Palestinian Workers: Pawns or Participants in COVID-19 Battle (VIDEO REPORT)
Israel denies charge by Palestinian health minister that returning laborers have caused most of West Bank’s recent COVID-19 cases
FELICE FRIEDSON: Palestinians entering Israel to find jobs is not new, but illegal workers have taken center stage as Israeli and Palestinian leaders exchange accusations relating to the coronavirus. The Media Line’s Dima Abumaria investigates.
DIMA ABUMARIA: Palestinian officials blame the Israeli authorities for the increase of the cases infected with the coronavirus in the Palestinian territories, using gates and holes in the wall separating the West Bank and Israel. At least four people of those who returned back from Israel to Tulkarem city were diagnosed with coronavirus.
FF: Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh reiterated the accusation.
MOHAMMAD SHTAYYEH: The real gap in the Palestinian battle against the virus is the Israeli occupation, its settlements, its barriers, and all its measures which try to thwart our efforts to protect our people and stop the spread of the epidemic. The economy of Israel is not more precious than the lives of our children.
FF: Denying the allegations, the Israeli government warned PA officials that if the accusations do not cease, Israel will take action against security cooperation and curtail the freedom of movement of PA security officials.
A spokesman for The Israel Defense Forces told The Media Line that “any claim of the IDF participating in actions to spread the coronavirus is ridiculous and incorrect.”
Approximately 150,000 Palestinians work in Israel, [including] many who enter through crossing points from the West Bank cities of Tulkarem, Nablus and Jenin.
Qadri Kasbah, a member of the popular committee in Tulkarem, is responsible for securing borders on the Palestinian side and for collecting the workers.
QADRI KASBAH: Workers use these holes to enter into Israel to work and to visit their lands and farms that were confiscated. Some workers don’t get permits even if they apply, so they create such holes. The army used to prevent workers [from entering] prior to corona, but now it helps them.
COL. JONATHAN CONRICUS: What I think is very regrettable is that we’ve seen quite a lot of attempts at fake news and distributing malign information coming out of Gaza and also out of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] whereby there’s been these … all kinds of libels, whereby Israel or Israeli soldiers are being accused of purposely contaminating Palestinians and purposely spreading the virus. All of that is categorically false.
FF: [Issam] Abu Baker, head of the Tulkarem Governorate, told The Media Line that Palestinians have been transiting [to and from] Israel for years.
ISSAM ABU BAKER: About five years ago they started crossing over illegally through holes in the border fence and drainage channels beneath the West Bank barrier. Prior to the spread of coronavirus, illegal crossings were a matter of security and the exploitation of workers. But now, the issue has been linked to the fate and health of our people. We condemn the racist separation wall of course. I believe there are gangs of Palestinians who cooperate with Israel to smuggle workers.
FF: Col. Grisha Yakubovich, who headed the civilian department of the Israeli army’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, agrees that Israel is not to blame.
GRISHA YAKUBOVICH: Since the corona issues have started, there is full, full coordination between the Ministry of Health of Israel and the Ministry of Health of the Palestinian Authority, between the IDF, between the Civil Administration, and the Palestinian Authority.
FF: However, one illegal worker told The Media Line that he travels to his job in the Tel Aviv area by entering Israel using the holes in the fence. He said in the past, workers would pay NIS 100-200 for safe passage into Israel. Now they pay as little as NIS 25 or NIS 50.
Yakubovich says there are many holes in the area near Zeita, located north of Tulkarem.
GY: One hundred and forty thousand Palestinian workers, legal and illegal, they bring NIS 5.5 billion of cash money to the Palestinian economy in the West Bank per year. Let’s add to that number 32,000 Palestinians working in the settlements that bring an income of NIS 1.1 to 1.2 billion to the Palestinian Authority.
FF: Yakubovich points out that illegal movement is not something new.
GY: The Palestinian Authority never accepted the security fence and they never wanted to coordinate around the security fence because the Palestinian Authority is declaring that the fence is illegal, “so how can we coordinate with Israel when it is illegal?” But when it comes to corona, suddenly the Palestinian Authority wants to cooperate with Israel when those two issues were actually, they even didn’t care about [them].
FF: Meanwhile, Isam, a Palestinian construction worker from the Nablus Governorate who asked that his [last] name not be used, has been employed in Holon, just south of Tel Aviv.
ISAM: The financial situation here in Palestine is very difficult. I feel suffocated and therefore I have to work in Israel. I stayed for 20 days and then decided to go home because I was scared. My employer provided me excellent food as well as a comfortable place to sleep, but the situation became scary.
MAROUF ADEL: The contractor I was working for used to give us extra money because he knew we had kids. I used to work on a daily basis in Israel and I used to make money. Now I don’t have any income and I started thinking that maybe I should go back at any price.
FF: From Jerusalem, this is Felice Friedson reporting.
DA: From the West Bank city of Tulkarem, this is Dima Abumaria, reporting for The Media Line.
For a full written report, see The Media Line Investigates: Palestinian Workers Returning from Israel During COVID-19 Outbreak.