An unfinished home renovation project in Karnei Shomron, 30 miles northeast of Tel Aviv. Photo by Judith Segaloff.
An unfinished home renovation project in Karnei Shomron, 30 miles northeast of Tel Aviv. Photo by Judith Segaloff.
featureIsrael at War

Jews in Judea and Samaria fear return of Palestinian workers

But the building and industry sectors face a severe manpower shortage without them.

The Berkleys live on a quiet street in Karnei Shomron in Samaria where almost every second house is undergoing necessary renovations. The homes, built in the 1980s when the town was first established, need weatherproofing, plumbing and basic upgrading. 

Before the current Hamas war, Palestinian Arabs flooded the neighborhood each morning—building, pouring concrete, laying stone and tiles. Now most of the houses stand half-finished, waiting for somebody to finish the job.

The Berkleys were not happy to hear the announcement that 8,000 Palestinian workers from Samaria and Judea will be allowed back to work in Jewish communities.

“It’s not that we don’t welcome our neighbors finishing their homes,” explained Gordon Berkley. “After what happened on Oct. 7 down south, we just don’t want Palestinian workers back in our neighborhood.”

Although some neighbors have managed to procure Israeli workers, with so many men drafted to the IDF reserves, there simply isn’t the manpower to complete all the abandoned projects.

Before Oct. 7, each morning between 200 and 400 non-Israeli Arab construction, sanitation workers and cleaners from towns all over the periphery of Samaria showed up at a checkpoint just outside the burgeoning town.

The checkpoint, manned by the Karnei Shomron security department and the army, only let in workers with permits who received special clearance from Israeli security services. Non-municipal workers were supposed to be accompanied by an armed security guard or a private citizen licensed to carry a weapon.

After the Oct. 7 massacre, intelligence revealed that many of the workers who were permitted into Israel from Gaza had methodically mapped out homes in Israeli communities facing the Strip and passed the information to Hamas terrorists. Some even took part in the massacre and the looting.

Many of the villages surrounding Karnei Shomron are hotbeds of the Hamas extremist Palestinian Islamic movement.

193,000 Palestinian workers

Before the war, 193,000 Palestinian workers worked throughout Israel, noted Dr. Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Of this number, 30,000 worked in Samaria and Judea and 17,000 came from Gaza. Most of these workers, 97,000, were employed in construction and the closure effectively closed down the industry all over Israel.

Immediately after the war, the number of permits issued was reduced to almost zero except for a few who were urgently needed in industrial and agricultural facilities. Milshtein pointed out that some Palestinian workers had been picking avocados for the last 30 years.

“While many of the Palestinians can live off the land and rely on family support for a little while, after a few months of unemployment that will no longer be sustainable,” he said. “If it goes on for half a year, if they are continually unemployed, the effect will be dramatic and Israeli security organizations will pressure the country to give them back their jobs.”

This is what appears to be happening now with the return of a small number of jobs to Samaria and Judea.

Milshtein said that Economy and Industry Minister Nir Barkat created panic among Palestinians in October when he suggested bringing in 160,000 workers from India to replace the Palestinian workforce.

“Thirty percent of the general income of the West Bank is sourced by Israeli jobs,” he explained. 

Interior designer Svietka Rivilis, a resident of Eli, north of Ramallah, said, “From what I know, none of the settlements are taking Palestinian workers, even in the industrial areas.

“It’s disgraceful that the security establishment thinks it’s their job to pressure municipalities to hire Palestinians. If they want to vet them, fine, but they have no right to tell us who to hire and to strongarm municipalities in any way.”

According to Rivilis, building projects all around Eli are stalled and her design projects are in limbo. She says this reflects the twofold problem of no longer employing Palestinian workers and Israeli workers being called up for IDF reserve duty.

She added that the building industry’s only hope is to allow foreign workers from India, Moldovia, Romania and China to replace the Palestinians.

Although a government delegation is set to go to India soon to recruit workers, according to a spokesperson from the Israel Builders Association, the Cabinet has only approved 10,000 Indian workers, with a possibility to increase that number to 30,000. That is not nearly enough to resuscitate the building industry.

‘We make the final decision’

Karnei Shomron Mayor Igal Lahav, who heads up a council of mayors throughout the region, says there is dissent in the government about reemploying Palestinian workers. The municipalities do not want it and he said they will not be invited back to Karnei Shomron’s neighborhoods.

“We get to make the final decision,” according to Lahav. “Some from the security agencies and the IDF say that the Palestinian workers need to live and if they are going to work, there have to be a lot of rules, but it’s better to keep them.”

He said while these agencies can’t change the municipality rules, they can apply political pressure by campaigning against permits for foreign workers. To his knowledge, only the municipality of Ma’ale Adumim has allowed Palestinians back, conditionally and in isolated new neighborhoods where no one currently lives. 

Lahav added that a compromise was reached allowing Palestinians back to harvest olives from trees if they stay 200 meters from the towns’ security fences. The army, he said, is responsible for ensuring that they keep their distance.

In Eli, according to Rivilis, residents protested against allowing olive harvesters back to the surrounding fields but allowed them to come back after pressure from the army. Rivilis has served on guard duty, keeping a careful eye on the harvesters.

“Every day they would test the boundaries with varying numbers of people and with pickup trucks, just as they tested the areas around the border fence in Gaza before Oct. 7, getting closer each time. We called the army and they would eventually come and push them back.

“The upper echelons of the army have been politicized, and despite Oct. 7 they haven’t changed their tune,” Rivilis explained. “Why is there still freedom of movement in some of the violent Arab villages like Huwara? Why have they taken guns from some settlers? Why have some settlers been removed from Judea and Samaria and discharged from the army reserves?

“This started with the Kaplan [Street] protests [against the government’s judicial reform program]—where the army got dragged into politics and some threatened to refuse to serve [in the reserves].

“This war was painful but necessary,” Rivilis said, “but I don’t think we are done with the lesson. Big factories are completely dependent on their workers.

“While I understand why they want the workers to return, it is just a matter of time before something else happens. How can they possibly assess the situation and be trusted to know when to let Palestinians in? They can’t,” she said.

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