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Israel plans to replace Palestinian workers with people from India

November 15, 2023 at 2:50 pm

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Israel, Eli Cohen (R) and Minister for Defense of India, Rajnath Singh (2nd L) hold a meeting in New Delhi, India on May 09, 2023 [Indian Ministry of External Affairs/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

Amidst Israel’s ongoing genocide on Gaza, the Israel Builders Association has urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition government to expedite the process of bringing workers from India to fill the jobs vacated by displaced Palestinians.

“We are currently in talks with India, awaiting approval from the Israeli government,” explained Haim Feiglin, the association’s vice president, as reported by Voice of America. “We aim to recruit between 50,000 and 100,000 workers from India in order to restore the sector to its usual functioning.”

The work permits of all Palestinians from Gaza working in Israel have been cancelled amidst the ongoing war. “There will be no more Palestinian workers from Gaza, and the workers who were in Israel when the war broke out will be returned to Gaza,” said Netanyahu’s office.

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Tel Aviv has been pursuing the option of getting workers from India for the past few months, with the war now being cited as an immediate reason for the initiative. In May, during Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s visit to New Delhi, Israel and India signed an agreement to enable 42,000 Indian workers to go to the occupation state, with 34,000 earmarked specifically for the construction sector.

The move will fill the void left by displaced Palestinian workers whose work permits have been revoked. According to CNN, workers who were unable to cross through an Israeli checkpoint since 7 October have reported being physically tortured by the Israeli authorities in detention centres. These workers were later deported to the Gaza Strip and had to cross the border on foot. “We sacrificed, and they treated us like livestock over there,” Wael Al-Sajda told Voice of America as he pointed to his ankle fitted with an identification bracelet.

Al-Sajda was among the 18,000 or so Palestinians from Gaza allowed to work in menial jobs in Israel. Many of them found employment in sectors such as restaurants, retail or construction. They either stayed in Israel temporarily or commuted daily, sending earnings back to their families in Gaza.

These work permits were highly sought after in Gaza, where the unemployment rate is nearly 50 per cent. Israel restarted the issue of such permits in recent years as a measure to stabilise Gaza and exert a “moderating” influence on Hamas, despite the broader blockade aimed at weakening the movement.

Palestinians normally comprise around 25 per cent of the workforce in Israel, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). This number has been increasing steadily over the years, mainly due to limited job opportunities in the occupied Palestinian territories.

“We are at war, and the Palestinian workers, who are a significant percentage of our human resources in the sector, are not coming and are not permitted to work in Israel,” said Feiglin.

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The unemployment rate in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip this year stands at 24 per cent, with the total labour underutilisation at 31 per cent. This means that a significant number of Palestinians are either unemployed or underemployed, and that working in Israel is a major source of income for many Palestinian families.

The Israeli occupation has had a significant impact on the Palestinian economy. The Israeli government’s restrictions on movement and trade make it difficult for Palestinians to find jobs. Moreover, Israel’s policies of land confiscation and settlement expansion have displaced many Palestinians from their homes and businesses. The Palestinian Authority’s weak economy is also a factor in the high unemployment rate. The PA relies on foreign donors for its survival, and its economy is fragile.

Commenting on the decision to replace Palestinian workers with people from India, Dr Mosheer Amer, Professor of Linguistics at the English Department of the Islamic University of Gaza, said that, “This is part of an overall scheme to inflict pain and suffering on the Palestinian people, especially in light of the high rates of unemployment among the Palestinian labour force.”

New Delhi’s promised delivery of migrant workers also comes despite Israel’s well-documented mistreatment of Palestinian workers.

Those who travel to Israel daily have to wait in long lines at security checkpoints in order to get to work. These workers are obliged to contribute roughly 2,500 shekels (around $650) per month for a work permit. “This arrangement predominantly serves the middlemen who unlawfully market these permits, yielding an annual profit of around one billion shekels from approximately 40,000 Palestinian labourers,” said Amer.

Palestinian workers in Israel earn significantly less than Israeli workers, even when performing the same job in dangerous and low-skilled jobs, such as construction and agriculture. They are also often subjected to physical and verbal abuse by their employers and Israeli settlers.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is looking into claims of unfair treatment and abuse of Palestinian workers in Israel. “This will have serious economic repercussions for thousands of Palestinian households which are dependent on incomes generated from work inside Israel,” confirmed Dr Amer. “Any decrease in the number of Palestinian workers will have very negative effects on the Palestinian economy and the wellbeing of the population.”

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Indian trade unions have opposed the proposed use of more workers from India, and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) has condemned the Israeli government’s harsh treatment of Palestinian workers and is urging the Indian government not to send workers, especially construction workers, to the occupation state. It also called on workers to resist any such government directive.

“We will not let Indians steal the bread meant for Palestinians,” insisted Tapan Sen, general secretary of the CITU. “Instead, we call upon the Indian government to endorse the recent UN Resolution, which calls for an immediate ceasefire by Israel and a humanitarian truce, ultimately striving for a Palestinian homeland within the pre-1967 borders, free from any occupation.”

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In recent years, India has grown closer to Israel, and support for Palestine has dwindled significantly under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government. India has also abstained from voting on a UN resolution calling for a ceasefire in the ongoing war.

There are currently 20,000 Indians employed in Israel, primarily in caregiving roles. Despite the ongoing war, a significant number of them opted to remain in the country, citing a sense of security and the appealing salaries as key reasons for their decision.

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