Palestine's disposable labourers
On 3 November, Israel announced it had released thousands of Gazan workers who were in Israel on the day of the 7 October attacks by Hamas.
They had been secretly detained by the Israeli authorities following the beginning of the Gaza war, although they held Israeli-issued work permits.
While the plight of these Gazan workers received limited media attention in the first few weeks of the war, Israel’s policy toward them is a continuation of its broader policy toward Palestinian workers since 1967.
Israel has sought to use them as pacification tools, a part of its efforts to manage and contain Palestinians and stabilise its rule in the occupied territories. At the same time, it has frequently treated them as disposable and targets of Israel’s policy of collective punishment.
"One of the key pillars of Israel's policy toward the occupied Palestinian territories has been to integrate their economy into Israel's, but in such a way that they became dependent on the Israeli economy"
Since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, one of the key pillars of Israel’s policy toward the occupied Palestinian territories has been to integrate their economy into Israel’s, but in such a way that they became dependent on the Israeli economy.
The envisioned relationship between the two economies was explicitly summarised by Moshe Dayan, Israel’s defence minister during the June 1967 war. Dayan affirmed that the occupied territories would constitute “a supplementary market for Israeli goods and services on the one hand, and a source of factors of production, especially unskilled labor, for the Israeli economy on the other”.
Indeed, in the following decades, Palestinian labour dependency on Israel was a key feature of the economic relationship between the occupied territories and Israel. Between 1967 and 1990, 35–40 percent of the employed Palestinian labour force worked in Israel, mainly in low-paying jobs.
Israel’s decision to incorporate Palestinian workers into its labour market and enforce labour dependency was driven by economic and political motives. Economically, Israel had a shortage of labour, which put its postwar economic boom at risk, while the occupied territories had a large reservoir of unemployed workers, as nearly half of the labourers there had lost their jobs in the early years after the occupation.
Palestinian workers were thus seen by Israel as a source of cheap labour, especially as they were concentrated in low-skilled jobs for which there was a dearth of Israeli labourers.
More importantly, Israel considered Palestinian unemployment as a potential driver of opposition and instability. The incorporation of Palestinian workers into the Israeli labour market was seen as a way of increasing the Palestinians’ standard of living, while making them increasingly reliant on the Israeli labour market as their main source of income.
The logic was that Palestinian deprivation would increase the opposition to Israel, while economic prosperity and tying the Palestinians’ income to Israel would dissuade them from supporting resistance activities, thereby stabilising Israel’s rule in the occupied territories.
Since then, Palestinian labour dependency on Israel has been a key feature of the economic dynamics between the occupied territories and Israel. While Palestinian workers were seen as essential for Israel’s policy of managing and containing Palestinians, they were at the same time treated as easily disposable workers.
They were subjected to exploitation by Israeli employers as they lacked legal recourse and medical insurance, although they were employed in high-risk industries in which accidents are common - for example, construction and manufacturing.
This two-pronged Israeli policy toward Palestinian workers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip continued after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Following Israel’s imposition of a closure regime on the occupied territories in the early 1990s, Palestinian workers required work permits to access the Israeli labour market, which were granted subject to security clearances from Israel.
"While Palestinian workers were seen as essential for Israel's policy of managing and containing Palestinians, they were at the same time treated as easily disposable workers"
This system allowed Israel to expand its control over Palestinians by using the permits as a disciplinary mechanism, punishing Palestinians when they engaged in resistance actions against Israel, and rewarding them when they were “quiet”.
Therefore, after Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007 and Israel imposed a land, sea, and air blockade, the Israeli authorities severely tightened their restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of the territory. Between then and 2014, the Israelis banned the entry of Gazan workers. In late 2014, they informally resumed allowing workers back in, but through a limited quota of “trader permits.”
It was not until late 2021 that Israel changed its policy and started issuing work permits again for Gazans. On the eve of the present war, around 18,500 Gazan workers had been issued permits. This was part of a larger Israeli policy of “economic relief” for Gaza, with the intent of improving living conditions in the strip to ensure calm, out of fear that the dire economic conditions would lead to an explosion.
As the former Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz once put it, “quiet depends … on the continuation of the trend of creating economic hope”.
At the same time, these workers were among the first targets of Israel’s collective punishment policy against Palestinians after 7 October. On 10 October, Israel revoked all labour permits held by Gazan workers, effectively rendering their presence in Israel illegal.
Thousands of these workers were then arrested “secretly and illegally” by Israel and were moved to detention centres without any legal basis, while Israel refused to disclose their names and whereabouts.
All these workers who were detained were legally present in Israel on 7 October and had undergone comprehensive security checks - meaning they were detained and targeted by Israel solely because they were from Gaza. According to Gisha, an Israeli legal centre, the conditions within Israeli detention centres were inhumane.
Detainees were subjected to severe physical violence and psychological mistreatment, as they were tortured and humiliated. Two workers died while in Israeli custody, and all had their cash and phones taken away by Israeli soldiers.
Israel’s policy of collective punishment against Gazan workers did not stop there. In early November, the Israelis released thousands of workers who had been detained and sent them back to Gaza on foot, without their belongings. This constituted an effective death sentence for some, given Israel’s relentless bombing of Gaza.
The plight of Gazan workers is symbolic of the difficulties that Palestinians have been facing in the past 75 years, as they have had to endure oppression, humiliation, exploitation, surveillance, and insecurity.
This should, therefore, be another reminder of the urgency for Israel to end the policies it has long implemented in Gaza as well as its extensive system of injustice and discrimination.
Nur Arafeh is a fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, where her work focuses on the political economy of the MENA region, business-state relations, peacebuilding strategies, the development-security nexus and Palestinian-Israeli affairs
This article originally appeared in Diwan, the blog of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center