Do good fences make good neighbors?

Rational permit system for Palestinian workers is a necessary step to strengthen security, economy and mutual confidence.

PALESTINIAN FARMWORKERS at a farm in the West Bank. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PALESTINIAN FARMWORKERS at a farm in the West Bank.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ten years after the construction of the security fence, the time has come to find an efficient system for managing the entry of Arabs from Judea and Samaria into the State of Israel. For better or worse, a scenario whereby no separation exists between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is unlikely in the foreseeable future.
Let’s first examine the numbers: On average, some 60,000 residents of PA-governed areas enter Israel legally on a daily basis, 45,000 of whom hold a valid work permit. Consequently, and in contrast to popular opinion, the issue is primarily an economic one: the search for a delicate balance between the financial livelihood of Arab workers and Israeli employers on the one hand and the security needs of Israel’s citizens on the other.
The work permit system presently operates as a “gray market.” As in any other country, approval for a work permit in Israel is subject to submission of a request on the other side of the “border.” However, a lack of familiarity with Israeli bureaucracy and the temporary nature of most of the readily available jobs have led to the emergence of contractors or middle-men who supply manpower for Israeli employers and permits for the Arab laborers. Not only do these contractors earn immense profits at the laborers’ expense (each of whom pays thousands of shekels for their service) they also frequently transfer the permit from one worker to another without prior warning to the holder.
Following security screening, the worker is issued a permit that is valid for a designated period of time. Still, there may be a lengthy wait at the crossing point, often from the early hours of the morning, leading to the familiar but unacceptable images of overcrowding and pushing among laborers simply trying to get to work on time.
It should be stated clearly: Israel bears no blame for this state of affairs. The existence of the Palestinian Authority comes with an inherent price – the current reality in which the IDF possesses no security control over areas of concentrated population necessitates the need for a mechanism of permits and screening, as at any regular international border. By nature, sovereign states restrict the freedom of movement of non-citizens seeking to enter their territories.
For example, a petition was submitted to the High Court of Justice with regard to the construction of the fence around Jerusalem and the building of the Kalandiya Crossing in 2006.
In that case, the court ruled – after considering the clear dangers involved in granting residents of the PA unrestricted entry into the State of Israel – that a wait of up to one hour constitutes a reasonable impingement on freedom of movement.
THE DECADE since the construction of the fence and the crossing points has been characterized by a lack of willingness on the part of the PA to improve conditions of the facilities under its control. Without an organized arrival and waiting area, the workers are usually forced to walk to the crossing point. Aside from a few exceptions, such as Kalkilya where stewards were stationed, the assembly of laborers at the remaining crossings generally become a rowdy, uncontrollable crowd that only serves to intensify the already heavy pressure among those waiting to pass through the crossing. This can only be seen as a deliberate effort to undermine a phenomenon that the PA views as collaboration with “the Zionist enemy.”
Nevertheless, the Israel has a clear interest in taking responsibility and positive action in order to resolve this situation.
First, the difficulties faced by a laborer while attempting to obtain a permit only serve to encourage illegal entry into Israeli territory. The combination of the need for relatively cheap labor in Israel and the high salaries compared to Palestinian standards is expected to continue, legally or otherwise. Many of the workers who would have received security clearance are deterred by the accompanying cost and complications.
At the same time, more than a few terrorists responsible for recent attacks have taken advantage of the system to infiltrate into this unsupervised flow of manpower, including the perpetrators of the attack at a Yavne supermarket and those responsible for the murder of Reuven Shmerling. Such action does not require a sophisticated plan of action but rather, mere use of the existing mechanism to conceal oneself among the hundreds of illegal laborers entering Israel daily in order to meet our society’s economic needs.
Second, the long queues of people lead many of the workers to sleep at their work site, returning home only on the weekends, thereby avoiding the need to wake before dawn and wait for hours in line at the crossing. In most cases, this practice is forbidden. The work permit is valid only during the day, however in reality, the State of Israel turns a blind eye and has simply stopped recording the laborers’ return back to PA territory.
The consequences are inevitable: remaining overnight at a building site both encourages crime and endangers the laborers themselves.
Palestinian laborers in the Hadera area were recently robbed by a group of criminals from Umm el-Fahm.
FINALLY, FAILURE to regulate this issue causes significant harm to Israeli employers. One such example is the Atarot Industrial Zone that was separated from its immediate periphery with the construction of the fence. That led to laborers arriving late for work and even to their injury as the result of the added workload, all of which constitutes a significant strain on the businesses themselves and the image of the industrial zone as a whole.
A number of measures are therefore necessary in order to enable the State of Israel to resolve the problems described above.
A system must be established whereby requests for permits are submitted independently and approved or rejected solely on the basis of security considerations. An Arab laborer is not a regular foreign worker and – subject to security approval – there is no reason that his permit should be linked to a specific job. This will save payment to and reliance on the middleman and allay the accompanying uncertainty. Should he lose his job while holding a permit, he will have little difficulty in finding a new one.
Streamlining the existing permit system is preferable to the alternatives. It is unrealistic to expect the entire Israeli economy to be based solely on “Jewish labor,” while the importing of cheap alternative labor from a third-world country is simply absurd when such a workforce exists locally.
With regard to the crossings themselves, the massive upgrading work currently being undertaken around Jerusalem is simply insufficient.
In most cases, the overcrowding results from unsuitable personnel at the crossing points rather than a lack of security checkpoints. Management of a facility through which thousands pass every day is just not the same as manning an army roadblock aimed at combating a specific alert and is not part of the army’s core mission.
Do we expect the IDF to effectively manage an international airport? The preferable alternative is for the Jerusalem periphery crossings to be operated by a private contracting company working for the Defense Ministry, similar to most of the crossing points along the Green Line. These companies are obligated to meet security and efficiency criteria specified in a tender and employ workers who are likewise required to conform to standards higher than those imposed on a regular soldier during his compulsory IDF service.
The “conflict” is commonly regarded as a fundamental issue. However, many of its aspects actually stem from other issues, a fact illustrated clearly in this case. Regardless of any intermediate or permanent solution instituted between Jews and Arabs in Israel, the streamlining of Israeli bureaucracy in general – and of that associated with crossings specifically – is surely one of the key components of strengthening and emphasizing the mutual interests of both parties.
Nicolas Nisim Touboul holds a master’s degree in government-security studies from the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya and is field coordinator for the Institute for Zionist Strategies. You can contact him at