such as manufacturing, construction and agriculture, rely on cheap Palestinian labour for their profits.

The Israeli government is still choking the development of an independent Palestinian economy through military orders that curb the use of funds, imposes limits on the supply of water and electricity and restricts access to farm land through the permit system and the separation barrier. That means Palestinians are increasingly forced to rely on Israeli employers to make ends meet.

This is not an unwelcome development on the Israeli side. Palestinian workers are especially attractive to Israeli employers because of a very particular legal situation that’s arisen over the past few years.

Heavy load. Reuters/Ammar Awad

Until 2007, the assumption was that Palestinians were employed in the settlements and in Israeli-owned industries according to the Jordanian law that was in place when Israel conquered the West Bank – except where that law was modified by the military commander of the region.

This situation was based on the law of occupation, which dictates that the occupier should respect the law in force in the occupied territory. However, as the occupation became a prolonged one, a situation developed that those who drafted the laws of occupation never imagined.

Israelis lived in the territory and conducted their economic life as if under Israeli law (as is their prerogative) while employing Palestinians under Jordanian law in the West Bank and Egyptian law in Gaza. Different laws apply for people doing the same work, who are different only by virtue of their race or nationality.

The result is not mere discrimination. The application of different laws for different sections of people is very close to, if not reaches the core of, apartheid.

Separate and unequal

The Israeli Supreme Court, politically savvy as ever, addressed this issue in 2007. In a landmark decision, it ruled that where Palestinians work side-by-side with Israelis in Israeli “exclaves” created from illegal settlements and industrial zones, then the same Israeli law should apply to both Israelis and Palestinians.

Paradoxically, this was not just a victory for Palestinians and their Israeli supporters. It was also supported by right-wing Israeli nationalists, who advocate the annexation of Palestinian land through the application of Israeli law to Area C, the West Bank’s largest subdivision. But the ruling both created problems for Israeli businesses established in the West Bank and explicitly relied on a law that is already anything but generous to Palestinians.

Since 2007, the situation has evolved on both sides. Some Palestinian workers have taken advantage of the rights the Supreme Court decision guaranteed them, while right-wing members of the Knesset continued their efforts to expand the application of Israeli labour law.

Many Israeli businesses sprung into action and began searching for loopholes in the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision. So Israeli law should apply where the employer is Israeli? No problem, we’ll engage a Palestinian intermediary to sign the cheques. So Israeli law should apply where the employment is based in an Israeli exclave? That’s fine, we’ll move the undertaking out of the industrial zone, meaning the employer’s obligations are eased, but their workers still regulated by the same highly restrictive permit regime.

This issue was looked into by the National Labour Court, but sadly, it gave its stamp of approval to legal trickery and ushered in the shameful state of affairs we see today, where the application of different laws to different people is formally acknowledged.

As for Naftali Bennett, he could have responded with a proud national pronouncement that would indicate that nationalist ideology comes at a cost. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s exactly what he did – only the cost is for the Palestinians to bear.