Israel Was Built on the Backs of Palestinian Laborers

Israel Was Built on the Backs of Palestinian Laborers

Israel Was Built on the Backs of Palestinian Laborers

Marginalized Arab workers have always done the physical work of building the Jewish “national home.”


If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government follows through on his pledge to annex the West Bank, some 130 government-sanctioned Jewish settlements in Area C will be first in line to be seized. The move will boost Israel’s Jewish majority by several hundred thousand—a priority of Zionist leaders since the 1930s.

Annexation will also put to bed any lingering talk about a “two-state solution.” Ideally, the successor scenario is a single, binational state, but the more likely one is further land grabs and the steady eastward march of these illegal settlements.

The given wisdom is that these colonized areas are heavily garrisoned to keep all Palestinians out. And yet, on most days of the week, Palestinians can be found inside the security perimeters, laboring on the construction and maintenance of houses, roads, and other infrastructure.

Contrary to religious-settler mythology that glorifies the redemption of ancient Jewish land by modern Jewish hands, Palestinians have played a large part in building the spreading West Bank archipelago of Jewish hilltop suburbs and cities. Many are employed in building the separation wall itself. And, of course, many more are squeezed through the Green Line checkpoints every day to staff Israel’s construction sites.

There is nothing optional about this kind of employment. Technically, it may not be forced labor, but when the few alternatives offer little more than a starvation wage, it is certainly not free labor. Since the Occupation began, Israel’s policy of stifling economic development in the West Bank and Gaza has fashioned Palestinians into a compulsory workforce, readily available to Israeli employers under the most profitable terms. As a result, and despite large-scale efforts to import a replacement workforce—Mizrahi Jews after 1948, and migrant workers from Romania, Ukraine, Poland, Turkey, China, or Nigeria after the first intifada—Israeli employers have always preferred Palestinians workers, especially in the construction industry.

More than 130,000 West Bank Palestinians—an all-time high—are employed today inside Israel or in the settlements. Indeed, right-wing politicians have been pushing for upping the number of work permits issued to Palestinians, because they know that the formula of “jobs for peace” (dissent of any kind results in the rescinding of work permits for an entire family) is a highly effective form of social control. They also know that Palestinian workers who go home every evening impose no burdensome costs on the state. Most important, and unlike migrant workers who remit wages to their home country, Palestinians spend their pay in the West Bank on Israeli goods at Israeli prices.

In the tradition of the colonial comprador class, Palestine’s capitalists make a tidy profit from import monopolies of these goods and other services, while the smaller middlemen take a cut from the cross-border labor route, whether from subcontractor or permit fees. The Occupation is a goose that lays golden eggs on both sides of the Green Line, but only at the expense of the builders (many of them college-educated) who have become migrant workers in their own land.

Advocates of decolonization are shooting for a single state with equal civil and political rights for all. Palestinians shouldn’t have to fight for these rights; they have already earned them from a century or more of sweat equity

In the early 20th century, Labor Zionists exhorted settlers to make new, “muscular Jews” of themselves through tilling the soil of Palestine and learning how to mix cement and lay bricks. Many of them performed that nation-making toil, while agitating for Arab-free workforces as part of the notorious “Conquest of Labor” campaign. But employers, then as now, relied on Palestinians to get the job done. They cost less, had more skills, were less strident in their labor politics, and had generations of building experience with the mountain limestone and coastal sandstone of the region.

From decade to decade—before and after the Nakba (the forcible expulsion of 750,000 residents from their ancestral lands), and then again after 1967 and the two intifadas—Palestinians workers have always done the physical work of building what the Balfour Declaration called the Jewish “national home.” Indeed, they have had a decisive hand in almost all the assets on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, just as they largely built the postcolonial states of the region—Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—when their expertise was needed.

How does that long record of labor contributions feed into the debate about a single, democratic state on the lands of historic Palestine? Should those who build countries acquire rights within them? This proposition lies at the heart of the labor theory of property that drove settler colonialism (both in the United States and Israel): If you “improve” the land through your labor, you could rightfully claim it.

West Bank settlers today still reap benefits from a legacy version of that doctrine—an Ottoman law that allows seizure of Palestinian land if it is “underutilized.” But for most workers in modern history, especially those engaged in waged labor, this argument has not fared so well.

Bonded, indentured, or enslaved populations who toiled to develop other countries have found it hard to win state-level recognition for civil and political rights on the basis of their labor. Advocates still face an uphill battle in contending that cross-border immigrants who work hard deserve inclusion and rights. But the Palestinians who built Israel were not brought from elsewhere. They have labored on their own lands, and in West Bank settlements, many are working on land—and on houses, in some cases—that only recently belonged to their villages.

If and when “final status” negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians are revived (admittedly, a big “if”), all the claims for past injuries and wrongs will still be on the table; restitution for 70 years of lost property, compensation for moral suffering, the right to return, and so on. These debts must be repaid. But the creation of a new kind of unitary state with full citizenship for all will require transitional as well as reparative justice. The political equity earned from the long inventory of Palestinians’ compulsory labor ought to be part of that reckoning.

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