Will Israel turn to India to replace Palestinian workers?
New Delhi - A reported plan to hire nearly 100,000 Indian workers to replace the Palestinian workforce in Israel has come under severe criticism from opposition parties and trade unions in India.
Following the attack carried out by Hamas in southern Israel on 7 October, Israel indefinitely suspended work permits for Palestinian labourers over security concerns.
Many foreign workers have left Israel since the war on Gaza began, with some among those killed or kidnapped on 7 October.
"A reported plan to hire nearly 100,000 Indian workers to replace the Palestinian workforce in Israel has come under severe criticism from opposition parties and trade unions in India"
More than 100,000 Palestinians from both the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are thought to have worked in Israel or Israeli settlements before the war, the majority in the construction sector.
“Right now we are negotiating with India. We are waiting for [the] decision of the Israeli government to approve that,” Haim Feiglin, vice president of the Israel Builders Association, told Voice of America in early November.
“We hope to engage 50,000 to 100,000 workers from India to be able to run the whole sector and bring it back to normal."
Indian trade unions voice support for Palestinian workers
Following the announcement by the Israel Builders Association, there has been widespread opposition to the move among trade unions and opposition parties in India.
“We have already condemned any such move [to export Indian workers to Israel]. It’s not a normal time because they [Israel] want to get rid of Palestinian workers,” D Raja, a prominent opposition leader and general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), told The New Arab.
“Why should India play into the hands of Israel. The government should not take such a step.”
On 9 November, ten prominent trade unions in India issued a joint statement calling the proposal for Indian labourers to replace the Palestinian workforce “immoral” and “disastrous”.
“That India is even considering ‘exporting’ workers shows the manner in which it has dehumanised and commodified Indian workers. Such a step will amount to complicity on India's part with Israel's ongoing genocidal war against Palestinians and will naturally have adverse implications for Indian workers in the entire region,” the statement reads.
The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), and Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) are among the signatories to the statement, which calls for the trade union movement to “rise in solidarity” with Palestinian workers.
“Let's resolve that we will not work to replace Palestinian workers in Israel. India and Indian workers should boycott Israeli products. Indian workers, as their counterparts in some Western countries, should refuse to handle Israeli cargo,” added the joint statement.
"Such a step will amount to complicity on India's part with Israel's ongoing genocidal war against Palestinians and will naturally have adverse implications for Indian workers in the entire region"
While Indian officials have said they were unaware of any specific request from Israel, the two countries have been discussing a long-term bilateral initiative since last year for Indians employed in Israel’s construction and care sector.
“I am not sure of specific conversations or requests. I saw some reports of 100,000 workers replacing other workers there. I have not heard any of those things. I am not aware of any specific figure or request,” Arindam Bagchi, a spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, said at a press conference on 9 November.
In May 2023, during a visit by Israeli FM Eli Cohen to New Delhi, both countries signed a framework agreement for 42,000 Indians to work in Israel, including in the construction sector. An estimated 20,000 Indians are thought to currently work in the country.
The clarification from India’s foreign ministry, however, has not stopped opposition political leaders and trade unions from criticising the Indian government, with many focusing on New Delhi’s shift in support for Israel under Narendra Modi.
“The Modi government is following a policy of strategic identification with and appeasement of Israel. The RSS (the BJP’s parent group) too has discovered great benefits in collaboration between Hindutva and Zionism. No wonder Israel will count on the Modi regime to bail it out,” Dipankar Bhattacharya, general secretary of CPI-ML, a party in the opposition alliance, told TNA.
“The Modi-Netanyahu bonhomie has meant contracts for Adani, and now we have this proposed export of India's construction workers,” he added.
Earlier this year, Gautam Adani, a billionaire businessman seen to be close to Modi, paid over $1.2bn to acquire the lease for Israel’s Haifa port, the second largest in the country.
The acquisition reflected the growing partnership between India and Israel since Modi’s BJP came to power in 2014.
Historically, things have been very different. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru feared the creation of Israel would disenfranchise Palestinians and voted against it at the United Nations.
New Delhi was also the first non-Arab country to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and maintained a pro-Palestine stance at the UN. While recognising Israel in 1950, India only established full diplomatic relations with the country in 1992.
"The Modi government is following a policy of strategic identification with and appeasement of Israel"
Under Modi, engagement with Israel began to increase, with many BJP members regarding Israel as a religious-nationalist model to emulate. Modi was the first Indian PM to visit Israel in 2017, and Israel has been one of India’s top three weapons suppliers for the past five years.
A landmark 10-year defence collaboration was also announced between the two countries in 2021.
Since the war on Gaza began, with Israel killing over 13,000 Palestinians since 7 October, India abstained from a UN resolution calling for a humanitarian truce on 27 October, which 120 countries supported.
A flood of disinformation has also been pushed out online by Hindu nationalist accounts in India, amplifying an anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic discourse. Some experts believe this could be a deliberate BJP strategy to drive support for Modi.
Some in India, however, say that this tilt towards Israel could have negative repercussions for relations with other countries in the region while alienating India from global public opinion, something that could impact Indian workers abroad.
“The expulsion of Palestinian workers from Israel is an extension of the genocidal campaign now underway in Gaza. Israel is bent upon crushing and erasing Palestine by all means and the assault on Palestinian workers is an integral part of Israel's apartheid policy towards Palestinians,” Bhattacharya said.
Meanwhile, Tapan Sen, general secretary of CITU, told The New Arab that they oppose any plan to replace Palestinian labourers as a matter of “international brotherhood” with workers across the world.
“We cannot accept such an exercise,” he said. “Second, it’s a kind of enmity with Palestine. They want to annihilate the entire Palestine homeland.”
Palestinian trade unions have also called on their Indian counterparts to “reject any agreements with Israel’s apartheid regime that would facilitate the replacement of Palestinian workers with Indian workers”, as part of Israel’s policy of besieging the Palestinian population.
“If it goes through, the proposed agreement will deepen India's complicity in Israel’s grave abuses against the Palestinian people,” said four Palestinian trade unions in a joint statement in November.
Waquar Hasan is a Delhi-based journalist. He covers hate crimes and human rights abuses in India
Follow him on Twitter: @WaqarHasan1231