Commuting to Israel in Times of Corona

Tens of thousands of Palestinian workers will be sleeping in their work places in Israel, but many more will be left with no work and no source of income. On […]

Tens of thousands of Palestinian workers will be sleeping in their work places in Israel, but many more will be left with no work and no source of income.

On Sunday 22nd March, the PA imposed a full curfew on the West Bank and its residents, to combat the spread of the Corona virus. The curfew order affects all West Bank towns and villages, prohibiting movement for Palestinian citizens including into and out of Israel.

In the day leading to this measure the Israeli Military Authorities announced that arrangements were made to enable about 50,000 Palestinian workers to have an uninterrupted stay in Israel and the industrial zones of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. These workers will be prohibited from returning home for a month or even two months. The PA the Prime Minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, said that Palestinian workers who cross into Israel will sleep in their work places for at least several weeks, and those who return to the West Bank will have to go into isolation.

Both the movement of so many Palestinian workers into Israel and the standardisation of their overnight stays are unprecedented. These serve three purposes: first, they avoid back and forth traffic of tens of thousands of people between highly populated areas in Israel and the West Bank, spreading the disease in both directions. Secondly, they enable vital industries, including food and services, to continue operating; it also enables the construction industry to stay operational, at least in part, thus alleviating further damage to the economy. Thirdly, they ensure a continued income to a significant group of Palestinians and their families, preventing an economic collapse in the West Bank.

The Palestinian workers included in this arrangement will spend weeks or even months away from their homes, sleeping in difficult physical and social conditions. The Israeli Authorities’ order stated that employers would be obliged to provide reasonable accommodation, and abide by Health Ministry instructions in relation to combatting the Corona virus.

However, there is no certainty that employers will comply with the order. Reports have already been published about inappropriate sleeping arrangements, and about employers demanding that workers pay for their stay in Israel out of their own salaries. Some cases were reported of Palestinian workers who got sick during their stay in the work place inside Israel and were sent back to the Palestinian areas without proper medical treatment and Corona checks. These cases were reported widely in the Palestinian press and social media.

Second thoughts were voiced in the PA about the arrangement of allowing the workers to go and work inside Israel under the current conditions, and on March 24th Palestinian PM M. Shtayyeh called workers to leave their work places in Israel and to come back home . It is still to be seen what will be the response of workers to the call.  

It is important to note that in reality Palestinian workers have no real choice. If they do not accept the sleeping arrangements, even where these are wholly unsuitable, they will be sent home with no pay. This is already the case for an estimated 50,000 workers. Among them about 10,000 workers, based around Bethlehem, which has been under total curfew since the beginning of March; thousands of hotel and restaurant workers, whose places of work closed down as a result of the crisis; workers in companies and factories which have cut or ceased production; and workers who, because of their personal situations, cannot live away from home for sustained periods. This group also includes Palestinian women who are employed in agriculture and factories and cannot stay away from home for cultural reasons.

In the face of this difficult reality workers who are able to stay in their workplaces sometimes compromised their safety and agreed to stay there. Among those who choose, whatever the difficulties involved, to take the risk and go to work in Israel, are several hundred workers organised by WAC in factories in Mishor Edumim and in Atarot Industrial zones. WAC’s Jerusalem office staff, working from home, is conducting daily consultations and is conducting full cooperation with the local workers committees with the aim of safeguarding their rights and living conditions.

WAC is also conducting talks with Kav La-Oved, a workers’ rights center, in an effort to safeguard compensation to Palestinian workers who were left without any source of living (Israeli NII that covers work related accidents and cases of accidents for Palestinian workers does not guarantee these workers unemployment insurance). We are pushing for a state  decision to use an existing  sum of over NIS 500m, that had been accumulating in a trust controlled by Israel’s Finance Ministry from employers sick fund for Palestinian workers.  As Kav LaOved petitioned the Supreme Court regarding this sum in 2016 and several sessions have already being discussed on the issue, we believe that the current crisis provides the perfect circumstances to distribute this huge sum of money in a proper way to Palestinian workers. 

WAC team is convinced that Palestinian Workers, fighting in a responsible way for their livelihood will prevail under this unprecedented crisis. By working together in solidarity and coordination we can ensure that workers’ rights are respected, and come through this crisis even stronger.

אודות Assaf Adiv