Ever since the announcement of the Palestinian Ministry of Health on March 6 that a Bethlehem resident had become the first person in the West Bank to be identified as carrying the novel coronavirus, there have been massive ripple effects. And they have particularly impacted the estimated 127,000 Palestinians who travel from the West Bank into Israel to work.
Even in normal circumstances, traveling from the West Bank into Israel is difficult; work permits are sparsely granted, so some rely on smugglers. And now, despite the fact that far more Israelis have been diagnosed with the infection (2,693 vs. 84 as of this writing), these Palestinian workers are being harassed and humiliated at Israeli checkpoints, as well as seeing their permits revoked when they stay home, they say.
Their situation went viral on social media after a documentary video was shot by a local journalist featuring the workers speaking about their experience. At Beit Sira checkpoint, 22 kilometers west of Ramallah, they said, they were made to stand for hours by Israeli guards who accused them of being infected, without any basis.
Tukarem Governor Issam Abu Bakr announced March 24 that three workers who had been laid off by their Israeli employers had been dumped at the Jubara checkpoint south of the city because they were suspected of being infected (although no test had been conducted) "in a state of exhaustion and suffering from a high temperature of some 40 degrees (C.)."
Medical teams tested the workers and placed them in a quarantine center until their results are known.
Other Palestinians say they have had their work permits revoked when they followed the Palestinian Authority’s directive to stay home.
“We adhered to our government’s instructions, yet our work permits were withdrawn,” said Ahmed, who sews and manufactures clothes for an Israeli company and asked to remain anonymous.
After the press conference at which the authority’s prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, ordered workers to return to their homes, Ahmed and his friends decided to obey. However, when they informed their Israeli employers, the business owners tried to convince them to continue working, assuring them they could be tested and the local hospital would report their negative COVID-19 results (an assumption of normalcy that might not have been true, of course). Ahmed and his friends refused the offer, saying they would consider working only if a formal request was sent to the Palestinian Authority. The employers then demanded the Israeli government withdraw their work permits. One of the bosses even broke the windshield of a worker’s car.
Ahmed adds that during his last stint in the workplace, he and his colleagues were forced to sleep in the same room they worked in. When they returned to the West Bank, the PA failed to offer the promised testing for the virus. Nonetheless, Ahmed said, they have signed a commitment to home quarantine for 14 days. What happens after that, they are not sure.
Najia, a domestic worker in the Giv'at Ze'ev settlement northwest of occupied Jerusalem, now is forced to stay at home as well. However, her income depends on working and if allowed, she said, “I would not hesitate to go [to work inside the Israeli territory]; God would protect me.”
Najia has not gone to work since the declaration of the state of emergency. Najia’s family consists of six individuals and is responsible for all of them. She says the money she has saved is enough to only for electricity.
"I do not work now, and I am waiting to see how things turn out," said another worker, K.F., who is terrified to talk to the press about his suffering.
He is a worker in a laundry that specializes in washing linen and bedspreads for hotels and hospitals. K.F. decided to stay at home both due to the PA’s state of emergency and fear for his safety. The laundry where he works does business with hotels that have been turned into quarantine centers.
“Other workers told me that staying there [working inside Israeli territories] is bad. They do not even provide testing for us,” he explained. “And if any symptoms are exhibited, [the Israelis’ just throw you at the checkpoint.”
K.F., who preferred not to give his full name, is a father of two children, with a third on the way.
In contrast, S.A., another worker, decided to continue working under the responsibility of his employer, explaining that he made the decision to ensure he still had a job after the emergency ends. The job is the only source of income for his seven children, and by staying in Israel rather than going back and forth daily, he can ensure that no infection is transmitted to his family in case he is infected. "I manage to allocate 10 shekels of my salary to buy phone credit to talk to them. What will happen in the future though? I have no idea."
Special appreciation to Hala El-Zuhairy, FM24 journalist in the West Bank, for helping me with the materials to write this piece.