Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 July 2003
Issue No. 647
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Gaza's sweatshops

Palestinian workers have little choice but to work for Israeli settlers, writes Annika Hampson from Gaza


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Enduring the heat, Palestinians wait in line at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank town of Tulkarm
It is six o'clock in the morning and already the Palestinian workers have begun to congregate behind a wall, bleary eyed, clasping plastic bags containing picnic lunches of bread and olives.

When everyone arrives they walk together towards the Israeli settlements, on their daily, potentially lethal commute to work in the settlement's sweatshops. "What can we do?" asks Ahmed. "There is no work in Rafah, we have no choice but to work for the Jews."

After leaving the relative safety of the wall the workers, about 200 in all, walk along the sandy road lined with the concrete skeletons of half- demolished, bullet ridden houses, and across a bulldozed moonlike landscape of uprooted trees towards the gate in the electric fence which separates Rafah from the Gush Katif settlement block. The early morning fog obscures the road ahead but the concrete gun towers, each concealing armed IDF soldiers, are just visible. "They are watching us," Ahmed explains, "if there is any indication that something is suspicious the soldiers will shoot."

Having passed through the gate the workers then proceed to the checkpoint, lifting their shirts to show no explosives are concealed under their clothing. Crossing the checkpoint can take more than an hour. On the other side, buses take the workers to factories and farms throughout the settlement, where the men work for the next eight to 10 hours. "This is our life," Ahmed shrugs in parting.

Khaled works in a textiles factory in the Rafiah-Yam settlement, in the southwestern corner of the Gush Katif block. "The settlers treat us like animals," he begins, speaking in his home in Rafah's Tal Al-Sultan neighbourhood. "We are a just a cheap source of labour for them, doing the jobs they don't want to do." He has been working in Rafiah-Yam for the last 18 months, having waited more than six months for the work permit which allows Palestinians to work in the settlements.

Khaled works 10 hours a day to scrap together a living for his family. Two months ago his house was demolished and his family moved in with his father. Twenty people live in the father's three-room house, and Khaled's income supports the entire household.

The factory where Khaled works is on the outskirts of the settlement. He has never seen the houses there, or met any of the settlers other than the factory supervisor. When he arrives he goes to his seat and concentrates on the work. "We are watched all the time," Khaled says, "and we are not allowed to speak." He has to ask permission to go to the restroom and eats his lunch where he sits. If he is ill he is not allowed to leave: the checkpoint only opens to allow the workers in and out. Khaled remembers a man who learnt that his mother had died and asked to leave to go to her funeral. "He wasn't allowed to leave, he was told that the checkpoint was closed."

Khaled is hired on a daily basis so work is never guaranteed, "sometimes the checkpoint is closed for weeks, and then we receive no wages." He has no contract, no benefits, no insurance, no sick pay, no compensation, and as he is not officially registered as employed, no severance pay. Furthermore, his work permit can be withdrawn at any time. "I have no rights, nothing. The occupation masks their responsibility."

Khaled argues that the local Palestinian economy is dependent on the settlements yet there is no legal protection for the workers. When working in Israel proper, Israeli laws and regulations protect Palestinian workers. In Israeli settlements, however, Palestinians do not have recourse to Israeli national law. They do, however, fall within the province of international human rights law, especially the fourth Geneva Convention concerning the protection of civilians in times of war. These rights, Khaled asserts, are blatantly ignored.

For the past 20 days Khaled, along with the other workers at the same factory, has been on strike. The workers are protesting because they have been cheated out of their wages. "First they exploit us and now they are stealing our money," protests Khaled. He explains that the factory owner has tried to convince them to return to work, saying they will negotiate the wages at a later point. But Khaled refuses to return unless he has an assurance that his wages will be paid in full.

Sipping his tea, Khaled concludes that the blame really lies with the Palestinian Authority. "It is terrible that we have to work for these people," he says. "These are the same people who are bulldozing our houses and shooting our children." He argues that the PA should do more to create jobs in Gaza. "Instead they think only of themselves, living in their big houses and driving their big cars," he adds bitterly.

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