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‘We Don’t Know if They Are Dead or Alive’: The Missing Palestinian Workers

Taj Ali

Thousands of Palestinian workers from Gaza have had their work permits revoked by Israeli authorities. Some are missing, others have been detained — and desperate families are searching for answers.

Palestinian labourers line up to cross an Israeli checkpoint. (Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images)

There are few groups in history who have suffered as many waves of dispossession and displacement in such a short period as the Palestinian people. On May 15 1948, over 700,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homeland and over 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed in what is known as the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’.

The Nakba isn’t a fixed historical event but an ongoing phenomenon characterised by seventy-five years of occupation, colonial violence and displacement. The Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated places on earth, is home to many of these refugees — some still have the keys to their former homes. The past fortnight has been particularly difficult; over 4,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli bombardments on mosques, schools, hospitals and residential buildings.

Since 2007, Gaza has been economically suffocated by a siege that stops food, medicine and construction materials from getting in. The unemployment rate stands at 47 percent. It’s why so many have jumped at the opportunity since October 2021 to access work permits to earn a living as day labourers in Israel. The process of applying for a work permit is arduous and unpredictable. Israel issues these permits through a quota system, and many applicants are denied. Those who secure permits face daily challenges, including long waits at border crossings, strict security checks, and gruelling commutes. There are 19,000 Palestinians from Gaza in this position.

Yasmin, a Palestinian trade union organiser, says these workers work the most undesirable, dangerous and physically demanding jobs. ‘You go in, give your labour and go out. You are not considered part of the country. Permits are conditional on Palestinians working in specific industries where there is a lack of an Israeli workforce.’

Those industries include construction, agriculture and manufacturing. Serious injury rates are much higher than average, but the desperation to provide for your family means there is no luxury of choice.

‘It is intensive labour with high levels of precarity. There are many deaths in the construction sector. And there is an internal division of labour and power dynamic at play with Palestinian workers the lowest paid and most exploited.’

Disappeared Workers

When the latest wave of violence began two weeks ago, the Erez crossing into Gaza was completely closed off. Thousands of Palestinian labourers were stranded on the Israeli side, far from their families and with no source of income. Their work permits were revoked, leaving their lives in flux. It is a familiar pattern for Palestinians: displacement, dispossession and uncertainty.

‘Some are missing, some are stranded, some have been arrested, and others have been deported to the West Bank,’ explains Shaher Saed, General Secretary of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU). Saed and his colleagues in Ramallah spent last week attempting to support Palestinians from Gaza who have been estranged from their families, made homeless and internally displaced yet again.

Muhammad Aruri, head of legal affairs for the General Union of Palestinian Workers, tells Tribune that Palestinian families are particularly worried about the condition of their loved ones who have gone missing. ‘There’s 5,000 that we don’t have any information about. We don’t know if they are dead or alive.’

Locating these workers isn’t difficult for the Israeli state. As Yasmin explains, ‘The whole permit system is a surveillance system done in a specific kind of way to help the state locate people in these kinds of scenarios. The last report I heard is that there are 4,000 workers at the moment detained and being interrogated. The state is not letting these workers go back to their families. They are being detained and interrogated or are in the West Bank having to fend for themselves.’

It is impossible to know how many Palestinian workers are in Israel and how many are detained as Israeli authorities have failed to respond to enquiries by NGOs. It is estimated that at least 4,000 Palestinian workers from Gaza are currently held by Israeli authorities in undetermined locations, with little to no information about their condition, unclear legal status, and denied their right to legal representation.

‘In the middle of this horrible situation, the Israeli occupation army did not hesitate in inflicting all kinds of harm against the workers, especially those from Gaza who work in Israel,’ says Saeed. ‘They were prevented from returning to their homes, expelled from their workplaces, and transferred to the West Bank without any shelters. This was done after they had been physically assaulted and had their personal belongings confiscated, such as their money, identity cards and entry permits to Israel.’

Saeed says the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions has received thousands of calls from concerned family members who have lost contact with relatives. ‘We were informed that many of the workers are under detention in Anatout military camp in northern occupied Jerusalem, under degrading and inhumane conditions. The PGFTU demands to release our workers and take steps to guarantee their safe return to their families. We appeal and call our colleagues and partners in the international trade unions for support and solidarity with the workers to eliminate injustice against them. We demand the Red Cross international make an immediate visit to Anatout detention to check on our workers’ conditions.’

Some workers were allegedly dumped at West Bank checkpoints, went into nearby cities and took shelter there. Many workers in Israel fled and sought to make their way to the West Bank, fearing for their safety.

The detention of Palestinian workers could be unlawful, and Israeli human rights organisations such as Gisha have petitioned for further information on their location and condition.

Economic Dependency

In 2017, the Israeli government declassified thousands of pages of meeting transcripts from 1967. In the aftermath of the six-day war, where Israel captured the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank, a great deal of discussion went about what to do with these new territories. Using these documents, Dr Omri Shafer Raviv drew attention to how Israeli leaders sought to expand their control over newly occupied populations by bringing Palestinian workers into Israel.

While the work permit system may provide temporary economic relief to Palestinians, it has created a cycle of dependency with which Israel can access a cheap supply of labour and exercise greater control over Palestinians. Coupled with a siege that prevents sustainable economic development, access to resources and trade, Palestinians in Gaza are economically subjugated.

The mobility of Palestinian workers is often restricted at checkpoints where they face frequent interrogation and are often late or miss shifts altogether, incurring significant financial loss. All Palestinian trade passes through Israeli borders and checkpoints. It means much higher logistics costs — crippling Palestinian businesses and forcing many to close.

The small proportion of workers who are granted work permits have no legal recourse or medical cover and work in industries with a high risk of accidents. They are frequently mistreated by employers who are well aware that Palestinian workers are without the most basic rights and protections.

The plight of these workers is emblematic of the broader challenges Palestinians face. The economic hardships, insecurity, and exploitation they endure serve as a stark reminder of the urgent need to end the siege on Gaza and the occupation more broadly.