The oppressive permit regime imposed on Palestinian workers must be abolished.
When the black movement in the United States raised the slogan “let us breathe”, for us here, in our struggle for rights of Palestinian workers it was a natural slogan to adopt. Daily some 150,000 West Bank residents enter through formidable crossings into Israel’s labor market. They are exploited and discriminated against in various ways.
The struggle in the US and here
For more than two decades, the independent trade union MAAN has worked to organize and protect Palestinian workers. It is our conviction that a democratic trade union in Israel must take on the task of promoting Palestinian workers as equal members and leaders in its ranks.
Hundreds of Palestinian workers employed by Israeli companies in the settlements and within Israel joined MAAN during this period, and MAAN was accordingly able to sign three collective bargaining agreements and protect the rights of many.
It is our conviction that the new direction taken by the US administration could have a positive impact on our struggle here for human and workers’ rights. The Black Lives Matter movement, which appeared in full force following the assassination of George Floyd by a police officer, played a key role in Joe Biden’s historic victory over Trump. Since Biden entered the White House in January this year, his administration has led social and economic changes on an unprecedented scale. The change that Biden’s administration is striving for includes protection of human rights, creation of new jobs, and also encourages unionization of workers.
The permit regime makes it difficult for Palestinian workers to unionize
During MAAN’s day-to-day work, and despite achievements made in our struggles, we repeatedly encounter a formidable obstacle: the intricate and oppressive permit regime imposed on Palestinian workers. All who come to work in Israel or in the settlements must pass through checkpoints, and this is after managing to secure valid entry permits from a complex system. This multi-pronged bureaucratic regime provides the ultimate means of subordinating the Palestinians to Israel.
This is a regime that deprives Palestinian residents of freedom of movement while binding Palestinian workers to their employers, thus rendering it difficult to promote a process of unionization and demand for full rights.
For workers in Israel, including Palestinian workers, it is legally easy to form a union. After the union receives more than a third of the workers signatures on union affiliation cards, it can declare that it is the organization legally representing the workers and that in itself requires the employer to conduct collective bargaining meetings with it. According to Israeli Collective Agreements Law the employer must not try and influence workers in this matter, not even indirectly. If one compares it with the US, we can observe that the difficulty for unions to initiate a successful unionizing drive there is much bigger as employers are allowed to exert pressure, threats and persuasion on workers to prevent union formation
But this positive legal aspect over here is lost when it comes to Palestinian workers. Any attempt at unionization among Palestinians encounters an impossible reality of submission and arbitrariness in issuing permits, without which the worker will lose the opportunity to reach his\her workplace entirely. The employer holds the doomsday weapon, as dependence on the permit deprives the Palestinian workers their freedom of movement and choice of workplace. Employees thus lose a sense of workplace security, a vital factor without which it is difficult to succeed in organizing.
About 150,000 Palestinian workers from the West Bank currently work in Israel and the settlements. Every day on their way to construction sites, agricultural fields and industrial areas, these workers pass through checkpoints that require them to huddle in inhumane conditions for long hours and undergo humiliation by guards and soldiers, who are sometimes dozens of years younger than them.
The road to work, while geographically short (1 hour or less) may take 4 hours. Worker testify that they leave home at 4.00 in the morning to reach work at 7.00. Added to this harsh reality that affects every worker are the permit brokers, parasites on the tens of thousands unable to obtain entry permits from official employers. Workers are forced to pay up to NIS 2,500 monthly to a broker who will give them the coveted permit, through which they cross the checkpoint and seek their fortune in a cruel labor market. 
This Kafkaesque world faced by workers includes frequent revocation of their permits, often for arbitrary and unknown reasons, causing them to immediately lose their jobs. In the absence of clear procedures for appeal or even clarification of the circumstances of revocation, many find themselves in front of an impenetrable wall even after decades of work within Israel, and without the ability to do what is necessary in order to regain their permit.
To complete the complex picture, one must also take into account the fact that there are extremely high unemployment rates in the Palestinian Authority (PA) areas. The wage of an employee in the PA area is significantly lower than that in Israel (the minimum wage in Israel is NIS 5,300 per month, while the minimum wage in the PA areas is NIS 1,450). As a result, there is fierce competition for jobs in Israel, and workers live with a constant feeling that if they demand too much, they might be replaced. In the absence of social security or a pension fund, employees who lost their job would remain without an income for months. The fear of starvation is clear and directly affects the decision to join unionizing efforts.
Security as an excuse to impose control
The ultimate justification for enforcing the permit regime and barriers to entry into Israel is that of security. Yet a close examination reveals that security reasoning has no connection to reality. It is now 30 years since the Israeli government’s decision from 1991 to demand permits from Palestinian workers living in the West Bank and Gaza who want to work in Israel. As we shall demonstrate below, this period is sufficient time to understand that the permit regime is in fact a bureaucratic system for control and repression which not only does not serve security needs, but in fact acts contrary to the need to create stability and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
The recent government decision to implement a reform in the system of employment of Palestinian workers in the construction industry, is in itself a conclusive proof of the previous system’s failure. The Payment Authority (an organ of the Population and Immigration Authority) that is responsible for employing workers, and the defense establishment, which determines eligibility for permits, concluded that the previous method, which had been in place for years and required the bonding of an employee to a particular employer, did not work. Less than half of the approximately 120,000 Palestinian workers employed in Israel (not including 30,000 who work in the settlements) are actually employed by the employer for whom they received a permit. The rest enter and leave Israel without any employer knowing or reporting their registration. This includes some 20,000 workers who buy permits from brokers, workers for temporary employers who have no supervision, as well as a large group of 40-50,000 (it is difficult to determine the exact number) who enter through loopholes in the separation barrier and are employed without permits at all.
There is no doubt that the black market of permits which is estimated to involve some NIS 480 million yearly, was one of the reasons behind the attempt to repair the system and to implement the reform. An employee who pays a third or half of his salary to a broker lives with a sense of frustration and anger, in stark contrast to the purpose for which the quota of employees in the Israeli labor market was increased. It is clear that in addition to the need for workers in the construction, agriculture and industry sectors, the employment of Palestinians in the Israeli economy was intended to enable significant financial income for the Palestinian population, thus reducing the rates of poverty and distress that give rise to despair in the West Bank cities and villages.
In her book on the permit regime, Dr. Yael Barda explains that this is a method colonial regimes used as a means of imposing their rule on the occupied population. To illustrate the lie of the reasoning, Dr. Barda points to the fact that to date no actual and deterrent punishment has been imposed on permit brokers. Although some of them have been prosecuted, the lack of decisive action by authorities against this phenomenon implies tacit consent to their existence. Loopholes in the separation wall, through which thousands of workers enter Israel, are also known to the security authorities, and a well-known secret is that they constitute a kind of safety valve that is left open, while every few weeks a violent attack is taken to stop workers and then again the way is cleared for tens of thousands of workers to go into Israel in search of income.
With introduction of the reform for construction workers, Israeli authorities promised that from now on, control of the work permit would pass to the worker himself and it would thus be possible to end the illegal phenomenon of brokerage fees and abolish the shackles of workers to their employers. However, even in the new system the need for a security clearance from the Civil Administration is in tact. Hebrew University researcher Walid Habas mentioned in his talk recently, that the new procedure only tightened supervision of security authorities over the workers. Reports from the field after a few months indicate no change in the situation and that the role of permit brokers has not diminished.
Change the fundamental equation
The COVID-19 pandemic has very sharply exposed Israel’s racist policy and utter contempt for the dignity and human rights of the Palestinians. When in Israel the vaccination rate reached 60% and control of the disease was achieved, we witnessed at that time a severe outbreak of COVID-19 in Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority lacks minimal means of dealing with the pandemic: it has no developed health system, residents do not have social security and therefore cannot live in isolation for long periods of time, and it has no supply of vaccines. The vaccination rate in PA areas today is only 3.3%. The daily number of diagnosed cases is on the rise, and the number of deaths increases accordingly.
Despite this difficult situation, Israel refuses to assist the Palestinians. With the exception of vaccinating Palestinian workers employed in Israel, there is currently no intention to deliver vaccines on a massive scale and prevent the epidemic from continuing to spread in the territories. Not only is this cruel, but there is danger that in the absence of control of the epidemic in the West Bank, the result will be development of dangerous mutations that will harm the medical situation within Israel as well.
The equation here is clear. Israel holds all the cards and wields complete control over the lives and economic conditions of the Palestinians. Israel’s system of control, whose prominent symbols are the checkpoints and permit regime, will not be amended by partial or cosmetic reforms. What is needed here is a fundamental change in the status and situation of Palestinian residents and Palestinian workers.
Our demand for abolition of the permit and checkpoint regime and the granting of freedom of movement to Palestinian residents is a call to recognize the reality of coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and the duty to respect the equal human rights of each resident, regardless of nationality, religion or gender.
The Biden administration’s recognition of the duty to create an economy that serves its citizens and workers equally and without racial discrimination, while building a green and environmentally friendly future, is a source of inspiration for us to demand equality and freedom for all – Palestinians and Israelis alike.
The right to breathe air and move freely in your country is a fundamental
right of every person wherever he is. It is time for the Palestinians to enjoy
it as well.
 See MAAN report “Ten years of struggle to organize Palestinian workers in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank” (2019) http://eng.wac-maan.org.il/?p=2311
 On March 2021 MAAN signed the 3rd collective agreement in the Rajwan Company that employs Palestinian workers. This agreement was the first of its kind for workers who work inside Israel and are employed through the Payment Authority see here http://eng.wac-maan.org.il/?p=2528
 See here a report on the Israeli Supreme Court ruling in 2013 in the case of Pelephone workers https://www.world-psi.org/en/freedom-association-victory-israel
 A 2019 report published by the Bank of Israel on this topic describes the impact of brokers who act without fear of the law in Israel or the Palestinian Authority: https://www.boi.org.il/en/NewsAndPublications/PressReleases/Pages/25-9-2019.aspx
 See the article in Davar Rishon (Hebrew) on the West Bank’s official unemployment rate in 2020 – 28.5% https://www.davar1.co.il/284643/.
 See 2014 article by Dani Rubenstein (in Hebrew): https://www.calcalist.co.il/local/articles/0,7340,L-3623908,00.html.
 See footnote no. 2
 Dr. Barda describes in her 2018 book the monstrous permit regime through which Israel controls the Palestinians – Living Emergency: Israel’s Permit Regime in the Occupied West Bank, https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=25698.
 See the B’Tselem report on injuring workers near breaks in the separation wall (in Hebrew): https://www.btselem.org/hebrew/firearms/20210309_soldiers_ambush_and_shoot_workers_in_faron_and_bartaah_a_sharqiyah
 Researcher Walid Habas was one of the speakers at a March 31 panel organized by Kav Laoved on the reform of the permit regime for construction workers. Walid Habas, a Jerusalem resident and doctoral candidate at the Hebrew University who is researching the economic relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
 See April 17, 2021 article by Roni Linder in The Marker (in Hebrew) : https://www.themarker.com/coronavirus/.premium-1.9745780?fbclid=IwAR2UHBEhmMOqrlMBakU_9IGgjUSKTrgTaKvJK8NrNA6JEij0FFbrrz2SCVM
 See the 2021 Human Rights Watch report, which defines the regime imposed by Israel on the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem as apartheid: https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/04/27/abusive-israeli-policies-constitute-crimes-apartheid-persecution.