GAZA CITY (RAHNUMA) “Death by corona or starvation is all death.” With these few words Yahya Khadr summed up his condition and that of thousands of Palestinians who have chosen to stay and work in Israel during the coronavirus outbreak.
According to an agreement between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel, Khadr and others like him returned to work at the beginning of the week, nearly two months after the authority called on them to return to their West Bank homes to avoid infection.
But about 50,000 Palestinians stayed on despite the pandemic due to difficult living conditions as well as the lack of work in the West Bank, agreeing to return to their jobs and to avoid returning to their families until after the end of Ramadan later this month.
“The decision is not easy and (we) work in harsh conditions amid daily fear of infection but, in return, there is no alternative to work and risk to support our families,” he told Arab News.
Khadr is from the village of Tarqumiya, Hebron, and he has a job in a building workshop. His workplace turns into a makeshift home at night, one he shares with 10 colleagues. “The Israeli contractor provided us with some bedding and blankets in abandoned rooms in the workshop without a kitchen or bathrooms … it is a living drenched in humiliation.”
Official figures indicate that the number of Palestinian workers in Israel and the settlements scattered in the West Bank is around 135,000, 90 percent of whom work in construction, while the rest work in agricultural and other sectors.
Workers’ wages are one of the most important sources of income for the West Bank’s economy. According to Palestinian estimates, a worker in Israel receives a much higher daily wage than one inside the Palestinian territories, ranging between $100 and $150.
On May 6 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas renewed the state of emergency for a month, and for the third time, as part of measures to confront the coronavirus outbreak.
But the PA’s strict measures under the state of emergency were not enough to prevent thousands of Palestininans who do not have official permits from drifting back to their jobs through detours and gaps in the wall along the West Bank.
While some workers responded to the call of Palestinian Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyah, who addressed them before the start of Ramadan, to return to the West Bank, thousands decided to stay on inside Israel so that they would not be subjected to 14 days of quarantine.
“I’m feeding a family of 10, and if I don’t work and provide them with (their) needs, no one will help us,” blacksmith Hassan Taninah who works in Israel told Arab News.
“Community health is important and the procedures of the PA are necessary, but the life of my family is in first place and with 14 days of quarantine I’ll not be able to return to work, and maybe I lose it and become without a source of livelihood.”
The PA cannot compensate workers for lost wages if they stop working in Israel, according to Saher Sarsour, who is a member of the General Secretariat of the General Federation of Palestinian Trade Unions.
“Because of the difficult conditions in the West Bank and the lack of work opportunities, workers accept work and stay overnight in inhuman conditions in order to preserve their livelihoods with their families,” he told Arab News.
The PA faced a dilemma, he explained. If it upheld restrictions and prevented workers from going to their jobs in Israel, it must provide them with alternatives. But this option was unavailable because of the financial crisis it was experiencing due to US pressure and “the Israeli piracy of Palestinian tax revenues,” he added.
The PA was unable to comprehensively impose its decision on workers as there was no full control over gates and checkpoints leading to Israel, he said, so an agreement with Israel achieved the best possible result and provided a form of control to prevent the spread of the virus.
Palestinian government spokesman Ibrahim Melhem explained that the new deal between the two parties “stipulates the orderly entry and return of workers, and checking their health when they go out and on their coming back.”
He told Arab News that the workers who were allowed to go to their jobs inside Israel worked in the construction sector and that they did not come into contact with anyone, which made the chances of infection non-existent.
He did not play down the local economy’s need for these workers and their financial contributions, which are estimated at billions of dollars annually.