Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza undermines any prospects of a viable Palestinian economy, and leaves millions of Palestinian workers vulnerable to precarious, low paid work, unemployment and underemployment. For trade unions the occupation makes it extremely difficult to organise workers and campaign for their rights, and a lack of resources makes matters even worse.
The struggle for workers rights in Palestine is led by workers and their unions, but international solidarity plays an important role in supporting them. This solidarity often involves campaigning for an end to the occupation and European complicity with Israeli apartheid and settler colonial system.
Workers rights under occupation
The West Bank
The West Bank was divided into Areas A, B and C, as a temporary measure during the 1995 Oslo Accord negotiations. The Palestinian Authority has jurisdiction over the isolated and fragmented Areas A and B, making up 38 per cent of the land and including 80 per cent of the Palestinian population. Israel controls the larger, continuous Area C, consisting of 61 per cent of the land, including the most all the settlements and the most productive areas.
Israeli controls on the movement of Palestinians go deep into the West Bank. The system of settler only roads, barriers around settlements, firing zones and 543 closure obstacles and checkpoints restrict Palestinian freedom of movement. Most Palestinians are denied access to East Jerusalem, and it is increasingly difficult to travel within the West Bank, particularly from north to south.
These restrictions undermine any prospects of a viable Palestinian economy in the West Bank and contribute to unemployment rates of 19 per cent. They also make Palestinians highly reliant on employment in Israel and Israeli settlements, without which unemployment would rise to 35 per cent. This forced dependence on employment in Israel and in settlements increases the vulnerability of the Palestinian economy to political shocks, when Israel prevents Palestinian workers with permits entering Israel and settlements.
The 320km long Green Line marks the internationally recognised border between Israel and the West Bank. The huge separation wall by comparison is 720km long, annexing occupied East Jerusalem and taking in huge swathes of the West Bank. 85 per cent of the wall runs inside the West Bank and has been ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice. The barrier restricts Palestinian access to work, services and land.
Most Palestinian farmers can only gain access to their land behind the barrier for a limited number of days during the harvest and ploughing season. As a result olive tree behind the barrier yield approximately 65 per cent less than equivalent trees in areas which can be accessed all year round.
The Palestinian olive industry is a significant contributor to the Palestinian economy, utilising almost half of the183,000 hectares of land cultivated for agriculture by Palestinians in the West Bank. Approximately 100,000 families are reliant on the olive industry, and the sector employs large numbers of unskilled labourers and approximately 15 per cent of working women. The industry is being further undermined by settler violence. In 2015 11,254 olive trees were destroyed by settler violence, although this dropped significantly to 1,553 in 2016.
Approximately 52,000 Palestinians have permits to work in Israel. They are forced to endure long queues and humiliating treatment at checkpoints from the early hours of the morning in order to access work. Many queue from as early as 3am at one of 26 checkpoints between the West Bank and Israel, and crossing can take up to three hours. Most are employed in the construction industry, and rely on labour brokers who take a significant proportion of pay, sometimes up to 40 per cent. Workers should be protected by Israeli labour law and receive the minimum wage, but rarely do. Many complain they have to pay fees to the Israeli trade union, Histadrut, but don’t receive representation and health insurance.
A further 30,000 Palestinians take enormous risks to seek work in Israel without the correct documentation, either climbing the wall or hiding in vehicles. Those who get work receive lower pay and harsher conditions. In 2016 the Israeli authorities launched a crackdown on undocumented workers, including mass arrests and tougher penalties for employers.
Israeli settlements dominate many parts of the West Bank, particularly the area described as ‘Greater Jerusalem’, the Jordan Valley and areas close to Tel Aviv. Expansion is rapid, with building started on 1,800 new settlement units in 2015 alone. Since the inauguration of Donald Trump in January 2017, the Israeli government announced plans to significantly increase settlement building in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
There are now approximately 150 official settlements and 150 unauthorised outposts, although these are provided with security, power, water and roads by the Israeli government. Many are being established on hilltops stretching from the west to the east, gradually creating an addition barrier between the north and south of the West Bank.
Approximately 26,000 Palestinians work on the illegal Israeli settlements inside the West Bank. Although Israeli labour law should apply, it is rarely implemented. Many Israeli employers instead apply defunct 1967 Jordanian law, despite the Israeli court ruling in 2007 that this was illegal. Most are employed in constructing the vast settlements that now dominate the West Bank, whilst others work in agriculture, the industrial zones and tourist areas. The number of work permits provided by the Israeli government to work in Israel or the settlements regularly fluctuates.
The Israeli government has established 14 illegal industrial zones in the West Bank. Whilst most industrial zones are underutilized, they allow the authorities to claim large areas of land, build Israel’s economic presence in the West Bank, and exploit cheap Palestinian labour. Most Palestinians don’t want to work in the industrial zones, but have little choice as the occupation means a viable Palestinian economy is virtually impossible. As such they endure low pay, long hours and precarious work in poor conditions.
The Jordan Valley is a narrow, fertile strip of land running alongside the River Jordan. Because of its potential to produce fruit and vegetables all year round, what was Palestinian farmland is now exploited by large agricultural settlements, exporting a huge range of agricultural products. To keep their profits high and avoid any responsibility for their workers, these Israeli farms rely on labour brokers for a plentiful supply of cheap Palestinian labour. Pay is below the minimum wage, and the holiday, sickness and other benefits workers are entitled to under Israeli law are denied.
Many workers endure long days on tree top platforms, picking dates in the baking heat. They take home as little as £14 a day, once the labour broker has taken their cut. Serious injuries are common, but instead of paying for treatment, injured workers are often dumped at checkpoints or outside Palestinian hospitals, and expected to pay their own costs.
For the last 10 years the Israeli government has imposed a tight land, sea and air blockade on the people of Gaza. It has severely restricted the passage of goods and people in and out of the area and created a virtual prison for the 1.9 million Palestinians
who live there.
In 2014 Israel launched its fourth major military attack on Gaza in a decade. More than 2,000 Palestinians were killed in 50 days, including 500 children. 17,800 homes were destroyed and 80 hospitals and clinics and 250 schools were damaged or destroyed.
Reconstruction since the hostilities has been impeded by Israeli government limits on the import of building materials, including cement, into Gaza. Of the 100,000 Palestinians who had their homes destroyed or severely damaged during the 2014 hostilities, 65,000 remain displaced.
These restrictions have also delayed essential repairs to Gaza’s water and sanitation system. Only 5% of Gaza’s piped water supply is drinkable, and the United Nations estimate that the area will be uninhabitable by 2020.
The blockade has resulted in high levels of unemployment and poverty. In 2016 unemployment rates were 42%, amongst the highest in the world. For youth the figure is 60% and 65% for women. 47% of households in Gaza suffer from moderate or severe food insecurity.
Over 35,000 Palestinians depend on Gaza’s fishing industry for their livelihood, but restrictions on access to the sea, exports of fish, access to essential materials and equipment have left 95% of fishers living below the poverty line.
Fishing is restricted to a small area within six nautical miles of Gaza’s coast, less than a third of the area agreed by the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the Oslo Peace Accords. The limits have resulted in overfishing and fish stocks have declined rapidly. The fishing zone is heavily policed by the Israeli military and many have complained of arbitrary arrests and military harassment. According to Gaza’s Ministry of Agriculture, in 2016 the Israeli military arrested 113 fishers, injured 10 with military fire and confiscated 46 boats.
Many fishing boats can’t be used as Israel’s ‘dual list’ restricts access to many of the materials required to repair them. 3,500 people now work in the fishing industry, down from 10,000 in 2000.
Access to agricultural land is also heavily restricted by the blockade, as access to land within 300 metres of Gaza’s perimeter fence with Israel is denied, and areas several hundred metres beyond this are dangerous. Most agricultural land destroyed by hostilities in 2014 is yet to be restored.
Trade unions in Palestine:
The trade union landscape in Israel is dominated by the Histadrut, a union that defends only Jewish workers, even though all workers, Jewish and Palestinian, are forced to pay dues to this union.
In the 1990s, although without the official status of trade unions, workers’ rights associations were founded:
-The Workers Advice Center (WAC-MAAN)
Some associations specifically defend the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel:
-The Mossawa Center, based in Haifa
-Sawt el-Amel (the Worker’s Voice), based in Nazareth
In 2007 a small Israeli-Palestinian trade union was authorized:
-Koach la Ovdim
In 2010, the Palestinian NGO Sawt el Amel became the Arab Workers Union:
-The Arab Workers Union, based in Nazareth
These organizations defend workers rights in Israel and sometimes in Jewish settlements in the 1967 territories, including Palestinians and Asian migrants, but they do not explicitly take (or cannot take) political positions in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
-Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU):
The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) is the major Palestinian union in all sectors, linked to the Palestinian Authority and the PLO. Its president is Shaher Saed and it is based in Nablus. It is affiliated with the ITUC (as is the Histadrut!), and it boasts 300,000 members in the West Bank and Gaza.
-General Union of Palestinian Workers (GUPW):
The General Union of Palestinian Workers (GUPW, also sometimes called Palestinian Trade Union Federation, PTUF, not to be confused with the General Union of Palestinian Women). Linked to Fatah. It unionizes Palestinians around the world. Its president is Ibrahim Haidar, and it is affiliated with the WFTU.
-Progressive Labour Action Front:
Linked to the PFLP.
In the 1990s, since no other independent union federation was allowed in Palestine, various union-like organizations were formed, such as independent workers committees, Islamic workers’ rights associations, or the Democracy and Workers’ Rights Center:
-Democracy and Workers’ Rights Center (DWRC):
Based in Ramallah, its current president is Niaz Shaja’ia. The DWRC has observer status in ITUC. Gradually, it has become an NGO.
In 2007 the first independent trade union federation was established. Initially called the Federation of Independent and Democratic Trade Unions and Workers’ Committees in Palestine (also sometimes called the Coalition of Independent Democratic Trade Unions). It has changed names several times (Federation of Independent Trade Unions, Independent Federation of Unions, General Federation of Independent Labor Unions, General Federation of Independent Trade Unions in Palestine (GFITUP) etc.), but is now called the General Federation of Independent Unions:
-General Federation of Independent Unions (GFIU):
An offshoot of the DWRC, it boasts 50,000 members in the West Bank and Gaza.. Based in Ramallah. Its president is Mahmoud Ziadeh. It is part of the international labor network of solidarity and struggle.
In March 2016, a new independent federation obtained the title of a trade union under the name the New Federation of Trade Unions:
-The Palestine New Federation of Trade Unions (NFTU or New Unions):
Based near Tulkarem, with Mohamed Jawabreh at its head.
Other labor unions:
In some areas and some cities, there are independent labor unions. Here are some of them:
In the education sector:
-Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE)
In the postal sector:
-Palestinian Postal Service Workers Union
In the agricultural sector:
-Union of Agriculture Workers Committees (UAWC)
-Palestinian Farmers Union (PFU, an offshoot of the PARC NGO (Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees, http://www.parc.ps/))
-Union of Workers Associations in the Food Industries and Agriculture / Tulkarem.
-UNRWA Area Staff Union (represents Palestinian UNRWA employees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon)
Independent Labor Committees Unions also form out of social movements, for example in the Gaza Strip in 2003, or the Federation of Women Committees in the Informal Economy, in the Gaza Strip in 2011, or Teachers struggle committees in the West Bank in 2016