Israeli authorities in recent weeks have launched a massive crackdown on Palestinians working without permits in Israel, in a campaign critics have denounced as a political game that will only deepen Palestinian poverty. Israeli police said that in just two weeks they have rounded up more than 1,200 illegal Palestinian workers, while, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed into law a set of new penalties aimed at deterring their employment. Only 16 MKs voted against the legislation, the sole voices of opposition came from members of the Joint List. Hadash MK Dov Khenin (Joint List) told the parliament the legislation would not reduce the number of illegal residents, “because in the reality under Israeli rule in the territories live people who are in a state of poverty and unemployment.”
The crackdown follows a deadly attack in the Israeli port of Jaffa earlier this month carried out by a Palestinian who had illegally crossed the border out of the occupied West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly called for the introduction of legislation against those who “employ, assist and house people who are present in Israel illegally,” telling ministers at his weekly Cabinet meeting: “It must be understood that a large proportion of (Palestinian) attackers were present in Israel illegally or infiltrated into Israel illegally.”
However, few Palestinians attackers were in fact workers in Israel, and the recent crackdown has been condemned by rights groups as a political game, unlikely to affect the violence, yet economically harmful to both Palestinians and Israelis. Raja Za’atry, project manager for Palestinian workers at Kav LaOved, a workers’ rights group in Israel, told Ma’an Palestinian news agency that Israeli policy had left most Palestinian laborers “politically passive” – those with permits did not want to have them revoked, while those without did not want to draw attention to themselves. “The Israeli government is using the issue of illegal workers to terrorize Israeli society, to tell them there is a security threat,” he said. “It’s a game of trying to make the racists happy.”
Last year, there were as many as 112,300 Palestinians employed in Israel and Israel’s illegal settlements – about 12% of the Palestinian workforce – according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS). PCBS estimates that in 2015 there were as many as 36,400 illegal workers, although most of these were employed in the settlements. B’Tselem said in a 2014 report: “For Palestinian workers who regularly enter Israel illegally to earn a living, life is a constant struggle for survival and returning home safe and sound from work cannot be taken for granted. “They live in constant anxiety, fearing arrest or injury. In such a reality, labor rights such as a minimum wage, reasonable work hours, and a pension scheme seem like a distant dream.”
B’Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli told Ma’an these Palestinians entered Israel unlawfully not so they could carry out knife attacks, but because they had been driven by immense poverty and a lack of employment inside the occupied West Bank. “When you look at the factors forcing Palestinian laborers unlawfully into Israel, you understand why it is a human rights issue,” she said.