Labor leader Hatem Abu Ziadeh has quietly made history. In February, the 45-year-old Palestinian father of six from Jericho sat down with Morris Zarfati, the owner of the Zarfati car-repair garage in the Mishor Adumim Industrial Zone in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. For years a “war” had raged between the two men following Abu Ziadeh’s unionizing work and subsequent dismissal from the garage. Now, over tea and smiles, they came to a collective-bargaining agreement that improved wages and working conditions for Abu Ziadeh and his fellow employees, a first for Palestinians working for Israelis in the West Bank.
“We hope that as Palestinian workers and as a Palestinian people that our rights will return to us, like we took back our rights in the Zarfati garage,” said Abu Ziadeh. He spoke in the spring from a cafe just beyond the industrial zone, as many workers are too afraid to meet with union organizers on the inside. “This is our land.”
In a conflict defined by inertia, it’s a fresh but limited sign of progress. More than 36,000 Palestinian men, women, and even children toil in Israeli-owned factories and settlements in the West Bank. They can make up to three times as much as other Palestinians in the Palestinian territories not working for Israelis. But they face frequent exploitation and dangers along the way. (And their status remains precarious: In September, a Palestinian man killed an Israeli policeman and two security guards at the settlement he worked at. Israeli officials said the attack could have “serious implications” for the work-permit system.)
The Palestinian labor market, after all, is subsumed under the Israeli occupation. About 70,000 other Palestinians work in Israel through expensive and hard-to-procure work permits, according to Israeli government figures. Palestinians can pay up to $700 (2,500 Israeli shekels) a month for a permit to an Israeli or Palestinian middleman (or about a quarter to third of the average laborer’s salary), found a recent study by the Israeli finance ministry—the first government report to document this long-standing exploitation.
In theory, after repeated security checks, Palestinians who qualify receive a permit sponsored by a contractor to work in a specific sector; in practice, however, permits are traded between contractors and middlemen and Palestinians, which negatively impacts wages and competition. An estimated 50,000 more Palestinians work illegally in Israel, according to Israel’s military. They sneak through checkpoints or over the separation wall to toil despite the risks, often staying illegally in Israel for as long as they can to dodge authorities.