Palestinian Workers Against Israeli Occupation

As bombs continued to fall on Gaza last week, Palestinians joined together for a historic general strike, disrupting business as usual in Israel. But even more worker organization will be needed to end Israeli occupation.

A Palestinian man walks past shuttered stores in East Jerusalem during the Palestinian general strike observed on May 18, 2021. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week’s Palestinian general strike saw the widespread closure of businesses and workplaces in Gaza, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and, most strikingly, inside Israel itself. The Israel Builders Association reported a $40 million loss from the paralysis of construction sites alone. The strike was heralded as part of a Unity Intifada because it was observed by Palestinians of all classes and in all of their geographically disconnected locations. 

In the decades since 1948, Israeli authorities have put their own spin on the old colonial strategy of divide and rule by fragmenting the Palestinian population, through both territorial isolation and manipulation of internal politics (by stoking the Hamas vs. Fatah rivalry, for example). 

Last week’s karameh (dignity) strike has been widely interpreted as the clearest expression of a new front of solidarity among Palestinians. The action was called by the politically independent, albeit elite, High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, and was effectively promoted by youth-led networks that have all but eclipsed the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority’s leadership. Indeed, Palestinian elections were originally scheduled to take place just a few days later, only to be cancelled once again by President Mahmoud Abbas in the face of another projected win for Hamas. 

Insofar as the strike was also a withdrawal of labor, it should remind us of the vital role that Palestinian labor plays in Israel’s economy. The shutdown of workplaces is not just a symbolic act of unity but also a disruption of business as usual in a country that was recently, if belatedly, described by Human Rights Watch as well as the Israeli human-rights organization B’Tselem as an apartheid state. 

In the public mind, apartheid is primarily associated with physical separation and segregation, and rightly so. We think of the separation wall snaking around and through the West Bank, or of South Africa’s Bantustans, and of the all-white neighborhoods, schools, and restaurants of the Jim Crow South. And that’s true of Israel itself. Its so-called “mixed” cities have their own walls and other physical barriers to enforce the partition of Jewish and Palestinian populations. In some cases, like Nazareth Illit (Upper Nazareth), a whole new Jewish neighborhood or town was constructed as a geographic and demographic counterbalance to the Arab majority in the existing city. 

But to focus exclusively on physical separation is to ignore the question of labor that is so central to apartheid states. To maintain their quality of life, and to drive home their supremacy, members of the dominant group almost always rely on the cheap labor of the subjugated. Under these circumstances, a strike can be useful as a nonviolent protest, but it also exposes how essential labor relations are to the power dynamic of domination.

Replacement Campaigns

During the pandemic lockdown, much was made in Israel of the heroic role played by Palestinian medical workers, who make up 20 percent of that sector’s labor force. Those “essential workers” were then hailed as part of Israel’s vaccination success story, while the criminal withholding of vaccines to residents of the occupied territories was glossed over. But it is not only medical workers who have been essential to the Israeli economy. While Palestinians have limited access to the higher-skilled, and better-paid, occupations within the Israeli economy, they are the dominant workforce in the construction sector, charged with building out the Israeli state and its spreading archipelago of settlements in the West Bank.

In the early decades of Zionist settlement, building was the task most hallowed by the doctrine of Labor Zionism. Listen to Yemenite singer-dancer Bracha Tsfira’s well-known 1930s song, “Who Will Build a House?” (Mi Yiveneh Bayit).

Who will build, will build a house in Tel Aviv? 

Who will build, will build a house in Tel Aviv? 

We the pioneers will build Tel Aviv! 

Give us the clay and bricks — and we’ll build Tel Aviv!

And yet there is some uncertainty swirling around the song’s leading question. At that time, building was still regarded as “Arab labor,” and that continues to be the case today, despite the periodic efforts on the part of the Histadrut trade union to lure Jewish workers with bonus pay.

Although there have been several attempts to exclude Palestinians from the workforce over the course of the last century, these efforts have been only partly successful. The long-running Hebrew Labor (avoda ivrit) campaign that lasted from the 1910s through the 1930s was the first but by no means the last. The pressure that Zionist leaders mounted to bar Palestinian labor went against employers’ preference for workers who were more skilled, cheaper, and less strident in their labor politics than Jewish settlers. After the Nakba in 1948, Mizrahi Jews from other Arab countries were brought in to replace local labor, but they quickly moved up into manufacturing jobs, and Israeli Palestinians returned to the construction sites in a tightening labor market, which only eased when the occupation opened up a reservoir of cheap labor from the West Bank and Gaza. 

As a collective punishment for the first intifada, the Israeli state cancelled the permits for West Bank and Gaza workers employed within the Green Line, and large numbers of migrant workers were imported from overseas as a replacement. But once again, this strenuous effort was at odds with employers’ proven appetite for Palestinian labor, and so the traffic across the Green Line was only temporarily halted. By the time the pandemic struck, the number of West Bank Palestinians working in Israel or in the settlements — more than 64 percent of whom are employed in construction — was greater than ever before. Given Israel’s chronic housing shortage, the demand for more Palestinian labor is virtually guaranteed. 

Economic Pacification

But there is more to this story than simply the abiding preference of employers, and a fuller explanation can help us understand the specific character of Israeli apartheid. Palestinians who work in Israel or the settlements (17 percent or more of employed West Bank residents) are a compulsory work force, because the only alternative for them is a starvation wage due to Israel’s policies of under-developing the Palestinian economy. 

Moreover, the larger Israeli pay packet comes at a great cost. With no access to union protection, Palestinian workers are vulnerable to wage theft, dangerous workplace conditions, and physical and emotional abuse at the checkpoints and in public spaces. The work permit itself is precious, but liable to be arbitrarily removed if any member of a worker’s household or even extended family gets in trouble with Israeli authorities. And, in the event of an insurgency against the occupation, however local, the checkpoints can be closed and workers cut off from vital income, again as a form of collective punishment.

In that regard, the work-permit system is a very effective mode of economic pacification. It’s for this reason that Israeli right-wingers want to see an increase in permit quotas for Palestinian workers, euphemistically referring to the program as “jobs for peace.” It is these same politicians who are most vocal in their opposition to migrant workers from abroad, which in the 2000s resulted in mass deportations. Especially attractive to the Israeli right is the fact that, unlike migrant workers who send wages home in remittances, Palestinians spend their pay on Israeli goods — at Israeli prices — in the West Bank. As a commuter workforce, they go home every night, and so are no burden on the state’s social services. The cause of settler colonialism also derives a long-term advantage from transferring a subsistence agricultural workforce into waged labor. The land gets neglected as a result, and, under Israel’s version of the old Ottoman law of “underutilization,” it can be seized more easily by the state or by settlers.

Workers’ Strike?

Under these circumstances, how can strikes be effective? Last week’s one-day stoppage built on a long tradition of strikes dating back to early twentieth-century actions against Hebrew Labor policy — some of them supported by socialist Jewish workers in the years of joint organizing. It was a six-month-long general strike in 1936 that triggered the Great Arab Revolt against British rule and Jewish immigration. Strikes featured prominently and creatively in both the first and second intifadas, and they took many forms — tax refusal and a boycott of Israeli goods in addition to the withdrawal of labor. Palestinian prisoners have been staging mass hunger strikes since 1968, supported on many occasions by solidarity strikes from civil society. Most recently, in September of last year, a general strike was called to mark the eighteenth anniversary of the onset of the second intifada. 

Moreover, what is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) if not a rolling strike? It was launched as a shrewd bid to export and extend the reach of homegrown boycott actions by cutting off international cooperation with Israel and its institutions. If foreign governments would not impose sanctions, their individual citizens, unions, and professional associations could do so through BDS.

By contrast, workers’ strikes, waged explicitly for bargaining rights and workplace empowerment, and deeper worker organizing have taken a back seat to the general strike. Last week was no exception. Workers had little input into the organization of the strike, and many of those working in Israel took a financial hit they can ill afford, especially after the pandemic lockdown restricted their movement across the Green Line for many months. 

Assaf Adiv, director of the MAAN Workers Association — the only Israeli trade union that organizes Palestinians in the industrial zones of the West Bank settlements (from which Palestinian trade unions are barred) — expressed skepticism about the role of workers themselves in calling for the strike, contending that the no-show on the part of workers was as much “due to closure of the checkpoints and uncertainty on the roads of the West Bank.” 

The distinction between a “workers’ strike” and what Adiv described as last week’s “commercial strike” is worth noting. Working-class Palestinians, especially those who have no choice but to go to work for the occupier, have no means to call a general strike. Nor it is clear how they are going to have a stronger voice, going forward, in a unity intifada which, in the words of “The Dignity and Hope Manifesto,” stands against “all the elites working to deepen and entrench the divisions in and between our communities.” The Palestinian trade-union movement is as fragmented as Palestine’s political leadership, and, in any case, has limited outreach to those who work in Israel or in the settlements. 

Can the network of youth activist groups who are increasingly in the driver’s seat build a more solid connection with workers who have precious little time to be politically active in a workday that, inclusive of travel, can stretch from 4 AM to 9 PM? How will the embryonic unity movement address the gulf between working-class interests and those of Palestine’s own crony capitalists? 

To be successful, national liberation struggles usually need to be cross-class in composition, but they do not always produce cross-class outcomes or benefits. They are most transformative when they are also anti-capitalist, and when worker self-organization is at the fore. Uniquely among national constitutions, Palestine’s Basic Law (which functions as temporary constitution for the Palestinian Authority) specifies that “the economic system in Palestine shall be based on the principles of a free market economy.” Bringing worker participation to the heart of the struggle against the occupation could also help bring an end to this free-market monopoly.