Work permits are a lifeline for Gaza and a lever for Israel | International
FARES AKRAM and SAM McNEIL Associated Press
KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — Ibrahim Slaieh can name three great moments of joy in his life in the Gaza Strip: graduating from university, getting married, and the day he got a six-month work permit last year in Israel.
The permit – a small piece of paper, wrapped in protective plastic – allows the 44-year-old to work in a grocery store in southern Israel, earning 10 times what he could in Gaza. That means a better education for her six children, bigger family meals and treats like pastries, fruit yogurt and chocolate milk.
Without it, he would have to seek meager wages inside the narrow coastal strip, which has been under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the Islamic militant group Hamas took power 15 years ago. With unemployment hovering around 50%, that could mean scavenging rubble from years of conflict or trapping birds to sell to pet stores.
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“It’s incomparable,” says Slaieh. “A month of work there is equivalent to three years of work here.”
Israel has issued up to 15,500 work permits since last year, allowing Palestinians like Slaieh to enter the country from the Gaza Strip and work mostly in menial jobs.
They are among the first Gaza workers to work officially in Israel since Hamas took control of the territory in 2007. More than 100,000 Palestinians from the occupied West Bank have similar permits that allow them to enter Israel to work.
The permits give Israel a form of leverage over the Palestinians who rely on them – and over Hamas. Gaza’s militant leaders risk taking the blame if the border is closed and workers are forced to stay home – as they were earlier this month during an outbreak of violence.
Hamas, which has fought four wars and countless small battles with Israel over the years, has sat out the latest round of fighting – ostensibly to preserve permits and other economic deals with Israel that have provided a buoy of economic rescue to the territory.
Recently, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced an additional 1,500 permits “provided the security situation remains calm”, once again specifying the conditions under which the permits are issued.
Israel often describes permits and other measures that provide economic opportunities for Palestinians as goodwill measures. Critics see the permits as yet another means of control, part of Israel’s decades-long military rule over millions of Palestinians that shows no signs of ending. Israel even views peaceful forms of Palestinian protest as a threat to public order – something that could lead to the cancellation of a permit.
Maher al-Tabaa, an official with the Gaza Chamber of Commerce, says the permits have had little effect on Gaza’s overall economy, which remains heavily hampered by the closures. He says those working in Israel inject a total of just $1 million a day into Gaza’s economy.
Before Hamas took power in 2007, some 120,000 Gazans worked inside Israel. Almost all lost their permits when Israel tightened the blockade that year. Since then, the population has doubled to around 2.3 million even as the economy has virtually collapsed.
Israel says the blockade is necessary to prevent Hamas from building up its arsenal, while human rights groups see it as a form of collective punishment.
Al-Tabaa said that only doubling or tripling the current number of permits would lead to economic recovery in Gaza.
One Sunday morning, Slaieh woke before dawn, kissed his daughters goodbye and waved to his sons through a window as he drove down a dirt road, bound for the Erez Crossing, similar to a fortress, leading to Israel.
After crossing, he is sometimes picked up by his employer. Other times he shares a taxi to the southern city of Beersheba, about 40 km away, with other workers. He spends three weeks in Israel before returning home for a week.
Before getting his permit, Slaieh said he had never been to Israel. He has only recently started to learn Hebrew. He works in a store in Beersheba owned by a distant relative and says many shoppers are Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Like many workers in Gaza, Slaieh says he largely stays alone, partly to avoid jeopardizing his permit and partly because getting out is expensive. He meets occasionally with other Gazans or goes to pray at a local mosque.
“I work long hours and I get paid overtime, that’s why I do it. In Gaza, we would work those hours for only 30 shekels (about $10) a day,” he said.
Some permits are renewed automatically, while some workers have to reapply periodically, hoping they will remain in the good graces of the Israeli security apparatus.
Slaieh’s license expires in December. He says the prospect of not having the license renewed is “terrifying” and he is already losing sleep over it. He says he saves as much as he can out of the roughly $75 a day he brings in from his job in Israel.
If his permit is denied, he says his only hope is to start a small business in Gaza.
He said his father didn’t save any money when he worked in Israel about two decades ago. When the border was closed, tens of thousands of workers, including Slaieh’s father, suddenly lost their jobs. Her father died six years ago.
“I don’t want my children to have the experience that we had,” he said.