Permission to work

By EA Veronica, Southern West Bank.

Hassan* is married with six children. He lives on the edge of a village in the South Hebron Hills in the occupied West Bank on a small homestead. We visited Hassan in his family home, which comprises a reinforced tent structure with a concrete floor, low walls, a sturdy metal frame and waterproof covers over the whole thing. He also has a couple of caves – one serves as a kitchen and the other as a shelter for his sheep. This is fairly typical for people living in the villages in Area C in occupied Palestine, as they are not allowed to build without permits, which are very rarely given (from 2009 to 2012 a mere 2.3% were granted).

Hassan - People also use caves like this for living, storing things or as animal shelters Photo EAPPI_VPasteur

Hassan’s caves are similar to these – used by villagers throughout the West Bank for living, storage, and as animal shelters [Photo: EAPPI/V.Pasteur]

Hassan works very hard, but he is not a rich man. Until two years ago, he tells us that he regularly worked in Israel as a general labourer – laying roads, building houses, cutting wood. It is also typical for men in this area to be employed in the Israeli construction industry. Unemployment in the West Bank is almost 20% and the economy is very slow growing, held back by the Israeli occupation. According to Bank of Israel research, approximately 92,000 Palestinians work in Israel. As with so many aspects of life in the occupied West Bank, this requires workers to have a permit.

A couple of years ago, things changed for Hassan. He told us that, one day while working on a building site in Israel alongside his father and brothers, all with valid work permits, they were all detained by the army. The army gave no reason for their detainment. Hassan was arrested, while the others were let go. When he was released, some hours later, he was instructed to go to the District Coordination Office (DCO) regarding his work permit. The DCO is the regional office for the Israeli Civil Administration in Palestine, responsible for all administrative aspects of life for Palestinians in Area C, including the complex system of permits.

When Hassan went to the DCO they said his permit had been revoked, that they couldn’t help him and that he should come back two months later. For a man with a family to feed, now unable to legitimately work in Israel, this was not good news. He was eventually told that he had to speak with the Shin Bet – the Israeli internal security service – rather than the DCO. When he met with them, they said they would only give him a work permit again if he would provide them with information about his friends and neighbours – they were trying to recruit him as an informer.

It wasn’t just the work permit at stake – Hassan explained to us that he was offered money, women, cars… They put images of these things before him but when they offered him whatever he wanted he replied, “I want to leave here hungry but loyal to my community”. He says this made them very angry and he was badly beaten and thrown out.

Since then Hassan has been on a blacklist. He was told this by the DCO when trying to get a new permit. According to the Israeli peace organisation Machsom Watch (Checkpoint Watch), tens of thousands of Palestinians are on blacklists that prevent them from getting permits to work in Israel. Hassan now struggles to find work locally or is forced to cross the border into Israel illegally – along with about 33,000 other Palestinian workers a year. The pay is much better in Israel, even for workers entering illegally who get paid less than those with permits. However, it is risky, as getting caught without a permit in Israel can result in arrest and a prison sentence.

Under international law, Israel is required to guarantee the right to work and an adequate standard of living for Palestinians (Article 6 and Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). In addition, Article 31 of the Fourth Geneva Convention specifically states that, “No physical or moral coercion shall be exercised against protected persons [the occupied population], in particular to obtain information from them or from third parties”.

Hanna Barag from Machsom Watch told us that tens of thousands of Palestinians have been coerced into becoming collaborators over the years of the occupation. The organisation has gathered stories of individuals like Hassan, who have been put under pressure to turn informer on their neighbours. According to their 2011 report, Invisible Prisoners, “The large majority of those blacklisted have done nothing to deserve being on the list. They are victims of a system that aims at maintaining a big pool of potential collaborators. Moreover, blacklisting helps to keep the population frightened, hungry, vulnerable and in continuous uncertainty. The system also hampers social cohesion since the tendency of the blacklisted is always to suspect their neighbours or family members to have informed on them. It helps the occupier to keep the population submissive, manageable and obedient.”

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Hanna Barag of Machsom Watch [Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne]

Amongst other things, Machsom Watch tries to help Palestinians get off the blacklist with legal support and lobbying. Hopefully they will be able to help Hassan, so he can get back to work and provide for his family.

*Hassan gave us permission to tell his story, but requested that his real name and photo was not used.

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Find out more about the work of the Israeli peace group Machsom Watch and their findings on the blacklisting of Palestinians by visiting their website here.