Divide and rule: Apartheid Israel hunts down Gazan workers stranded in West Bank for 'lacking work permits'

Israeli soldiers West Bank - Getty
9 min read
05 April, 2024

On Friday 15 March, Israeli forces raided several homes in Nablus, in the north of the occupied West Bank, arresting several Gazan labourers who were staying in the city, waiting for the day they would be able to return to Gaza.

The Gazan workers were accused of not having work permits — to justify their arrest — even though they had Israeli-issued work permits issued before October 7 allowing them to work inside Israel.

They entered the West Bank after Israel demanded they leave Israel for the occupied West Bank in the aftermath of the Hamas-led attack on October 7. Israel issued a decision immediately after the Al-Asqa Flood Operation revoking all permits held by Gazans employed in areas inside Israel's recognised borders.

Many of these Gazan workers haven't been able to return to the Strip since the start of Israel's assault, and have remained stranded in the West Bank.

Israel has closed all of the crossings into the Strip, except the Karem Abu Salem (Kerem Shalom) crossing, which is the sole crossing via which humanitarian aid is entering Gaza at present.

It is also the crossing at which Israel dumped thousands of Gazan workers in November after rounding them up, interrogating and in many cases torturing them after they were stranded in Israel after October 7. Further 'batches' of workers have been transferred there since, to cross back from there into the Gaza Strip.

"They decided to stay in the West Bank after learning that thousands of Gazan workers inside Israel had been arrested, tortured and abused, as well as having all their money and possessions seized"

Living in fear

Majdi Abu Hadid, 46, is constantly on the move between the homes of friends and relatives in Ramallah and the neighbouring villages. A few days ago, he had to cross an Israeli checkpoint. Fortunately, the soldiers didn't ask for his ID papers, because they knew the driver of the vehicle he was in. However, many of his fellow workers have been arrested by the Israelis while trying to return to their town Khan Younis — simply for being from Gaza.

Abu Hadid is in regular contact with a number of his fellow Gazan workers who have dispersed into different towns and villages across the West Bank. All of them are extremely anxious, he says, and are trying as hard as they can to avoid the Israeli checkpoints. They decided to stay in the West Bank after learning that thousands of Gazan workers inside Israel had been arrested, tortured and abused, as well as having all their money and possessions seized.

Abu Hadid says to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister edition: "We are in constant fear, as we are continuously being hunted down because we hold Palestinian IDs which show we are from Gaza, which is a crime in the eyes of the occupation army because the West Bank has different security arrangements."

He says he is suffering mentally due to the current situation: "All of us have given our families emergency numbers belonging to close relatives and friends as we’re ready for the worst at any moment because we’re from Gaza, which means we could be arrested and our families wouldn't be informed.

"The occupation destroyed my house in the Al Balad area of Khan Younis. I have a family of six, who are now among the displaced in Rafah, and my wife is looking after the family, trying to access aid and meet their needs."

Response in the West Bank

A Nablus-based reporter who preferred to remain anonymous explained to The New Arab that the issue of the large number of Gazan workers stranded in the West Bank after October 7 has been an extremely complicated and difficult issue.

Initially, he says, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was confused about how to deal with the Gazan workers "and how to classify them," but primarily focused on the security aspect of the situation as well as necessary logistics: "These [people] are from Gaza, they have no [official] presence here, where are they going to sleep? Who will feed them? Who will give them a drink? How are we going to keep tabs on them?"

He says that in Nablus, for example, the authorities made an effort to gather the workers together, make lists of their names, photograph their IDs, and provide them lodgings in municipality-owned centres. Their calls were monitored, and they were kept under surveillance.

Ordinary people have rallied to try and support them, forming "committee-like groups" which have organised the provision of food, drink, clothing, money, and other essentials, like medical treatment. Most of the Gazan workers have been stranded for months with little other than the clothes they had with them, he highlights, and any cash they had on them has run out.

"Ordinary people have rallied to try and support them, forming "committees-like groups" which have organised the provision of food, drink, clothing, money, and other essentials, like medical treatment"

No verified statistics on the number of Gazan workers stranded in the West Bank exist. However, the number of Gazans who received "economic needs" working permits from Israel was 18,500. The reporter says around 7,000 workers were initially thought to have ended up in the Nablus area alone — a number akin to the population of a large village.

However, he says it is believed the majority of Gazan workers have since been transported back to the Gaza border – their return coordinated by the PA and Israeli authorities. After their transportation to the Gaza border some of these workers have faced interrogation and arrest by Israel, he adds.

He says Israel has also conducted dozens of raids in sites housing Gazan workers, who have been assaulted and arrested during these raids. Some have since been released and others remain detained.

Over 5,000 workers are currently believed to remain stranded in the West Bank and within Israel's borders, waiting for the war to end so they can return home.

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Waiting to return home

Among them is 50-year-old Nayef Al-Louh, who has been alternating between several addresses in and around Hebron, fearful of arrest. After running out of money he has struggled to obtain food, drink and clothing. He has been waiting to return to Gaza for over five months.

He says: "Almost 30 of my cousins have been killed, as well as many of my friends and residents of the Bi'r an-Naja' neighbourhood I live in in the north of the Gaza Strip. Many others are missing.  I am constantly on edge, I can't work, and I am trying to hide and not mix with anyone so no one finds out there is a Gazan worker here."

He says he goes for a walk in the daytime to get some fresh air but stays within a small area. He has registered his details with the Palestinian police, as he wants to return to Gaza when the war is over.

He says they have promised to try to protect him, "as many who were with us were arrested, and some of them were returned to the Strip after severe torture and humiliation, and others were returned through coordination with the Red Cross. I am waiting like someone suspended in mid-air — I don't want to be arrested, and I am scared of being tortured or humiliated."

According to a testimonies from Gazan workers in this situation, many have registered their details with the Palestinian security services, as the agency coordinating the return of workers on the Palestinian side.

"My husband wasn't able to move from where he was for fear of arrest at one of the Israeli checkpoints. He was arrested just for being from Gaza City – it's now an offence to be 'from Gaza' in the West Bank"

In this way, they are showing transparency and asking that they be informed if a group of Gazan workers is being returned so they can go too. They are also doing this for protection, and so if they are arrested, "someone will look for them".  

Since October 7, an estimated 7,000 Gazan workers have been detained (some remain in prison and others have since been released). Many of them were tortured. Additionally, their money, ID papers, and other possessions like mobile phones were reportedly seized by Israeli forces.

On March 16, the Palestinian Prisoners Club stated that the number of detainees in the West Bank has risen to 7,605 since  October 7. Many are ex-prisoners and many others are believed to be Gazan workers.

Forty-year-old Hassana Abu Owaini has been looking after her family of four – one teenage daughter and three small boys – on her own since her husband left to work in Israel before October 7.

She lost contact with him at the start of March. She and her family fled their home in the Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza and have been displaced since. She was later to learn that her husband had been arrested near Jenin with several other Gazan workers.  

Abu Owaini was waiting for her husband to come back to take care of his family in light of the dire situation they faced, especially since his brother was killed alongside his children on January 4. He had tried to return several times – in vain.  

 "My husband wasn't able to move from where he was for fear of arrest at one of the Israeli checkpoints. He was arrested just for being from Gaza City – it's now an offence to be 'from Gaza' in the West Bank. A number of family members had previously been arrested, so he was very cautious about moving around - he told me this a few days before his arrest.

"When he was arrested, he was with some of his co-workers trying to buy food. They were three living in one room with a family who was hosting them, he told me."

She adds: "We are living in extreme suffering, and I have been missing having my husband with me in these circumstances, for over five months. I go through great humiliation just to get a morsel of food, and I have been displaced several times with my children.

"All I can think about is how to escape death, either under the rubble of war or from hunger, and I am scared for the health of my husband, who was living under huge psychological pressure before his arrest, and was having breathing difficulties. I am scared something bad will happen to him — me and my children have no one but him."

The vast majority of prisons in which Israel incarcerates Palestinians are located within Israel’s internationally-recognised borders.

Under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, it is prohibited for an occupying power to transfer, either on an individual basis or en mass, people from the territory it occupies into its own territory, for any reason.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition with additional reporting. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko   

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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