Who Built Zion? Palestinian Labor and the Case for Political Rights (New Labor Forum)

Who Built Zion? Palestinian Labor and the Case for Political Rights

Photo credit: “Palestinian workers in the Old City of Jerusalem”(2017)

Who built Israel? The pioneers, of course. Men and women unaccustomed to skilled manual labor, who staffed the cement mixers, with shovels in hand or bricks balanced awkwardly on their shoulders, and who made “New Jews” of themselves through their nation-making toil. At least this was the dogma of much-lionized Labor Zionists (Ber Borochov, A. D. Gordon, Yosef Brenner, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Berl Katznelson) who promoted this hard graft as a rite of passage and a requirement for redeeming another people’s land as their own. While drawing on a different ethnic history, they were basically preaching a version of John Locke’s labor theory of value (working a particular plot of soil gave you property rights), which settler colonists had found to be a serviceable doctrine for dispossessing the indigenous populations of North America. How Jewish settlers laid claim to swathes of Palestinian land, then and now, remains the abiding source of conflict, conquest, and resistance in the Occupation’s fifty-first year—and the cumulative toll of the Nakba (the mass expulsion of more than half of the Arab population from their ancestral villages and lands) stretches into its seventieth year.

Who really did build the houses of Zion? The immigrant novices, who, as good socialists, demanded their rights . . . Or was it Palestinian workers who were cheaper and more capable . . .?

But the labor part of this story is murky, and, for a long time, it was obscured by the agrarian romance of the communalistic kibbutz. In the matter of urban settlement, there was even less clarity.  Who really did build the houses of Zion? The immigrant novices, who, as good socialists, demanded their rights, along with “European” and not “Levantine” wages, from the Yishuv’s Jewish employers? Or was it Palestinian workers who were cheaper and more capable, with less strident politics, and who had generations of construction experience in the region? And why does this question matter today? Certainly, a revised account can help us rectify the historical record, still skewed by nationalist mythologies, but it might also feed into the fast-evolving debate about civil and political rights in the “one-state” scenario now being mooted for the region. What kinds of rights should accrue from the century or more of toil that Palestinians have devoted to the physical construction of the Zionist pre-state, Israel, the settlements, and the Occupied Territories themselves? And what additional forms of restitution are due to a people who were fashioned into a compulsory workforce after their displacement and occupation?

A Century of Construction

In spite of efforts, early and late, to exclude them from the building trades, Palestinians have always played an essential role in the making of the Zionist “national home.” This has been the case from the turn of the twentieth century when the Jews of Ottoman Palestine, whether Mizrahi and largely assimilated, or Ashkenazi Zionists and fiercely separatist, depended on superior Arab building skills and supplies. The Arab contribution to construction was stepped up during the long modernizing wave of economic expansion under the British Mandate, and it continued after 1948, when the Israeli state utilized their labor to help house the influx of Jewish immigrants. Since 1967, when the West Bank was secured as a reservoir of cheap labor, the Israeli dependency on Palestinian workers from the West Bank and Gaza has proved difficult to shake off. Today, there are more of these workers engaged in construction in Israel or in the West Bank settlements than ever before, and they dominate the low-wage sector of “wet” building jobs (concrete, masonry, painting, etc.). So, too, the last half-century has seen an increasing reliance on stone from the rich limestone deposits of Palestine’s central highlands, as Israel’s quarry owners shut down their operations, or moved them across the Green Line (the 1949 Armistice, or pre-1967, border) to evade environmental and labor regulations.

Today, there are more…[Palestinian] workers engaged in construction in Israel or in the West Bank settlements than ever before…and they have very few legal protections, let alone access to unions…

The stone product gets moved through different checkpoints than those where workers with permits queue for hours in the most humiliating conditions. On the other side of the Green Line, the laborers are vulnerable to abuse and assault from Israelis, both employers and ordinary citizens, and they have very few legal protections, let alone access to unions, though the Histradut (Israel’s main labor federation) has recently carved out a small department to address the myriad sources of exploitation, which these laborers contend with: wage theft, unsafe workplaces, middleman fees, and employer delinquency over social insurance contributions. Similar circumstances apply in West Bank settlements, where Palestinian unions are barred, though the small independent Israeli union, WAC-MAAN (Workers Advice Center), has begun to successfully organize workers in some locations. Whether inside the Green Line or the settlements, the prerogative of employers to recommend that the authorities cancel an employee’s work permit, for whatever reason they think fit, is indicative of the condition of forced labor.

… [W]hat… forms of restitution are due to a people who were fashioned into a compulsory workforce after their displacement and occupation?

From the early-twentieth century to the present day, Zionist efforts to exclude Palestinians from the building trades have taken many forms, though all failed over time. During the Mandate era (September 29, 1923 to May 15, 1948), the policy of “Hebrew Labor” (avoda ivrit) was aimed at the exclusive use of Jewish workers in Jewish-owned businesses. But since many employers, especially in construction, continued to prefer the cheaper and more proficient Arab workers, enforcement of this embargo even when it was backed by force, was only partly successful. Sectors of the construction workforce were Arab-free only in the years immediately after 1948, when the Palestinians who remained in the new Israeli state were under military lockdown, and when the cheap labor of Mizrahi Jews from Arab countries was solicited as a replacement. Within a few years, however, Israeli Palestinians could once again be found on building sites, and, after 1967, they were joined en masse by their West Bank brethren. At the peak of the open borders era (which ended in the early 1990s), up to 40 percent of the workforce in the Occupied Territories  was  employed  inside  the  Green Line, primarily engaged in construction, and generating a significant share of Israeli Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Even after the Israeli authorities imposed a collective punishment for the first intifada  (1987-1991)  by  cancelling most of the Palestinian work permits and importing overseas migrants (from Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Poland, Nigeria, and China) as a new replacement workforce, they were unable to stamp out employers’ abiding preference for Palestinian labor. The numbers of these migrant workers peaked in the early 2000s pre- ceding a drive to round up and deport the “demographic threat” of their Israeli-born children.

. . . Palestinian workers have had a decisive hand in most of the fixed assets on the land that lies between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean coast.

The long inventory of Palestinian labor includes a principal share in building the infra- structure  of  modernity  under  the  British Mandate (roads, railways, ports, telecom lines, an airport, and other public works), the “first Hebrew city” of Tel Aviv, all the Arab towns and cities that were taken under Jewish control after the Nakba, the ever-expanding metropolis of  “unified”  and  Greater  Jerusalem,  and  the red-tiled hilltop settlements on the West Bank along with their grid of bypass roads, barrier walls, super-highways, and other security structures. All told, Palestinian workers have had a decisive hand in most of the fixed assets on the land that lies between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean coast.

By the first quarter of 2017, the number of West Bank Palestinians employed  by Israelis had surpassed the pre-intifada levels, with almost 140,000 inside the Green Line and twenty-four thousand in the settlement colonies, and many more working there without permits.[i] In line with the long-established colonial formula of jobs for peace, key figures in the Netanyahu  administration  have  been  pushing for a sizable increase in the number of permits issued. The perceived demand also arises from Israel’s housing shortage. In 2016, the National Economic Council projected a need to build an additional 1.5  million homes before 2040.[ii] Since  the  gross  monthly  cost  of  employing these West Bank commuters  is less than half that of an Israeli or migrant worker (in addition to the routine wage theft, the former require no housing and place no social or welfare burdens on Israeli society), this long-term need for housing virtually guarantees a protracted demand for Palestinian builders.[iii]

Toward the Decolonial Future

How can these vital contributions be recognized in the political debate about the future of the lands of historic Palestine? Should claims arising from this long record of labor participation be considered as part of the “final status” settlement between Israelis and Palestinians? Talks about a permanent settlement have been on hiatus for more than a decade, and a return to the table seems to be a remote prospect right now, but if and when they resume, the thorny matters of restitution of property, compensation for losses and moral suffering, and the right to return for refugees will still be on the table.[iv] In recent decades, and following the example of German reparations for wartime Jewish harms and losses, every international instance of conflict resolution has addressed the claims of displaced populations in regard to those several remedies.

This kind of reparative justice is primarily about repaying debts from the past, but how can such remedies assist more directly in securing a different kind of future? As the policies of the Trump and Netanyahu administrations further foreclose any prospect of a practical partition, and as momentum steadily builds behind some vision of a single, democratic state within the same land boundaries as Mandatory Palestine, the presumption that equity earned from building  the  state  translates  into  political  rights within it ought to become more admissible.

Typically, the principle of sweat equity applies only to the value earned from an owner’s personal investment of effort. The toil of a waged laborer on the same building or enterprise is regarded as a more limited contractual matter, altogether separate from property and use rights. But what if the workers in question are not freely contracted, and instead are bound by tight constraints placed on them by the employer group? And what if the land on which they are instructed to work has been forcibly taken from their own people? On an individual basis, evidence of these inequities might support a compensation claim, but the collective plight of the Palestinian worker under Occupation merits a longer view, and a different kind of approach. The overall worth of Palestinians’ aggregate labor contribution to the assets encompassed by the state justifies a claim to territorial sovereignty, full political rights, and citizenship.  Israeli policies, at least since 1948, were designed to make those contributions all but compulsory. Under the Occupation, economic development in the West Bank and Gaza has been systematically suppressed. While Israeli wages are three times higher, Palestinians have to buy their consumer goods at Israeli prices, and so most families would go broke without the remittances that household members bring back across the Green Line. That so many Palestinians have had no alternative but to work for their occupiers further strengthens the case for a remedy that includes political recognition as full citizens in a unitary state.

Under UN Resolutions 194 (1948) and 3236 (1974), the forced transfer of Palestinians from their land and homes in 1948 and 1967 established responsibilities for Israel to acknowledge the former owners’ right to return to their property. Far from a single historical event—since it continues to this day in each act of confiscation, demolition, and eviction—the ongoing Nakba (al-Nakba al-mustamera) has extended these liabilities, adding new entries to the list of wrongs that might present grounds for restitution and reparations in any final settlement. One of the longest running injustices, and intimately connected to this “long Nakba,” was the making of a tractable and dependent labor force that is not free in any functional sense of the term.[v]

The sharp constraints placed on Palestinian livelihoods, today, may appear remote in time from 1948, but they are integral to, and inseparable from, the Nakba’s unfinished program of dispossession, expulsion, and asset transfer. Indeed, the prototype for these labor controls was the immediate post-1948   treatment   of Israeli Palestinians, whose limited movement was subject to military say-so. It was through the filter of these tight travel constraints that their cut-price labor was first made available to Jewish employers from the early 1950s. Later, in the course of the Occupation, the administration of those constraints was forced on workers from the West Bank and Gaza, and finessed through the growth of a convoluted permit sys- tem, ubiquitous restrictions on movement, mass incarceration, torture, wage theft, advanced surveillance, and the intensive discipline and humiliation served on border-crossers at check- points. Using the strategy of economic pacification (jobs in return for acquiescence, and in some cases, collaboration with Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency), and the tactic of collective punishment (border closures, home demolitions, and permit cancellations as retribution for the intifadas or autonomous acts of resistance), the authorities have been able to fine-tune their management of Palestinians’ existential need to access the Israeli labor market.

At no point was this “need” ever produced by a competitive labor market. Israeli policy- makers blocked economic development in the West Bank and Gaza with the explicit intent of depressing wages, reinforcing dependency, and perpetuating poverty. Political economist Sara Roy has described the result as “de-development.”[vi] The intended outcome was that, for most households, the alternative to working for the occupier would be a starvation wage. A worker whom I interviewed recently at Bethlehem’s cross-border checkpoint put it this way: “If we didn’t have work inside Israel, we would have to eat each other.” Given the high levels of food insecurity and chronic malnutrition among the Palestinian population, and especially in Gaza and parts of the West Bank’s Area C, his comment was a particularly dark joke.

Israeli policymakers blocked economic development in the West Bank and Gaza with the explicit intent of depressing wages, reinforcing dependency, and perpetuating poverty.

Bonded, indentured, enslaved, or ethnically persecuted workers who built other nations have struggled, on a related basis, for some kind of state-level recognition. In the United States, the hard labor of African, Irish, Chinese, and Mexican Americans has often been held up as a justification for earning full inclusion and civil rights, and, in the case of the descendants of slaves, as  grounds  for  economic  reparations.

Undocumented immigrants facing deportation today often stake their claim to residence on the basis of their labor contributions. As far as I know, no formal suits of this kind have been filed, and some pledges—like  General Sherman’s promise of forty acres and a mule as recognition of freedmen’s right to own land they had worked as slaves—notoriously went unfulfilled. But, over time, the moral force of the argument for labor-based political equity has contributed to the ultimate civic and legal acceptance of the rights of these populations. For all its historic inequities, and despite the perpetuation of white supremacy, the United States has become a multiethnic society, capable of absorbing a range of immigrant identities.

Bonded, indentured, enslaved, or ethnically persecuted workers who built other nations have struggled…for some kind of state-level recognition.

But the Israeli state is no such thing (it has never defined itself as a “nation of immigrants”); its lawmakers vigorously oppose the granting of any rights to migrant workers, or to their Israeli- born children, let alone to refugees entitled to protection under international conventions. Under the Law of Return (1950), any Jew who sets foot in Israel for the first time immediately enjoys national rights, including permanent residence, citizenship, and full welfare entitlements and services. Despite their longevity on the land, Israel’s own Palestinian minority (20 percent of the population) is treated as second-class citizens and regarded as a “demographic time bomb,” while elementary civil and human rights are denied to residents of the West Bank and Gaza under military occupation. As for the migrants who have spent much of their lives working in Israel, building homes, hotels, museums, and shopping malls in cities and suburban subdivisions, not to mention the segregating landscape of bypass roads, separation walls, and prisons, they are routinely labeled as an “existential threat” to the legally designated “Jewish” state.

Political elites around the world still pay lip service to the policy principle of an autonomous Palestinian state, but the attention of almost everyone else has pivoted away from partition toward the more heady proposition of securing equal rights for all residents of an integrated multicultural state. Advocates of this “decolonial” solution argue that it is civic, and not ethnic, nationalism that is needed to deliver  a full-blown democracy in the lands of Israel and the Occupied Territories.[vii]  If that scenario ever advances, then the record of labor contributions sketched out here ought to be part of the reckoning. Or as another checkpoint interviewee from the West Bank put it, “I’ve been building homes every day over there for thirty years. In a way, it’s really my country too, isn’t it?”

Author Bio

Andrew Ross is a social activist and professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. A contributor to the Guardian, the New York Times, the Nation, and Al Jazeera, he is the author of many books,  including Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal, Bird On Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable CityNice Work if You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times. His next book, Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israel, is forthcoming from Verso in 2019.


[i] Although the percentage of the Palestinian work- force employed in Israel in 2017 was lower than at its peak in 1988, the numbers were higher. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics Labor Force Survey (January-March 2017), “the number of employed individuals employed in Israel and Israeli settlements was 139,600 in the first quarter 2017…Of these; 68,500 had a permit, 48,700 worked without any permit and 22,400 employed individuals have an Israeli identity card or foreign passport.” An additional twenty-four thousand worked in settlements, while almost 60 percent were employed in construction; http://www.pcbs.gov.ps/post.aspx?lang=en&ItemID=1922. Bank of Israel data for the first quarter of 2018 showed unemployment rates in Israel at 3.7 percent, in a steady state of decline from the high levels after 2008. Bank of Israel, “Economic Indicators: Israeli Economic Data” (2017), available at http://www.boi.org.il/en/DataAndStatistics/Pages/Indicators.aspx?Level=1&IndicatorId=1&sId=0.
[ii] National Economic Council, “Future Housing Needs in Israel, 2016-2040” (2016). Cited in Bank of Israel, Annual Report 2016, Chapter 9, “Construction and the Housing Market,” http://www.boi.org.il/en/NewsAndPublications/RegularPublications/Research%20Department%20Publications/ BankIsraelAnnualReport/Annual%20Report%202016/chap-9.pdf.
[iii] The  estimate  was  based  on  2011  employer reports, and published by the Interministerial Committee for the Regularization, Monitoring and  Enforcement  of  Palestinian  Employment in Israel (the “Eckstein Report”), cited in Shlomo Swirski and Noga Dagan-Buzaglo, The Occupation: Who Pays the Price? The Impact of the Occupation on Israeli Society and Economy (Tel Aviv: Adva Center, June 2017),48.
[iv] See Rex Brynen and Roula El-Rifai, eds., Compensation to Palestinian Refugees and the Search for Palestinian-Israeli Peace (London: Pluto Press, 2013).
[v] Matthew  Vickery  argues  that  the  conditions under which Palestinians work in the settlements merit the label of “forced labor,” according to ILO definitions. Employing the Enemy: The Story of Palestinian Labourers on Israeli Settlements (London: Zed Books, 2017),112-26.
[vi] Sara Roy, The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-development (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2016).
[vii] Omar Barghouti, “A Secular Democratic State in Historic Palestine,” in After Zionism: One State for  Israel and Palestine, ed. Antony Loewenstein  and Ahmed Moor (London: Saqi Books, 2012),  194-209;  and Jeff Halper, “The ‘One Democratic State Campaign,’” Mondoweiss, May 3, 2018, available at https://mondoweiss.net/2018/05/ democratic-multicultural-palestine/.

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