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Israel's neo-slavery in the Jordan Valley

May 9, 2015 at 11:36 am

The decline of Liberal Zionism has shown a disturbing level of hostility towards Palestinians, much of which is justified by fascist pro-Israel NGOs and lobby groups. They defend crimes against the Palestinian population and propagate their message by denying that the oppression of the Palestinians even exists. One of the ways that they do this is through their defence of the construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank.

Stand With Us published a statement on the matter stating that the build-up of settlements should not be an obstacle to peace and that the real problem is the Palestinian leadership, including Israel’s puppet Mahmoud Abbas. Although the PA chief repeatedly reiterates his and the authority’s recognition of Israel’s existence within the 1967 borders, the Palestinians are, claim Stand With Us, “refusing to accept Jewish nationalism while demanding the acceptance of Palestinian nationalism.” Not only is this justifying Israeli violations of international law, such as Netanyahu’s recent invitation for bids to construct 77 settlements in East Jerusalem, continuing the displacement of Palestinians, but also perpetuating an economy built on neo-slavery.

Those who have openly supported Israelis profiting through settlement lands claim that they are giving Palestinians the opportunity to work. Sodastream was one of the main companies which prided itself on demolishing Palestinian homes – illegally – in order to “create ethical jobs”; its supporters use the twisted logic that boycotting the company will only mean that its Palestinian employees will be unemployed. Such views are not only short-sighted, but also legitimise the eviction of someone from their home to create a business opportunity. They also legitimise more intense human rights abuses.

Human Rights Watch recently published a report on Israeli use of Palestinian child labour on settlement farms. They interviewed 38 children and 12 adults to investigate the conditions in which they are employed. The minimum wage in Israel is 23 shekels per hour, but Palestinians in the settlement fields earn on average between 60-70 shekels per day, which is barely enough to cover the minimum living costs for anyone in the West Bank. They’re employed without a contract, without healthcare provisions and without any form of insurance, which means that it’s virtually impossible for Palestinians to fight for their labour rights and, given the dangerous conditions in which they work, the lack of access to medical facilities puts their lives at risk.

Palestinian workers, especially children, are forced to work in such conditions. They are exposed to pesticides and herbicides without any form of protection; they are forced to work for full days, regardless of the weather, which is especially problematic in the summer when temperatures are over 40 degrees Celsius and even higher in greenhouses. Workers suffer from heat-stroke, exhaustion and life-threatening injuries. Minors have reported not being allowed to take a break and not even having toilet facilities to use, let alone toilet breaks. If they fall ill while at work, they are not paid for the whole day no matter how long they have worked on that particular day, and are forced to pay for their own treatment.

HRW also investigated the impact that this form of economy is having on education. Before addressing this, it’s important to remember that some parts of Palestine, such as the Jordan Valley, have been hit particularly badly by the settlement agriculture neo-slavery economy because of its fertile soil; it makes up a quarter of the West Bank, making it essential to the economic viability of a Palestinian state. Children as young as 11 are forced to juggle their work in the fields with school work due to the poverty that the settlements have imposed on the Palestinian community as a whole. Teachers have noticed that those children who have not dropped-out of education to work full-time to support their family are all too often exhausted and unable to focus on their lessons, resulting in academic failure. The average age for dropping out in the West Bank is 14, which is seen as a huge cultural drawback, considering that Palestinians have a reputation for priding themselves on their determination to acquire an education.

Palestinian farmers are also stopped from tending their own fields. Israel has imposed a restriction on the amount of water that Palestinians are allowed to use for irrigation; Israeli farmers enjoy absolute freedom in this respect, despite the fact that water levels are falling at a rate of one metre per year. Palestinians are thus forced to work on settlement farms instead of tending their own land. A report by the Ma’an Development Centre in 2012 showed that there are up to 20,000 Palestinians in the Jordan Valley working on settlement farms, out of the 60,000 Palestinian population; up to one-third of Palestinians are being forced to work in slave-like conditions.

When stripping the politics from the debate about the settlement economy and looking at the plain facts, it’s clear that those settlements which are defended for employing Palestinians are actually harming the Palestinian economy and destroying opportunities for the workers to progress. They are stuck in a cycle whereby they risk their lives simply to survive after being forced into homelessness. The solution is not to enhance workers’ rights in settlement economies, but to dismantle the system as a whole as it thrives on the very process that impoverishes Palestinians. Those endorsing “ethical” enterprise in settlements are not paving a way for Palestinian opportunities, but are continuing what is easily predicted to be the perpetual displacement and oppression of Palestinians. They are endorsing forced homelessness and poverty, and depriving children of their right to education; given that Israel is party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the supporters of its illegal settlements are also endorsing its defiance of international law.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.