The War in Gaza Brings Severe Poverty and Despair to the West Bank

Journalist Hagar Sheizaf of Haaretz collaborated with MAAN to give a compelling presentation on the dire situation of Palestinian workers out of work for four months due to the war. Sheizaf quotes Assaf Adiv, MAAN’s Executive Director and also workers affiliated with MAAN who worked in Israel for dozens of years. These workers bare no responsibility for the October 7 terrorist attack, yet they pay the price. All of them demand to go back to their work places in Israel for the benefit of all.

The war in Gaza wreaks havoc on the West Bank’s economy: Stores are closed, businesses have stopped accepting noncash payments and Palestinian workers skip meals so the kids barely have enough to eat.

Hagar Shezaf, Haaretz, Jan 29, 2024

A boy falls and hits his head, so his mother takes him to the doctor, who tells her that it will cost 150 shekels ($41) to treat him and bandage the wound. That’s too steep for the mother, so the doctor, who fears he’ll never see the money, makes an unusual proposal: The boy will remain with him as collateral until the mother raises the funds.

Bizarre as this story may sound, it actually happened last month in Yatta in the southern West Bank. The Abu Zahra family, a victim of the economic crisis in the West Bank, couldn’t even scrape together 150 shekels, so the mother had no choice.

The boy was eventually sent home and returned to a life in which the adults are out of work, there’s barely enough food on the table, and whatever is there isn’t very filling. The family is hoping the boy won’t need any more medical care.

For many years, the men in the family – the father, four sons and two sons-in-law – worked in construction in Israel. But since the war in Gaza broke out and Israel barred laborers with work permits from entering Israel (with certain exceptions), the Abu Zahra men have been stuck at home with nothing to do and no income.

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This situation quickly sent the family into financial collapse. By October 20, just two weeks into the war, the Abu Zahras stopped sending their children to preschool; they couldn’t pay the 400 shekels per child.

“The kids are at home all the time,” says Zuhair Abu Zahra, a 27-year-old father of three. “There’s no work and no income at all. You’re in the house with the kids and your wife and asking yourself how you’ll provide them with what they need.”

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, before the war around 160,000 Palestinian laborers (or 19 percent of the workforce in the West Bank) worked in Israel and in the settlements. In January, 14,000 Palestinians were allowed entry to work in industrial zones in settlements and in several vital industries in Israel. According to a paper by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics at the end of last month, unemployment in the West Bank had climbed to 29 percent from 13 percent before the war.

According to a paper by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics at the end of last month, unemployment in the West Bank had climbed to 29 percent from 13 percent before the war.

The impact is much greater than the dry numbers reported by the Israeli media about the workers’ plight in the West Bank. Fida, a mother in the Abu Zahra family, says that sometimes there is nothing to put on the table. She mainly cooks lentil soup because lentils are cheap. She gives the children bread and tea in the morning instead of breakfast cereal and milk.

Fida is married to Mohammed, 45, who has a permit to work in Israel. “At first, I still had some of my last wages left over,” he says in fluent Hebrew. “I divided it into portions and we used it very sparingly, to keep us going a few more days. When I saw that it was all gone, I started to worry.”

Mohammed says he has a friend in the Israeli city of Nes Tziona southeast of Tel Aviv “who’s like a guardian angel to me. He sent me a 2,000-shekel bank transfer, and then I was able to go shopping. But now that’s gone too.”

So he asked a cousin for a loan of a few hundred shekels. When that didn’t suffice, he began selling off his equipment – first a mobile scaffold, then a scaffold for tall buildings.

“Now we’re really on the edge,” Mohammed says. “I see that in the future we’ll be in dangerous financial distress.” The family says it has gotten hard to buy Fida’s medication.

Signs of the economic crisis are visible on the streets. In recent months, grocery stores have stopped accepting noncash payments and are refusing to sell on credit.

On paper, there’s still the possibility of working in the West Bank. But there’s a reason that it’s only on paper, Zuhair says. The local labor market has been so flooded since the war started that the wages would amount to working for a loss.

“I called somebody about a construction job in Hebron and was told that the pay would be 20 shekels a day,” he says. That might just cover the taxi from Yatta to Hebron and back. It’s also tiny compared to what Palestinians earned in the West Bank before the war. According to the Palestinian statistics office, in the third quarter of last year, the median wage for workers there was 115 shekels per day, compared with 300 shekels in Israel.

This family is not unusual. In Yatta there are 7,400 residents with work permits for Israel and 700 with work permits for the settlements. Add to that a large number of laborers who work without permits, and the actual number is much higher.

Signs of the economic crisis are visible on the streets. In recent months, grocery stores have stopped accepting noncash payments and are refusing to sell on credit. A robbery on the city streets is no longer a surprise.

And if that weren’t enough, now Mohammed says that at the beginning of the week, masked Palestinians came to his house looking for him. He says they wanted to threaten him because he promotes coexistence with the Israelis and was interviewed by an Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, in his home.

No support system

In a radio interview a month ago, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said that the war was creating “a great opportunity for Palestinians to go back to the land. The laborers who worked in Israel will return to their lands and work them.” This remark set off a wave of scorn.

“Everybody laughed at this interview. Where are they going to plant? What land is he talking about?” asks Majed, who requested anonymity, so he appears here with a pseudonym.

He says his biggest frustration is that no one is looking out for the workers. “The situation is terrible,” he says. “There are workers who don’t have a shekel in their pocket right now. The Palestinian Authority doesn’t give the laborers a second glance and no one asks about them. How is what happened our fault?” he asks, referring to the October 7 attack.

Supposedly, a solution was offered: The PA put out a message to the out-of-work workers saying they could obtain small bank loans. Majed, a 49-year-old father of two from Tul Karm, says he tried to do just that, but the bank turned him down. The reason: He has no paycheck.

A frequent complaint by Palestinians with Israeli work permits who are currently unable to work is that they have no support system. And with the PA itself in financial straits, no one seriously expects any help on the horizon.

“There are people who sold their cars,” Majed says. “I have a friend whose son is in private school and could no longer pay, so they told the boy to stop coming. No one shows you any mercy. If things go on like this, what’s going to happen? An explosion.”

This will all surely sound familiar to Assaf Adiv, director of Israel’s Maan Workers Association, which unionizes Palestinian workers. He says that in the past three months, his organization has received a flood of requests for assistance. “Somebody wrote me that he sold all the furniture in his house,” Adiv says.

Others are considering having their work permits canceled so they could receive the pension money they set aside each month that’s held by Israel. (It’s only released if the permit is canceled.) But that’s a risk – maybe in a week or month from now, work in Israel will resume. Some are worried that even if it does resume, only a limited number of workers will be permitted, as some Israeli plans talk about only allowing workers above 45 at first. It’s all a big gamble.

Laborers with permits to work in the settlements have begun to return to work. Currently, the number stands at 9,000, with an additional 5,000 employed in vital industries inside Israel. Majed isn’t the only one who has a hard time making sense of this.

“You’re bringing workers to the most extremist places, where there’s more chance for friction. Why in the settlements and not inside Israel? Where’s the logic?” he asks. “Eventually, if you stifle a person and keep him locked up, he’ll think about terror.”

The work stoppage for laborers isn’t the only thing stinging the Palestinian economy in the West Bank, says the United Nations’ International Labor Organization. Another factor is restrictions on the movement of people and goods. The ILO estimates that this led to a further 10-percent decline in employment in the private sector.

Majed gives an example: “The people who build houses for themselves are the people who work in Israel. If suddenly they have no income, the work in the West Bank dries up too.” This snowball is also affecting laborers who work in the West Bank.

Israeli security officials attribute the decline in the West Bank’s economy to several factors. With laborers barred from Israel, these people aren’t earning money and therefore are buying fewer goods at home. So, much less cash is flowing into the Palestinian economy.

The economy is also stung because Israel has been withholding some of the tax revenue due it. Two more factors are the dwindling international donations to the PA in recent years, and the fact that Arab Israelis, who normally inject money into the Palestinian economy by shopping in the West Bank, hardly go there anymore due to the security situation.

For now, Majed is just barely able to keep his head above water. His Israeli boss, with whom he has worked in agriculture for 10 years, transferred several thousand shekels to him and other workers at the expense of vacation and sick pay.

“A friend of mine owns a supermarket and he trusts me, and he keeps track of my debts when I shop there, so I can repay him when I have the money,” Majed says. Still, he has had to ask relatives for loans to cover food and other basics. His internet has already been cut off twice when he couldn’t pay the bills.

Majed worked in Israel for 30 years. He says October 7 was a terrible day. “What matters to us is being able to work. Benjamin Netanyahu and Yahya Sinwar are sitting at their desks and wrecking the world. For what?”

‘We mostly eat potatoes’

Before the war, Ayman – who also requested anonymity and thus appears here with a pseudonym – says he enjoyed a good standard of living. Not only did he work in Israel, he did his shopping there. “There I was, a Palestinian laborer, going to [Israeli pharmacy chain] Super-Pharm, going to [bakery chain] Angel and getting challah for my wife, and sour cream,” he says in a phone call. “There are thousands like me.”

Ayman is originally from a West Bank community near Jerusalem. He has lived in Israel for years, since he got married. His children were born here and are Israeli residents. Ayman has a work permit that allows him to stay and travel quite freely in Israel during normal times.

But when there’s a closure on the West Bank, his stay in Israel becomes illegal and he doesn’t leave home – which has been the case since the war broke out.

Without a livelihood he has fallen into trouble. Recently his electricity was cut off when he couldn’t pay a 700-shekel bill. “I wanted to cry,” Ayman says. “The other day, my landlord sent me a message that I have to move out.”

Procuring food has become a challenge too. “I’ll tell you the truth,” he says. “We mostly eat potatoes – fried potatoes, boiled potatoes. A few days ago, my wife made rice and I didn’t eat so that my son would have enough.” Soon, he says sadly, he will also have to say goodbye to the cats he has been taking care of for three years because he fears he won’t be able to feed them.

Now his future is in doubt; it’s that way for a lot of people he knows. Some have even resorted to selling drugs. “One of them said to me, ‘What else can I do if I want to feed my kid?'” He says somebody else he knows took a so-called gray market loan, where the lender sometimes has links to the Israeli crime world. “When he couldn’t repay, he received threats and pictures of his brother’s car. The message was clear.”

He doesn’t know where to turn, but he knows that the PA isn’t an option. “We’re five brothers. Three work in Israel, one works in an industry that depends on Israel and the other works for the PA. We used to give the one who works for the PA 200, 300, 400 shekels a month,” Ayman says.

“The PA has no money to pay salaries, so how are they going to support us?” Meanwhile, he’s drowning in debt. “I had to open up my daughter’s piggy bank and found 270 shekels. I opened my son’s and it was 320 shekels. We used it to buy a little food.”

‘We’re not terrorists’

The absence of Palestinian workers is also affecting the Israeli economy. Figures presented on January 10 to a special Knesset committee on foreign workers showed that Palestinians account for 29 percent of workers in the construction industry and 20 percent in agriculture.

Many security officials support a gradual return of Palestinian laborers workers, starting with a contingent of 13,000. These officials also agree that if the government aims to stabilize the PA, the Palestinians must return to the workforce, a development that will also help prevent a violent escalation in the West Bank.

But the security cabinet, which includes far-right politicians like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, isn’t heeding these recommendations. Earlier this month, after a terror attack in Tel Aviv suburb Ra’anana committed by Palestinians without work permits, Smotrich tweeted: “The opposition we led in the cabinet to returning tens of thousands of Arab workers from Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] is preventing the next terror attacks.”

Ayman may not have heard about Smotrich’s post, but he says the car-ramming and stabbing attack really dimmed the workers’ mood. “If I send you a screenshot from a group of workers, you’ll see all the curses and realize that we’re against what happened,” he says.

“We’re at a point where we’re saying, ‘God, just let them find that they didn’t have permits.'” When it turned out that the attackers were in Israel illegally, it was kind of a relief. “We’re not terrorists,” he says. “We just want a better future.”

Along with the eagerness to return to work, trepidation is growing about the atmosphere when that finally happens. “I’m afraid to go back to work because it’s outside in the street,” Ayman says, citing incitement against Arab workers in Israel and the fear that he’ll be mistakenly labeled a terrorist if he makes any mistake while working.

Mohammed Abu Zahra shares this sentiment. “I saw the comments on social media that were very hostile to Palestinian workers, and it really disappointed me,” he says. “The Israeli public is good. I hope they won’t be dragged into harassing workers who built the country and have passed security checks.”

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אנא כתבו את שמכם המלא, טלפון ותיאור קצר של נושא הפנייה, ונציג\ה של מען יחזרו אליכם בהקדם האפשרי.

رجاءً اكتبوا اسمكم الكامل، الهاتف، ووصف قصير حول موضوع توجهكم، ومندوب عن نقابة معًا سيعاود الاتصال بكم لاحقًا








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