A group of 42 Palestinians are in their second month of a strike at the Salit Quarry, an Israeli-managed mine associated with Mishor Adumim, the industrial zone of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement of the West Bank.
The workers’ demands are fairly basic: reasonable salaries, regular, monthly pay slips and safe, healthy working conditions.
Though there are an estimated 300,000 Palestinians working in Israeli settlements, this organized strike—in which West Bank Palestinian employees are demanding fair treatment under Israeli law—is the first of its kind.
1. “This is a no man’s land.”
Niyaz Qadadha has been working at the Salit Quarry for the past 17 years.
“I remember when there was a mountain here,” Qadadha says and points to the upper ridge of the Salit Quarry. He traces a line with his hand in the air. To local Bedouins, this valley used to be known as Khan al-Akhmar, the Red Caravanserai.
“We’ve mined most of the stone and sent it inside, to Israel. Our gravel builds the foundations of the buildings in Israel,” he says.
Qadadha is a foreman at the quarry and also a leading member of the strike. He’s 55, tall, and has a long grey beard. He, along with 41 other Palestinian and Bedouin employees at Salit Quarry, has been on strike since 6 June. They are refusing to go back to work at the quarry, Qadadha says, until they are treated fairly.
“The manager thinks he can treat us however he wants,” Qadadha says. “But not anymore.”
Salit Quarry was developed in 1983 by a Jewish Israeli named Uzi Kalev, a charismatic and industrious businessman from Jerusalem. The Civil Administration, the occupying authority in the Palestinian Territories, granted the license to the quarry.
The quarry was built to the southeast of Ramallah, just a few miles from Jerusalem and on the outskirts—and in the jurisdiction—of the sprawling settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. Mishor Admumim is the settlement’s industrial zone. In the quarry, they mine gravel and dirt from the surrounding sun bleached hills. There’s also a plant for processing asphalt.
Since Kalev’s death in 1999, the mine has been managed by two Jewish Israelis. The director of the board of Salit Quarry is a man named Netan Netanzon, from Shilo and the general manager is Hezi Soroka, from Jerusalem.
And since it’s founding, for the past 27 years, Palestinians have worked here. The men come from Hebron (al-Khalil), Jericho, Nablus, Ramallah and all of the small villages in between. Some workers are from East Jerusalem. Others are Bedouin.
According to the Oslo accords the quarry lies in Area C and is therefore under full Israeli-control. But that does not mean Israeli laws apply here.
It is a “no man’s land for worker’s rights,” Assaf Adiv, the founder and director of the Workers Advice Center (WAC), an independent Israeli labor union partnering with the Salit Quarry workers, says.
WAC was founded in the late 1990s shortly after the signing of the Oslo accords, and demands equal rights “for all workers—Israeli, migrant and Palestinian.”
They also see it is as “a basic moral duty to help workers who live in the occupied territories.” WAC works in Israel and also in Area C of the occupied West Bank.
“We recognized then that the Oslo accords would only bring a false kind of peace. And the people, as always, who would suffer most would be the working class,” Adiv explains. “They’d be the ones struggling to feed their families. We formed to advocate for those workers.”
Adiv was contacted by a group of laborers from the Salit Quarry in 2007 when work conditions there had reached an all-time low after one man died due to exhaustion and the unsafe working environment. Only after taking the management to court did his family receive compensation.
Other workers were getting sick too, inhaling dust and sand from the quarry. Vehicles were not insured and there was no bathroom or cold water on the work site.
Since they started working together, WAC and the workers have achieved a number of small victories, including the formation of a Workers Committee—a group of elected employees who act as a representative liaison between management and the rest of the workers—the first of its kind in a West Bank Israeli settlement.
There are bathrooms on the site now, cold water and a proper, shaded work site.
But they are still missing some basic rights, like regular, monthly and documented pay-slips, which the management is reticent to give them. That’s why they decided to strike.
“The management stopped speaking with us,” Qadadha says. “They became very difficult to work with. They’d postpone meetings, giving no explanation. They hoped we would give up in our fight, that we’d stop asking for fair treatment.”
Though employees from East Jerusalem—who have Israeli identification—receive relatively better treatment, West Bank Palestinians are not paid their salaries regularly and all of their finances are done under the table. They have no records to show for their work.
“Our demands are simple. Why should these workers settle for any less than they deserve?” Adiv asks. “What we’re asking isn’t radical. Palestinian workers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories deserve rights.”
“The management thinks that there is no law in this area, that they can do whatever they want,” he says. “Why can’t we have the same rights as the Israelis? We don’t want anything more than that.”
2. “There’s no work in Palestine.”
Salit Quarry is dusty, dry and—these days—quiet. There is little work going on. A few trucks drive in and out (most, but not all of the workers are on strike) during the morning, moving gravel from the quarry to Jerusalem, where most of it is sold wholesale to an Israeli company called Readymix Industries. Readymix Industries is Israel’s leading producer and supplier of raw materials for the construction industry.
The quarry is a clutter of machinery and excavators. One long, low aluminum building stretches across the site and trailers and dump trucks scatter the grounds. Stone gravel is mounded into huge piles.
The strikers sit on the side of the road, at the entrance to the quarry, resting under the shade of a makeshift tent. They come here each morning, as if they were starting their workday, and stay through the afternoon.
“The company is loosing around NIS 2.5 million a month,” Qadadha says, “they’ll have to speak with us soon.”
Qadadha is from Atara, north of Ramallah, and has been working here at the quarry since 1994. He has a wife and together they have two sons and one daughter.
One of his sons is studying at Birzeit University, he says. “It’s a good school, but after he finishes, I worry that he won’t be able to find work.”
“There’s no work in Palestine,” he says, and the work that might be found in Area A, under Palestinian Authority control, “won’t pay nearly as much as I make here.”
The exact number of Palestinian laborers working inside settlements is not known because few Palestinians report it to the Palestinian Authority. Since 2009, it has been technically illegal for Palestinians who live in Area A and B to seek employment inside the settlements.
Still, Israeli sources estimate that there are somewhere between 30,000—35,000 Palestinians working in Israeli settlements.
“They can’t enforce the law,” Dr. Basim Makhool, a professor of economics from An-Najah University says. “The P.A. cannot provide alternatives and they know this.”
Makhool estimates it would cost the P.A. around USD 60 million (NIS 207 million)—for small grants and other job creation—to absorb these workers back into the Palestinian economy.
“They can’t afford to do that now,” he says.
There are three main Israeli settlement industries which employ Palestinian laborers. They work in construction, industrial production and agriculture.
For Israeli companies in the West Bank, Palestinians provide cheap, ready labor. To employ Israelis—or other foreign workers—would cost the settlements more.
Palestinians, on the other hand, have reliably accepted lower wages.
“There are almost no competitive alternatives in the Palestinian market,” Makhool says. Even exploitative wages on settlements can be more appealing than wages offered in Palestine.
Makhool notes that Palestinians have developed a reputation for being “especially productive workers.” Furthermore, most of them speak Hebrew fluently.
3. “No Palestinian should work for these settlements.”
The official, institutional boycott of settlement goods and labor by the Palestinian Authority and labor became a law on 26 April 2010.
Products produced on settlements were to be boycotted from the Palestinian market and Palestinians would also be barred from working on settlements.
This month, Hassan Abu Libda, economy minister of the PA said that “it is shameful for us as Palestinians to support settlement activities and to contribute to their well-being while they’re occupying and confiscating our land.”
“But,” he admitted, “what we have failed at doing is to create jobs for Palestinians as an alternative from working in settlements.”
“No, we’re not supportive of Palestinians working in settlements,” Dr. Abdullah, director of The Palestine Economic Policy Research says. “No Palestinian should work for these settlements, which in our opinion—and international law—are there illegally.”
There are over 120 Israeli settlements and 100 outposts. Including East Jerusalem, that number would be a lot larger. If the strikers in the Salit Quarry achieve what they ask for, a new precedent could be set for Palestinians working in settlements.
But for Abdullah, imposing Israeli labor laws in the West Bank threatens an undesirable step towards normalizing and legitimizing the settlements.
“If the Israelis provide proper labor laws and minimum wage on the settlements for Palestinians, in a way this legitimizes the West Bank as part of Israel,” Abdullah says. “And that’s not what we want. We want these settlements to be dismantled.”
Still, he understands the bind that Palestinian workers are put in.
“We don’t want to cut people from their income. I understand that they need to feed their families. We want conditions to improve for Palestinian workers, of course. But to legitimize the settlements is not what we want. There’s an international boycott movement against Israel,” Abdullah goes on, “and we should be a part of it here in Palestine, too.”
“In the long run,” Abdullah says, “there’s no sustainable life with this occupation. That’s the main issue. There are many problems here in Palestine. But for a lot of us, the political aspiration—the national struggle—is the most important.”
“What I’d prefer is for all Palestinians to be working here, at home,” he says. “But we’re a far way away from that.”
In 2000, at the beginning of the Second Intifada, the Israeli economy was employing around 150,000 workers. Following the intifada—and the construction of the Wall in 2002—that number dropped significantly to 15,000.
Today, unemployment currently stands at 40% and Almost half of the population lives below the poverty line of $2 a day.
4. “I just look ahead.”
The workers at Salit Quarry want to keep their protest far away from national politics. They fear that if the management recognizes their strike as having political ramifications their demands will be dismissed.
“This isn’t about the national struggle,” Adiv says. “It’s about basic human rights. The Israeli management is seeing this as a kind of existential, symbolic threat, between Palestine and Israel. But it isn’t.”
At the time of publishing, neither the director of the board, Netan Netanzon nor the manager, Hezi Soroka had returned calls from The Palestine Monitor for this article.
“I know the manager well,” Qadadha says, “and he knows us. He knows we are hard workers. If they sign the agreement, we will go back to work, happily.
Ramadan began this week and the strike continues. Due to fundraising, WAC has been able give the workers NIS 1000 to support them for the month-long holiday of fasting. Management has made no indication that they’re ready to negotiate.
“I’m not a young man anymore,” Qadadha says, “I shouldn’t have to start a new job. Why should I have to go work somewhere else? This is my job. This is the work I know,” he says. “I know how every machine in this quarry works.”
The article was first published in The Palestinian Monitor}, August 04, 2011