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Work in Israeli settlements means high risks, no safety net for Palestinian laborers

Most of the 36,000 Palestinians who work in Israeli settlements across the West Bank lack basic benefits including personal protection equipment and have little to no recourse when the worst happens.

Naser Qaswal is a 48-year-old Palestinian carpenter who worked for 25 years in the Eli Zahav settlement just outside of Kafr al-Dik in the occupied West Bank, northeast of Jerusalem. Until two years ago, Qaswal was the main breadwinner for his wife and five small children.

In 2017, hearing loss forced Qaswal to leave his job. He was completely deaf in one ear and with only 20% hearing in the other. He also suffered chronic lower back pain that prevents him from driving and standing more than an hour at a time. Both injuries were clearly work related — the result of his two and a half decades of work in Eli Zahav.

Since then, he has been struggling to find a lawyer to represent him in Israeli court as he fights for compensation from his settlement employers.

Qaswal is one of approximately 36,000 Palestinians working in Israeli settlements across the West Bank. Settlement construction thrives off systemic labor rights abuses of the Palestinian workers by denying proper wages, insurance and basic personal protection equipment, complain the workers and a handful of organizations who try to protect them.

The recent boom of settlement construction since Donald Trump’s election as US president in 2017 has seen a 39% increase in Israeli spending on infrastructure in the West Bank. This surge mixed with record high unemployment in 2018 of 31% across the Palestinian territories creates a catch-22 in which many Palestinians see no other option but to work in the settlements and inadvertently facilitate their growth.

Qaswal feels that he and many others like him have no option but to suffer under harsh working conditions to feed their families. 

Qaswal said he wouldn't have quit his job willingly no matter what it did to him, even though working to expand the settlements went against everything he believes in. “I worked for them because I have no choice. It’s like being a slave — you cannot ask for anything; you have no rights.” 

Settlement construction in the West Bank is at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the United Nations, the settlements are illegal as they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention. Palestinians say the settlements are built on stolen Palestinian land, a point Israel disputes.

Although Palestinians' average wages in Israeli settlements can be as low as 70 shekels ($2) a day, they still make around three times standard Palestinian wages. And even though settlement jobs offer dangerous work conditions and no insurance, the higher wages can offset the shortfall. 

Abed Dari, a Palestinian field worker for the labor rights organization Kav la Oved, said the economic situation between Palestine and Israel leads Palestinians to work for Israeli companies, no matter how they feel about it. “The economic situation is very bad in Palestine; there is more than 30% unemployment,” Dari said. “What else could they do? Who will feed their families?”

Since the second intifada, the Israeli authorities have significantly limited the entry of Palestinian laborers into Israel, where wages are higher. Since the 2002 construction of the wall separating Israel and the West Bank, Palestinians need work permits to cross military checkpoints to get to those jobs.

Dari explained that many Palestinians work as laborers on Israeli construction sites in the West Bank, where no permit is needed. “Many prefer to work inside the settlements, where no one asks them if they have a permit or not,” Dari said.

Although the Palestinian Authority technically banned Palestinians from working in settlements in 2010, the measure has not prevented them from doing so.

The Palestinian workers often fear asking for minimal work safety measures like gloves or earplugs, Qaswal said. “If I asked, they would say, 'Oh that Palestinian, he asks for too much, and there are so many others waiting for his job.’” 

Qaswal said his cousin lost two fingers in an accident at an Israeli settlement. “He didn't go to court because he thought that Israel would blacklist him and not give him a permit to work in Israel.” 

According to UN figures, there are currently 600,000 to 750,000 Israelis living in 143 locations across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel’s recent announcement that it will build another 805 housing units in East Jerusalem was met with strong rebukes from the European Union.

An EU spokesperson said the EU "strongly opposes Israel's settlement policy, including in East Jerusalem, which is illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace.”

Another man from the town of Kafr al-Dik, 28-year-old Ahmed, told Al-Monitor the story of his father who spent his entire life working in the West Bank. Though his father initially refused to work in Israeli settlements “out of principle,” he finally gave in. “My father thought he could make three years’ worth of a Palestinian salary in only one year working in a settlement so he accepted a construction job in the Halamish settlement,” said Ahmed, who asked that his name be changed for safety reasons.

After only a month working in Halamish, Ahmed’s father fell three stories off a crane and was left paralyzed from the neck down. “He could only move his eyes, couldn’t talk,” Ahmed said. He passed away two years later, at the age of 52.

“There was no protection,” Ahmed said, explaining how his father was given no safety harness or ropes. An Israeli court ruled in 2013 that Ahmed and his family would continue to receive his father’s wages from the Israeli construction company he worked for. The claim also awarded caregiver's wages for both his wife and Ahmed to look after his father. However, after the man died two years later, the money stopped, leaving the family with no income. 

Securing compensation is a major problem Palestinians face when they suffer injuries or death at work, Dari. He explained that there is often no formal employment contract and Israeli employers will shirk responsibility by taking the injured worker to a checkpoint or Palestinian hospital and withhold evidence that they were injured at work.

“It is hard to prove a work-related accident if the employer doesn’t cooperate and give you the proper documents the Israeli insurance asks for,” Dari said. He added, “[The Palestinians] need to feed their families and because they are under occupation, they are under Israeli law, under their power.” 

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