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For Palestinian labourers, settlement work is a nuanced form of forced labour

Palestinian workers on Israeli settlements are fed up with being used as propaganda for Israeli businesses and government and with being vilified for work they say they are forced into.

Children who work in the settlements. Photo: Hamza Zubeidat. All rights reserved.It seems every month there are new plans to expand the illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, with new housing units added to already burgeoning settler towns and cities that sit on stolen Palestinian hilltops looking down on impoverished Palestinian communities in the valleys below.

Settlement work is work they must undertake so they can survive.

The settlements split the West Bank into Palestinian islands surrounded by settler-only land, roads, and military zones. They are an integral part of Israel’s military occupation and a major aspect of the continued, decades long, suppression of the Palestinian people. Yet they also, in what seems like a political contradiction, provide employment to thousands of Palestinians – men, women, and children as young as 12 – who toil in settlement farms and factories, and who construct and build the very same buildings that deconstruct their own aspirations for self-determination.

These workers are often forgotten about by the outside world and activists, vilified by their fellow Palestinians, and used as propaganda by settlement companies and the Israeli government who portray the settlements as good by providing Palestinian workers an opportunity to work and put food on the table for their families.

However this is the rhetoric of the occupier – simply the dominant narrative, and that shouted loudest.

Travel the rural West Bank villages where Palestinian settlement workers are mainly from, sit down in their homes, and talk to them about their lives and work, and a completely different picture emerges. These workers talk of dangerous conditions, of life-altering injuries, of being paid well below the legal Israeli minimum wage (to which they are entitled), and being subjected to humiliating and threatening treatment at the hands of their employers, unscrupulous middlemen, and Israeli soldiers.

Children who work in the settlements. Photo: Hamza Zubeidat. All rights reserved.Their communities are poverty-stricken, and the lives these villagers used to live before occupation – one where an income came from the land through farming and herding – has been completely destroyed. The land has been stripped from them and annexed from under their feet by a powerful and deadly military, and the settlements have landed, unwanted, and with disastrous consequences at their doorstep. Freedom of movement restrictions on the Palestinian population in the occupied West Bank have hemmed these workers into islands of Palestinian land surrounded by Israeli settlements, roads, and military controlled zones.

With traditional livelihoods destroyed and unable to freely move to find employment in Palestinians urban centers, settlement work has become the only viable way for thousands of rural Palestinians to steadily provide for their family. It’s work that causes them shame as they help their occupier through destroying their nation’s own aspirations for self-determination brick-by-brick. Such work is not a choice, these labourers say, but has been forced upon them by occupation. It is work they must undertake so they can survive.

It’s work that causes them shame as they help their occupier through destroying their nation’s own aspirations for self-determination brick-by-brick.

A few years ago with the guidance of a Palestinian friend, I sneaked into an Israeli settlement from the West Bank. The act was illegal, yet surprisingly easy and quick. The route took less than an hour and took us from Palestinian controlled areas, up a hill, dodging and hiding from a patrolling Israeli army jeep on one of the military roads surrounding the settlement, and then using the cover of a nearby forest edge we eventually strolled into the settlement using an unmarked, and at that time, unguarded, military road that provided an open path through the otherwise fortified settlement.

It was a similar route that thousands of Palestinians, unable to obtain Israeli work permits to take up employment in the settlements legally, embark on routinely in order to work on construction sites, factories, and farmland in the affluent settlements that sit beside their home villages. Some have to dodge army jeeps or run past Israeli military watchtowers under the cover of darkness, others require climbing over the apartheid wall or through gaps in its construction. Workers can be fatally shot if seen by soldiers, or arrested and jailed for unknown periods of time if caught – yet workers continue to use such routes.

Why? Because getting to settlement employment near their hometowns is possible. The same cannot always be said for workers travelling from one Palestinian controlled area to another, journeys of which can take hours, and not be possible at all depending on the whim of the Israeli military, its so-called sweeping security measures and permit regime. The restrictions on freedom of movement and the ‘bantustanisation’ of the West Bank can be that severe.

Employing the Enemy, a book I’ve been slowly working on for years, highlights the plight of these settlement workers and shows explicitly how Israeli policy and occupation has forced workers into taking up such degrading employment – settlement work is not a welcome aspect of Israeli occupation, it’s a nuanced form of forced labour. These often forgotten workers are some of the greatest victims of Israeli policies, having been purposefully streamlined into the settlement employment sector. Settlement workers are not just occupied, they are exploited for economic gain and forced to build and reinforce occupation with their own hands – 15% of Palestinian settlement workers even work directly on land that was stolen from their family.

Settlement work is not a welcome aspect of Israeli occupation, it’s a nuanced form of forced labour.

While it’s well-known that Israel’s settlement project has looked to exploit Palestinian natural resources such as land, raw minerals, and water – the settlements have also purposefully sought to exploit another of the West Bank’s resources; it’s vulnerable and impoverished rural workforce. This is why there are twenty settlement industrial zones and hundreds of Israeli factories, along with dozens of agricultural settlements that cultivate over 9,000 hectares of occupied West Bank land. These Palestinian workers – men, women and children – are fed up with being used as propaganda for Israeli business and government, and with being vilified for work they say they are forced into.

“Our land was stolen and we have no other choice,” are the words that are echoed by Palestinian settlement workers up and down the West Bank, and they want Palestinians, Israelis, activists and the world to start listening.

About the author

Matthew Vickery is a journalist and researcher covering conflict, human rights and workers’ rights issues throughout the Middle East, as well as extensively in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. His bylines include Al-Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Ha’aretz, The Times, and USA Today among others.


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