A chronicle of an 18-hour return trip from the West Bank to Israel shows how the border closures introduced through the Oslo Peace Accords have strangled Palestinians’ access to work.
Suad Amiry, an architect and founder of Riwaq, a cultural heritage NGO dedicated to restoring and protecting historical buildings in the Palestinian territories, became an author late in life and by tragi-comic forces of circumstance.
When her 91-year-old mother-in-law moved in with her during the 2002 Israeli invasion of Ramallah, Amiry fired off sardonic emails to friends, venting her frustration at living under ‘double occupation’ – with Israeli soldiers on the streets and her mother-in-law at home – during a 42-day curfew. After some encouragement from friends, she collected her emails and earlier memories of life in the West Bank from the 1980s to the mid-noughties, into the bookSharon and My Mother-in-Law: Ramallah Diaries.
After a second book, No Sex in the City, triggered by Hamas’ 2006 election victory in Gaza, Amiry decided to delve into the world of young Palestinian men seeking work in Israel. And so, in Nothing to Lose But Your Life, we follow Amiry as she dons an unconvincing male disguise and goes on an 18-hour journey with Murad, a 21-year-old who has been going on clandestine job-seeking trips to Israel since the age of 13.
With unemployment rates in the West Bank at around 20 per cent and very poor wages available for those who do find work, Murad and his compatriots have little choice but to cross the heavily guarded border with Israel and seek work in places like Petah Tikva, a city in central Israel which is known as the birthplace of the Labour Zionist Movement and today is home to several industries and high-tech firms. Once they reach Petah Tikva (meaning Opening of Hope), the Palestinian day labourers stand along a main road waiting to be picked up by Israeli employers.
Accompanied by Murad’s older brother Mohammad, Amiry documents the labourers’ arduous commute to work on a tape recorder. A journey that could be undertaken in a half-hour drive takes a night and half a day. The group sets out from Murad’s home at 2.45am, and it is late afternoon by the time the workers station themselves on the Petah Tikva road, hoping to benefit from ‘the remains of the day’.
At that point they have travelled between West Bank villages and have crossed Israeli checkpoints in a Ford minibus, picking up an assortment of men and boys along the way, including Murad’s best friend and rival in love Saed, the cocky teenager Ramzi, the father-of-10 Abu Yousef, and Comrade Muneer, who got his nickname due to his political leanings. Under the cover of night, they walk through olive groves, hide from soldiers and run across highways until, 10 hours and several arrests later, the remainder of the group reaches the concrete security wall which the Israeli state began erecting along the so-called Green Line soon after the Second Intifada (uprising) in 2000. (The Green Line marks the separation between Israel and the territories captured in the Six Day War.)
At 1.38pm the reduced group prepare to get on Bus 185 to Petah Tikva. Amiry does not actually try to get work in Israel, but returns to Ramallah with Mohammad via a botched attempt at a side-track visit to Tel Aviv – Mohammad wanted to go for a swim and Amiry wanted to visit her family’s old home in Jaffa.
It wasn’t always this hard and dangerous for Palestinians to find work in Israel. Before the First Intifada (1987 to 1993), crowds of day labourers vied for work at places like Jerusalem’s Neviim Street and the Erez junction just north of the Gaza Strip (see Israel and Palestine: more divided than ever, by Daniel Ben-Ami). Even though the conditions were always far from ideal, the policy of border closures which was institutionalised through the Oslo Peace Accords in the early 1990s made things worse. The inflow of Palestinian labour in Israel reduced significantly.
After a period of relaxation of the border controls in the late 1990s, the Second Intifada in 2000 brought about new prolonged closures on the West Bank and Gaza, again stemming the flow of workers into Israel. At the time, some 150,000 Palestinians were legally employed in Israel. Three years later, just over 12,000 Palestinians were given Israeli work permits. Today, the figures have increased; 32,000 Palestinians can take up legal work inside Israel in, for instance, construction, agriculture and the service sector.
But meanwhile, the Palestinian labour force in Israel has also been gradually replaced by an influx of legal and illegal migrant workers from places as far afield as the Philippines, Romania and Nigeria. And the criteria for acquiring a work permit are stringent. A Palestinian labourer must first find an Israeli employer who is willing to file an application on his behalf. And to work in construction, the applicant must be at least 35 years old and married with children.
So for those, like Murad, Comrade Muneer and Amiry’s other travel companions, who can’t meet these criteria and who can’t find a decent job with a decent wage inside the West Bank either, risky hours-long journeys are the only option.
The Palestinian men featured in Nothing to Lose But Your Life face the same fate as the countless paperless, unskilled migrant labourers who take roundabout and clandestine journeys across the world to find work. They, too, risk arrest and even being shot at en routeto Europe and other places. If it were not for stringent border controls in the name of national security, they could just get on a plane or a bus to work outside of their home country and return when they’ve earned the money they need. The biggest obvious difference between them and the Palestinians, of course, is that the Palestinians live, almost literally, around the corner from their would-be employers and have only very recently lost that small freedom of crossing into Israel for casual labour.
Nothing to Lose But Your Life documents a hard journey repeated by men like Murad day after day. Despite recounting her melancholic daydreams, for instance when she fantasises about the Arab villages that once stood where Petah Tikva’s planned parks and apartment blocks are today, Amiry’s book is not about historical contextualisation. It is an empathetic – and humorous – slice-of-life essay about young men who want to do what most of us consider a mundane but straightforward task: earn a living.
However, in order really to understand why Palestinians face such harsh restrictions on access to work, it is essential to look beyond individual fates and to consider the political forces that have led to policies of discrimination and separation in the Middle East.