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West Bank Palestinians suffer in Gaza fallout

Post-October 7 restrictions on Palestinians have left many unable to cross the checkpoint to work and scrambling to meet basic needs.
Ben Lynfield
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IDF guard Pal farmers olive harvest Nablus Flash90

IDF checking Palestinian farmers in Nablus (file/AFP)

Published: 26 January 2024

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Post-October 7 restrictions on Palestinians have left many unable to cross the checkpoint to work and scrambling to meet basic needs.

Israel is barring West Bank day labourers from returning to jobs they held inside the Green Line before October 7, causing significant deepending poverty in the occupied territory.

While international attention remains riveted on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the burgeoning economic crisis in the West Bank is going largely unnoticed.

But the move towards greater impoverishment is highly significant. In addition to spreading suffering, it adds a new element of volatility in an area that is already simmering from anger at the carnage among fellow Palestinians in Gaza and from an aggressive and often deadly Israeli army posture which the IDF says is aimed at arresting Palestinian militants and thwarting attacks on Israeli targets.

In Husan, across the road from the illegal Beitar Ilit settlement in the southern West Bank, the economic crisis is impacting on all spheres of life, according to council head Jamal Sabatin. “The effects are severe. Those who have medical insurance can go to the clinic and get treated by the doctor but they have no money for medications,” he told The Jewish Independent in his office.

“People switch off their electricity for part of the day because they can’t afford to buy new cards. Most of our stores are closing because there are no purchases from those who worked in Israel.”

Israeli far-right opponents of letting workers back in say the rules of the game have changed since October 7, when approximately 1200 people, mostly civilians, were killed by Hamas, on the most traumatic day in Israeli history.

This mass killing, hostage taking and accompanying atrocities had a huge psychological impact on the Israeli public, jarring its sense of security and causing many to view all Arabs as a threat. Rescinding the worker ban will expose Israelis to Arab attacks, the far-right politicians say.

Most of our stores are closing because there are no purchases from those who worked in Israel.

Husan council head Jamal Sabatin.

But Israel’s security establishment sees things differently. It favours allowing workers who undergo security screening and have permits back in on the grounds that the risks are manageable and that the costs of not doing so are enormous. Economic devastation caused by mass unemployment could contribute to Palestinian violence on a large scale, they warn.

Palestinian economists and Sabatin, the council head, concur with the latter assessment, predicting a third intifada uprising unless workers return and other pressures are relieved.

But thus far Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has again sided with his far-right coalition partners, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. They appear to be hoping for a permanent exclusion of the Palestinian labourers. Their parties urge bringing in workers from Thailand and Sri Lanka to take their places.

Smotrich said his case was boosted last week when two workers from the Hebron area staged an attack in Raanana, north of Tel Aviv, that killed a woman and injured another 19 people. The young assailants were in Israel without permits and had not gone through security vetting.

Many of the Palestinians impacted by the ban have worked long years in Israel at wages lower than what Israelis would get for the same job, but higher than those working for the Palestinian Authority or in the limited offerings available in the weak and stifled Palestinian private sector. Adding to the current distress has been the PA’s inability to meet its salary payments due to Israel’s holding up the transfer of customs revenues on the grounds that PA funds are used to pay families of perpetrators of attacks on Israeli targets.

The ban on workers is a massive blow. “Since the second intifada (2000-05) we have never experienced such a collapse,” says Rabeh Morrar, director of research at MAS, the Palestine Economic Research Institute in Ramallah.

Morrar estimates that 200,000 Palestinians worked in Israel until October 7, directly supporting one million people, or nearly a third of the occupied territory’s population. Israeli figures put the number of workers with permits to enter Israel before the war at 120,000 with additional labourers in Israel illegally.

“A lot of families I know don’t have money to buy food,” Morrar says. “The social network is not functioning. You can’t borrow money from a relative in your extended family because they don’t have enough for themselves.”

His comments were borne out in Husan, where nearly half the labour force worked in Israel. In a grocery, a man who had worked in Israel was asking 68-year-old proprietor Haj Bassam Hassan to let him take some food without paying. “This man has no money. It’s a problem if I give to him because I don’t know if I’ll get the money back. There are a lot of people in this situation now.”

But, Hassan added, as a religious person, it is also a problem to turn needy people away. “Usually, I don’t say no. If I can give, I give. I think of God.”

He added that he is only stocking half the foods he did before the war because many are now unaffordable for customers. “Now I sell just basics such as tahina and sugar,” he explained. Children who come to his shop after school used to have about five shekels to spend. Now they often only have half a shekel, he says. His finances are deteriorating too and he is earning about a quarter of what he did previously, he said.

Nearby, three unemployed labourers were gathered. One of them, Mohammed Issa, 43, said as he clutched prayer beads that he had worked legally in agriculture in Israel for 15 years until October 7. Then he revealed that he had recently lost his 18-year old son, Mahmoud, not just his livelihood.

We used to be able to speak to the soldiers, but now it’s impossible.

Husan town councillor

“It was a month ago. Twentieth of December. There were confrontations with the army inside the village and he was shot with four bullets.”

According to a town councillor, who asked not to be identified, the army has come down hard on the town since October 7, arresting some 30 people, and entering Husan almost every night. He said that in recent weeks, soldiers have prevented him from accessing his land, something he did daily before the war “We used to be able to speak to the soldiers, but now it’s impossible,” he said.

A woman in Sabatin’s office, who asked not to be identified, said that since the war began, almost every night, she gets a knock on the door from soldiers who proceed through her home and go up the stairs to the roof, where they have established a sniper position. “My father is dead. It’s just me, my mother and my three children. It makes us feel insecurity and danger.”

The town councillor said there are a small number of Hamas followers in Husan. But residents said many of the army raids have no apparent relationship to security matters and are just “provocations”, including forays to confiscate unregistered cars. Hassan, the grocer, said soldiers have closed his shop three times since October 7. “I don’t know why they do it. They tell me to go home.”

Asked about army actions in Husan, the IDF spokesman responded in a written statement that “the IDF operates in the villages of Judea and Samaria to arrest wanted persons suspected of terrorist activity, confiscate weapons, destroy terrorist infrastructures and thwart all kinds of terrorism, according to accurate intelligence information and with the aim of protecting the lives of the citizens of Israel”. The statement added that during West Bank operations, troops are often targeted with gunfire and Molotov cocktails.

But the economic damage to the Palestinians does not discriminate between quiet and volatile villages or people. Nearby Wadi Fukin, which has little history of violence, is also reeling from the ban on workers. “Everyone here is impacted,” said renovation specialist Nasser Yacoub, 59, who has been unable to access the neighbouring Israeli town of Tsur Hadassah since the Jewish holidays that preceded October 7.

He says he has had customers there with whom he has had friendly relations for many years. “They gave me the keys to their houses and I would just go in and work. Now all these ties are being destroyed.”

“Most of the people who worked in Israel are now at home all day, just wasting their time and waiting,” he said.

The town councillor in Husan stressed that people are spending a lot of time watching television reports of the Gaza war. “Imagine if you’re a young person and you see on television that people are drinking sewage water and that soldiers are cheering demolitions of buildings. Will you like the Jews?” he asked.

If you don’t let them make a living , in the end there will be violence. It’s a national security imperative to let them back

Amos Glad, former defence ministry official

Amos Gilad, a former senior official in the defence ministry who held responsibility for granting worker permits, argues that the Palestinian resentment will get much worse unless the workers with permits are allowed back to their jobs.

“These are people who go through our security vetting. Our experience over many years shows that we are talking about people who want to make a living. If you don’t let them make a living they can become desperate and in the end there will be violence. It’s a national security imperative to let them back,” he told The Jewish Independent.

But Moshe Solomon, deputy speaker of the Knesset from the far-right Religious Zionism party, warned that even workers with permits would commit acts of terrorism. “We desire life and defend ourselves in our land,” he said, adding that as long as the Palestinian Authority doesn’t change its education programs, which he says incite against Israel, and does not “confront terrorist groups that want to kill us” workers should not be allowed back.

In fact, the PA security services cooperate with Israeli forces to thwart attacks despite this being very unpopular with the Palestinian public.

According to veteran political and strategic analyst Yossi Alpher, the far-right parties are using security as a pretext when their real motive is to make life for Palestinians more miserable so they will leave. “They are pressuring to keep these workers out for political-ideological reasons,” said Alpher, who writes a weekly column for American Friends of Peace Now. Smotrich has advocated encouraging “voluntary” emigration of Palestinians from the West Bank if they refuse to accept inferior status to Jews.

Meanwhile, Palestinians across the West Bank must live with the likelihood that their situation will get even worse. “The future for us is black and vague,” says Yacoub, the Wadi Fukin resident.


Israeli force raids West Bank hospital disguised as doctors, kills three Hamas terrrorists (Haaretz)
An undercover Israeli unit raided Ibn Sina Hospital in Jenin and killed three Hamas-affiliated operatives. Israeli Security forces said the three planned to carry out an attack in the imminent future

About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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