Challenge no.51

Arabs in Israel


Arab racism simmers in the galilee

by By Samya Nasser


The Ministry of Labor estimates that there are 5000 Jordanian and 5000 Egyptians working in Israel. All are illegal. Me'ir Har'even of the Employment Service told Challenge on August 18 that there are no work treaties or arrangements with these countries yet. There is a proposal, however, to allow Jordanians to work in Eilat's Hotels, as they are close to the Jordanian city of Akaba. Har'even said this might cost hotels less than employing a Nigerian, for example, because the Jordanians will be able to sleep at home. As for the Egyptians, Har'even was not aware that any worked here. Even though there are no arrangements in place for Egyptian and Jordanian employees here, the peace treaties have loosened border restrictions allowing workers to enter as tourists. When their visa expires they simply go "underground". These thousands of foreign Arab workers lack any legal status and have no social rights or access to medical aid. They form an abundant and cheap workforce, which is vulnerable to the exploitation of Jewish and Arab contractors alike. The Israeli authorities are reluctant to act, partly because they do not want to provoke another source of conflict with neighbouring Arab regimes. The government's actions have been limited to occasional face-saving raids and arrests of illegal workers. Currently 500 Palestinians, from the Jenin area, are being detained.

A Summer of hate has engulfed the Arab community of Galilee leaving two men – a Gazan and a Jordanian foreign worker – with severe injuries. Foreign workers have long been a phenomenon in Israel, but two new trends have developed which have deepened divisions in the Galilee. Firstly, tens of thousands of Palestinian workers from the Occupied Territories have taken to living and working illegally in Israel. It makes life easier for them; they don't have to face the daily hazard of risking arrest by crossing via dangerous dirt roads to avoid Israeli checkpoints. These Palestinians also avoid being trapped in the Territories during Israeli-imposed closures. In the summer vegetable season, some Palestinians come with their whole family and simply live in a shack in the field of their Arab employer. Added to the arrival of these Palestinians, is the legion of poor Jordanian and Egyptians – estimated to be 5,000 from each country – who have also recently flocked to Israel to live and work illegally. Like the Palestinians, the Jordanians and Egyptians prefer to find lodging within Arab communities, to make them less conspicuous to the authorities. By lodging in Arab communities, the foreign Arab laborers have gained a measure of protection from police, but at the cost of becoming the target of a different, but very sinister threat: racism. Prejudice against foreign Arab workers, which has simmered sporadically for a long time, flared violently this summer. In the Shefa'amr neighbourhood of Ajarush, residents called for Jordanian workers to be expelled because the foreigners had "behaved immorally". On July 21, in the Druze village of Jullis, a flyer was distributed which announced the creation of a "public committee to expel illegal workers". The new committee, in cooperation with Israeli police, managed to secure the expulsion of eight Jordanian workers in August.

The tone for this ugly campaign can be traced to the village of Abu Snan, in western Galilee, in June. The head of the Local Council, Ali Hazimeh, called an Emergency Meeting, on June 27, demanding the expulsion of all "strangers" in the village. The council urged all villagers who rented rooms to outside workers, to evict them. In a council flyer, workers were accused of drug trafficking, violence and rape. They were also labelled as "disguised collaborators" (1). The level of mis-information spiralled. Al-Ittihad, the communist party's Arabic daily, as well as the weekly Kul al-Arab, reported there was clear evidence that workers were collaborators. Their proof? Well, some of the workers held a Palestinian Authority identity card as well as a Jordanian passport. It failed to explain that most Palestinians hold Jordanian passports in addition to an Israeli or PA ID. Kul al-Arab printed a long interview with Colonel Adnan Washah, in Jericho, on July 3 in which he congratulated the Abu Snan council for "its brave stance against the agents of occupation". "We know that these agents hide under the guise of labourers in order to create sympathy among the local Arab population while everyone knows that whoever is a real worker would have a licence," Col Washah said. But, surely, wouldn't Israel equip foreign workers with a licence if it wanted to plant collaborators disguised as workers?

With the issue at boiling point, representatives from the Workers Advice Centre (WAC) – a trade union association independent of the Histadrut – launched an investigation. They went to Abu Snan on July 2 to talk to Jordanian and Palestinian workers and local villagers. A sorry tale of violence and prejudice unfurled. WAC was told that on June 25 a worker from Gaza went to his employer's house, in the village and asked for 400NIS, which he was owed. According to the workers, the Arab employer and his family battered the Gazan unconsciousness, before throwing him outside his lodging. The workers' friends found him there after midnight and went to the employer's house only to find the whole family waiting with weapons. The workers left because they were afraid that their illegal status would be exposed if police became involved. But the family had different ideas. A mob chased the workers to their lodgings and smashed windows. As a result of the damage, the workers were evicted. Two days after the worker was beaten, the council's flyer calling locals to arms appeared, stoking the tension further. The employer involved in the first attack was soon at it again. A 20-strong posse marched to the workers' residence for a confrontation. On the way, they bumped into a passerby, who happened to be a Jordanian worker, and brutally attacked him. The Jordanian's friends took him to a doctor in a nearby village but the medic refused to treat him, claiming he feared retribution from the villagers. He was eventually treated for cuts and broken limbs at an "al Khaya" emergency clinic.

WAC representatives found the workers in a state of shock. The experience had been particularly devastating for the Palestinian-Jordanians. After all, their forefathers could have lived in the Galilee before being forced to leave as refugees. The thoughts of one worker summed up the mood. "Regardless of our need for work, we waited eagerly for the opportunity to visit Palestine and to meet our Arab kin, but today we feel totally estranged from them," he said. "Their attitude to us is worse than that of the Jews. In Jordan they treat us as Palestinians and in Palestine, our forefathers' land, they treat us as condescendingly as 'Jordanians'." Unfortunately, the workers' feelings are a true reflection of the prejudice some well-to-do sections of Arab society in Israel have towards outsiders. The Abu Snan council, whose members belong to that upper tier of Arab society which includes some of the leading communist party figures, did nothing to ease tensions. In fact, their comments fanned conflict. The council allowed a small-scale disagreement between worker and employer to develop into an all-out racist campaign. Furthermore, the new rich of the Arab community in Israel, these foreign Arab workers are "strangers" and not part of the "partnership" between local Arabs and the state of Israel; a partnership which on close examination is a sham anyway. The Arab elite seem to have forgotten that they themselves are discriminated against by the Israeli state. This so-called partnership is used at the discretion of Israeli capitalists – withdrawn and offered, according to their needs. Capitalists have always cultivated the "we" against "them" (the strangers) policy, but, in this case, they are also the ones who have opened the borders for trade: the export of capital and import of the (cheap) "strangers". The behaviour of the elite demonstrates little in the way of solidarity towards Palestinian and Jordanian workers, who have been further impoverished by the peace process. Both groups are landless and have only their labour to sell, always cheaper and cheaper. The spirit of brotherhood, unlike the supply of bargain-basement labour, is in short supply.

WAC’s campaign to highlight racism in the Galilee was picked up by the top-rating weekly Arab TV program Al Usbu'a Fi Se'ah (The Week in an Hour), which screened its own investigation into the violence. On the program, which went to air on July 24, Abu Snan's head of council, Ali Hazimeh, confessed that he was caught up in the frenzy of hate generated by the locals. On reflection, he said, he had failed to check the facts and had been proved wrong. Ali Hazimeh added that the allegations of violence, drugs and rape were also baseless. The program identified one lone group who defended workers throughout this whole sordid affair. We at WAC urge more vigilance to protect poor foreign Arab workers otherwise more will, no doubt, become victims of racism.

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