More than 1,200 rockets were fired by Hamas and smaller armed groups over the course of the eight-day Israeli attack on Gaza, some with unprecedented range and power, reaching as far as Tel Aviv and the outskirts of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank.
The southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, less than ten miles from Gaza, was one of the hardest-hit areas outside of the coastal enclave. The city became a veritable ghost town during those eight days, with residents either fleeing or taking refuge in underground shelters. Yet even as rockets crashed into apartment buildings in the city, another group of Palestinians carried on building and renovating Ashkelon’s homes.
Ashkelon, like many other places in Israel, is largely dependent on cheap, illegal Palestinian labour to fill its construction jobs. The Palestinian economy in the West Bank is likewise dependent on these jobs. A 2007 report by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, Crossing the Line: Violation of the Rights of Palestinians in Israel Without a Permit, contends that this economic dependence was the result of deliberate Israeli policy.
“Israel did not invest in developing the physical resources and human capital in the Occupied Territories. Rather, it instituted a policy of partial economic integration that was aimed at generating maximum profit,” the report states.
‘Under the table’
“The rockets were falling on the city, it seemed, every two minutes… We began to really feel afraid.”
– Jamal, Palestinian worker in Israel
One such crew of Palestinian labourers is led by a man named Ali, who prefers to use only his first name due to the sensitivity of his situation. Ali has worked in Israel for 28 years, developing a wealth of Israeli contacts through whom he finds work. He provides this work to men he knows from the Yatta area of the southern West Bank. Yatta is an area especially dependent on illegal work in Israel – according to the Yatta municipality, more than half of the local labour force regularly sneaks into Israel for employment.
Ali is paid “under the table” by the Israelis who employ him and distributes the money to his crew. The people they work for know they are in Israel illegally, but look the other way, and sometimes even help hide them if police come around asking questions.
According to the “Procedure for Handling Offenses Related to Illegal Stay – Palestinians”, Israeli police should initiate a sort of triage to simply return first-time offenders to the West Bank as the court system simply cannot handle the number of workers. Multiple offenders should go to trial.
The B’Tselem report, however, documents how this procedure is followed in a random, haphazard way, with multiple offenders often imprisoned without trial, and first time offenders sometimes returned, sometimes beaten and then returned, and sometimes imprisoned.
Amir, from a village south of Yatta, said he was beaten on the neck and legs and detained for 24 hours the first time he was arrested, at age 15. His neighbour Mohammed, however, 16, was recently arrested the first time and imprisoned for five months. Israeli officials could not be reached for comment.
The workers live in a small cinderblock shack on the southeastern edge of town, with nothing but fields between themselves and the border fence with Gaza. They built the shack themselves, and share it with men from the Sudan and Eritrea, many of whom have also come to Israel in search of work. Their house is on a dirt path off a side street, where they try to stay out of sight from the Israeli police.
Ali was not present during the eight days of fighting. He and many workers like him either left when trouble started or were visiting home and stayed away. But Jamal, also from the Yatta area, and two other members of Ali’s group, were there. In the initial days, they were unable to find transport out of the city. “We called a taxi company,” Jamal said. “But they said there were no taxis. It was difficult for the workers and for the Israelis.”
“This time Gaza hit back. Hamas isn’t as strong as Israel, but now it seems like Israel fears Hamas the way Hamas fears Israel.“
– Jamal, Palestinian worker in Israel
Stuck in the city, Jamal – who has worked with Ali for three and a half years in Ashkelon – and his two colleagues continued working as usual, renovating a nearby apartment. For the first four days of the fighting he felt fine, having weathered Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and the occasional rocket attack in the years since.
By the fifth and sixth days his nerves began to fray. “The rockets were falling on the city, it seemed, every two minutes. When one would land, the sound from the explosion was enormous. We began to really feel afraid.”
At one point, Jamal watched as a rocket tore into a four-storey apartment building where a friend of his lived, an Israeli who delivered construction materials to their building crew. The man assured him, however, that the residents had all left beforehand.
Some of Ashkelon’s Israeli residents became newly hostile to the workers, suspecting them of being spies and guiding Hamas rockets. According to Jamal, many workers were arrested in the initial days in a police roundup and beaten after being heard describing on the phone to relatives what was happening. But Jamal felt that for the most part, people, police and residents alike were too distracted to bother them much.
Jamal had mixed feelings about the fighting, though, and his feelings capture the irony of the position of thousands of Palestinians who make a living working illegally for Israelis. “We were afraid, for sure – we’re human beings,” he said. “But we were sort of happy too. We felt this was something new, something different from 2008. We heard Israelis saying things like, ‘We can’t beat Hamas’. Police were diving for cover. We just watched. Some of us took pictures with our phones.”
After six days, fearing the new intensity of Hamas’ military capabilities as much as the Israelis, Jamal and his colleagues were finally able to find a ride out of town from an Arab Israeli who often provides transportation for illegal workers between towns.
Shifting power balance
Back in Yatta, sitting with his brothers, Jamal reflected on this most recent clash between Israel and Hamas. “Before, Israel could hit Gaza as it liked. But this time Gaza hit back. Hamas isn’t as strong as Israel, but now it seems like Israel fears Hamas the way Hamas fears Israel.”
That political shift, if real, won’t change Jamal or Ali’s situation in the short term. After a short break at home, Jamal will sneak back across the Green Line and go back to work building Ashkelon. As before, this precarious existence comes with the risk of being arrested, beaten, having his earnings seized by police, or not being paid at all. It entails sharing a tiny, roughly 3-metre by 4.5-metre shack with up to 10 men, sleeping side-by-side on mats on the floor, and spending most of one’s time away from family.
More or less, it entails living as an illegal immigrant in one’s own country. Ali points at the remains of an old stone house, built before 1948, in a field to the south. “That’s Palestinian,” he says. “We’re from here. But look how we live.” Yet as with many Palestinians, Jamal feels something small but significant has changed. He feels that this time at least, the Palestinians won.
Although many Israelis simply want the problem with Gaza to go away, the reality of a shared existence is evident all around them in construction sites and watermelon fields, where thousands of Palestinians perform needed manual labour. Until now, this tenuous co-existence has been and remains one of enormous inequality. But in the wake of the Gaza ceasefire, Palestinians are cautiously optimistic that the balance of power has begun, ever so slightly, to shift.