Crossing the Wall - Palestinian Workers in Israel

By Miri -


Following Eid al-Fitr, Israeli as well as international media was full of pictures and articles about West Bank Palestinians enjoying and celebrating Ramadan on Tel Aviv's and Jaffa's beaches. Israeli authorities had granted more than 200,000 permits to Palestinian West Bank residents for the high Muslim holiday.
A view at Tel Aviv and Jaffa Beach, Eid al-Fitr 2013, Photo by ActiveStills.org
The Palestinian Authority and Hamas, as well as West Bank business owners reacted angrily to the oh so benevolent gesture of the occupying force and suspected that the timing constituted a calculated move in order to boost the Israeli economy at the expense of the Palestinian one, as thousands of Palestinians went to do their holiday shopping in Israel.

In Jaffa, during that same time I bumped into Mahmoud, a friend of mine who I got to know during the protests in his West Bank village. We sat down to have a chat and I asked him whether he had a permit. He started laughing, he was just released again from prison where he had spent a relatively short sentence for participating in the popular struggle of his village against the Wall. No one would grant him a permit. "I just sneaked through underneath the barbed wire" he said with a cheeky smile.

Mahmoud has no particular reason to take the risk of crossing into Israel without a permit - other than escaping village life and showing the Israeli authorities that they cannot restrict his movement, which are valid enough points by themselves. Others however feel forced to frequently do the same dangerous journey in order to feed their families.

History of Closure

Between 1967, the onset of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and 1987, the beginning of the First Intifada, Palestinians could enter Israel pretty freely. Following the outbreak of the uprising, however, Palestinian movement into Israel became more restricted and supervised by the Israeli authorities. 

During the early 1990s the Israeli policy to allow entry into Israel, except in extraordinary cases was reversed into prohibiting the entry of all Palestinians except in extraordinary cases, in which "the applicant met stringent conditions and received an individual permit".

Towards the end of the 1990s Israel again reduced the restrictions on freedom of movement, yet with the onset of the Second Intifada in 2000 this more lenient approach was abandoned "and the closure has since been enforced with unprecedented harshness". The construction of the Separation Barrier starting in 2002, further exacerbated the situation.
The consequences of the closure are manifold. Throughout the years Israel had purposefully under-developed the Palestinian economy which led to its dependence on workers seeking employment in the settlements and in Israel. The restrictions on Palestinian movement into Israel therefore caused a sharp increase in unemployment of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza, and a concomitant rise in the poverty level. 

With the introduction of a law prohibiting Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza to enter and live in Israel despite the fact that they were married to Palestinian citizens of Israel, the closure also led to the separation of whole families. 

These days, every Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza who wants to enter Israel, has to go through a long and often arbitrary procedure to obtain a permit. Since Israel has a constantly changing quota as to how many Palestinians can obtain a permit, a large number are urged to take the risk and find a way to enter without it. It is impossible to give an exact number of Palestinians crossing daily into Israel without permits, yet estimates range between 30 and 40 thousand.

Crossing without Permit

Notwithstanding the fact that the Separation Barrier, which was allegedly built to keep suicide bombers from entering Israel, is almost completed, there are many ways for people to sneak through to the other side. They pass through parts that are not yet built, climb over it, crawl underneath it, or pay considerable amounts of money to people hiding them in their cars. Apart from the risk of getting apprehended by the army patrolling the Wall, Palestinians frequently get injured or even killed while crossing the Barrier. 
Crossing the Wall in A-Ram, August 2013, Oren Ziv/ActiveStills.org
The increased difficulties and risks, as well as the financial costs involved in crossing into Israel without a permit makes it impossible for many Palestinians to return home on a daily basis. They therefore often stay in Israel for a few weeks at a time.

Abuse through Israeli Authorities

It goes without saying that according to both international and Israeli law, security forces may use force only to the degree necessary to carry out their task. In this case the apprehended person suspected of having entered or stayed in Israel without a permit has to be checked in the police database in order to see whether s/he had already been convicted in the past. Following this short investigation the person is to be either removed from Israel, or further interrogated, and possibly arrested for prosecution.
Palestinian workers are being held by border police while their IDs are being checked
In practice, however, many police officers and soldiers do not follow this procedure, and according to B'tselem, Israeli authorities are not organised enough and cannot afford to prosecute the thousands of Palestinians entering or staying in Israel without a permit. Most of the so called “infiltrators” are therefore returned directly, but human rights organisations suspect that police officers have “developed unofficial modes of operation to deter Palestinians from returning, and to ensure that Palestinians who are caught are punished”. 

These "modes of operation" include:
  • unnecessarily long and unofficial detention, during which water or food, as well as protection against the sun, the cold or rain are being denied 

  • destruction or confiscation of identity cards for an unnecessary long amount of time without justification

  • degrading and humiliating treatment, such as forcing Palestinians to undress, exposing themselves in front of others, etc.

  • physical abuse, such as beating, slapping etc. 

  • theft and confiscation of property 
     
  • damage to property 

  • illegal coercion to obtain information and recruit collaborators, exploiting the distress of Palestinians staying in Israel without permit 

  • in the case of people crossing from Gaza, illegal use of firearms

Abuse and Exploitation through Employers

The violation of the rights of those crossing into and staying in Israel without permit does not end here however. Frequently they suffer abuse and exploitation by their employers, who take advantage of the workers' vulnerable situation and exercise a considerable amount of power over them. Bad working conditions in often high risk jobs, such as construction work, frequently lead to accidents, but the unregistered worker has no insurance and will therefore have to take care of the medical expenses and loss of future earnings by her/himself. 

While many workers in general commonly fear suing their employers, Palestinians working without permit in Israel have additional reasons not to demand their legitimate rights. Similarly the abuse they suffer from the security forces is rarely being reported, hardly ever investigated, and even more seldom are the perpetrators being prosecuted or indicted.

The case of those workers shows once again that the Separation Barrier cannot barr people from getting to the other side and that the notion of "security" is really an illusion. In addition, the hardship that Palestinians suffer due to the Wall and the system of closures will hardly add to the building of calmer future for anyone in the region.  

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