Palestinian Workers’ Resistance in the Age of Neoliberal Settler Colonialism

by | 23 Apr 2024

The Israeli settler government, conducting a genocidal war against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip since October 2023, has taken steps to prevent Palestinian workers in Israel and settlements from the West Bank and Gaza Strip from reaching their jobs, and has urgently revoked work permits as a collective punitive measure. This has significantly affected Palestinians, particularly in the West Bank, amid unprecedented political, economic, and social challenges. These measures have further stifled the Palestinian economy in the West Bank, impeding its development, and subjecting it to increased Israeli control that began in 1967. These measures remind us of how neoliberalism intertwines with settler colonialism and how this integration intensifies colonial violence, not only in the dispossession of land and its resources but also in the dispossession of indigenous peoples’ labor. This integration allows for the reproduction of indigenous populations in a certain geographic area as a group that can be suppressed, isolated, expelled, exploited, and eliminated simultaneously without even holding the perpetrators accountable for their actions.

On October 22, 2023,  the  Minister  of Economy and Industry of Israel, Nir Barkat, announced his intention to further strangle the Palestinian economy by stating that Israel should not leave the wheels of the Israeli economy in the hands of Palestinian workers, and that it should urgently bring in 160,000 foreign workers to replace Palestinian workers, mostly from India. Israeli plans to replace Palestinian workers with foreign workers are not new, as the Israeli settler government has signed bilateral agreements with several countries since the nineties of the last century. Most recently,  in May 2023, the Indian and Israeli governments signed a new bilateral agreement to bring an additional 42,000 Indian workers to Israel, an agreement that Israeli settler Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked his  political ally, Indian Prime Minister  Narendra Modi, to expedite in December 2023. Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) indicates that the number of foreign workers in Israel in June 2022 amounted to about 105,000 foreign workers, compared to more than 200,000 Palestinian workers.

Over the past six months, the topic of Palestinian workers in Israel and the settlements has once again come to the forefront. While Israel, under pressure of need, allowed around 10,000 Palestinian workers  back to their jobs in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, it was remarkable that the Palestinian Authority (PA) had dealt with the revocation of work permits for the rest of the Palestinians working in Israel. On December 22, 2023, former Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh (2019-2024) said: “We have a tremendous opportunity at hand. Those workers who were employed in Israel should return to work on our land and help cultivate it.” The next day, workers responded to Shtayyeh with satirical comments and videos circulating on social media, some of which showed trees and orchards bearing fruit and sprouting banknotes. The  workers seemed to say, what land are you talking about? Is it the land that Israel stole to build settlements? All of these discussions related to the revocation of Palestinian work permits, the intention of the Israeli government to replace Palestinian workers, the absence of the role of the PA in creating a resistance economy, and other discussions lead us to think more deeply about what it means for indigenous people to work in the context of settler colonialism, and what the resistance of these workers means in this context.

Settler colonialism and land centralization

As for the basic logic of the settler-colonial project in Palestine, it is based on the “logic of elimination” through which the settler seeks to expel the indigenous population and replace them with settlers. Photo 1 shows Zionist and Jewish-Israeli sites established throughout historic Palestine since 1878. It shows that this colonization is an ongoing process and that it is land-centric. In parallel with domination of the land, photo 2 shows Jewish immigration to Palestine and the forced displacement of Palestinians for almost a century, and shows the growth of the process of replacing Palestinians with Jewish settlers over the years. As noted, the replacement of one population with another is also a distinctive feature of settler colonialism. The leaders of the Zionist movement have consistently acknowledged their project in Palestine as a form of settler colonialism, with settlement being a primary objective from the movement’s outset, as articulated by Theodor Herzl’s statement: “If I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct.”

These images are taken from the site Visualizing Palestine (1) (2)

To ensure the success of the settler-colonial project in dominating the land, the Zionist movement established several Jewish organizations, whose main goal was to encourage Jewish immigration to Palestine and the expropriation of Palestinian land and resources. For example, in 1899  the Zionist movement established the first Zionist bank, The Jewish Colonial Trust. Similarly, the Zionist movement also founded the Jewish National Fund in 1901. Moreover, the Zionist movement established The Palestine Exploration Fund in 1865. These organizations, for example, helped change the geographic and demographic face of Palestine and its indigenous inhabitants by helping the Zionist movement dispossess Palestinians of their land and replace them with Jewish settlers.

Before the Palestinian Nakba in 1948, the Zionist movement dominated approximately 70 Palestinian villages, representing about 7% of Mandatory Palestine. However, the Nakba allowed the Zionist movement to complete its settler-colonial project by dispossessing Palestinians of their property and expelling them from their land. The Nakba was an ethnic cleansing of  the land of Palestine planned and carried out by the Zionist movement by expelling nearly 750,000 Palestinians from their homes in Palestine, destroying more than 531 Palestinian villages, and carrying out more than 70 massacres. After its establishment on May 14, 1948, Israel passed a series of military laws and regulations to dispossess Palestinians and replace them with settlers. These orders were also accompanied by military rule imposed on Palestinians inside Israel from 1948 to 1966, which enabled the dispossession of Palestinian land.

After the Six-Day War in June 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem and imposed direct military rule. It has also begun to expel Palestinians, Judaize Palestinian villages and towns, enact more laws, and build illegal settlements, with the aim of dispossessing Palestinians of their land and replacing them with settlers. Even after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the situation remained unchanged. For example, the number of settlers living in the West Bank rose from 110,000 in 1993 to about 678,000 in 2023. This rise occurred alongside the building of the apartheid wall and around 700 military checkpoints, which separated Palestinian towns and restricted movement. This period also saw extensive land confiscation, the annexation of East Jerusalem to Greater Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, the expulsion of Jerusalem residents, property seizures, and restrictions on urban planning. Additionally, Israel divided Hebron and gained control over the Jordan Valley, now directly governing over 93% of Mandatory Palestine’s territory.

Settler colonialism and domination of labor

Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip began to flow to work in Israel and settlements in the wake of the 1967 war. Two major  factors have combined to increase this flow: the Israeli regime’s need for workers for its burgeoning settlement enterprise, and Palestinians’ urgent need for employment after the destruction of their economy in the aftermath of the 1948 and 1967 wars. The main purpose of absorbing Palestinian workers into the Israeli economy was Israel’s keenness to control the main Palestinian production elements, with the aim of depleting, and controlling the Palestinian economy, forcibly bringing it under Israeli control. Palestinian workers have since become a major workforce in Israel and the settlements (chart 1), rising from 20,000 in 1970 to 116,000 in 1992. After Oslo, Israel restricted the movement of Palestinian workers and limited the number of work permits. However, the flow of Palestinian workers into Israel and settlements increased from 95,000 in 1995 to more than 200,000 workers in 2023.

Prepared by the author based on the data from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS)

While the demographic strength of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip more than quadrupled during the period 1967-2023, from about 965,000 Palestinians in 1967 to 5.1 million Palestinians in 2023, more than half of whom are among individuals of working age (15 years and above), the Palestinian economy has not been able to generate new jobs to absorb this demographic force.  Israel’s control over the main factors of production in the Palestinian economy has hindered  Israel continues to control Palestinian land and natural resources, forcing about a quarter of the West Bank’s population to abandon work in several vital sectors that contribute to enabling the productivity of the Palestinian economy, especially the agricultural sector. Since  1993, the expansion of settlements and the theft of Palestinian land and natural resources have crippled the Palestinian economy, forcing Palestinians to seek work in Israel and the settlements.

Since the end of the Second Intifada in 2005, three other factors have been intertwined in reinforcing the logic of domination over Palestinian labor and linked to the role of the PA. The first factor is “State Building,” a title that the PA has worked hard to formulate strategies, public policies, and projects to achieve. A review of  the PA’s general budget review (chart 2) can be seen that state-building meant building the security sector, in blue, the latter accounting for more than a quarter of the PA’s total expenditure, while sectors such as education, health, employment, and social protection have always been inferior. The second factor was the Palestinian division, which in the West Bank coincided  with an administrative model based on coordination with the Israeli settler government is a pretext to confront and renounce any act of resistance. The last factor was the outbreak of a third Palestinian intifada that began in 2015, to which Israel responded in cooperation with the PA by strengthening its policies towards establishing security files for Palestinians.

Prepared by the author based on the annual reports of the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity – AMAN (2011-2023)

What interests me here is that the neoliberal approach adopted by the PA in the West Bank has produced a system that views the management of public institutions with a security logic. In the neoliberal era, settler colonialism has evolved with innovative strategies not seen in earlier experiences, and the PA has, in addition to neglecting crucial sectors such as employment, education, and healthcare, which are essential for bolstering Palestinian steadfastness and resistance, monitored and controlled Palestinians who resist or support resistance in coordination with Israel. This is based on a neoliberal perspective, which simply considers that to increase the number of people who pose  a security  threat to the stability of a particular regime, the dominant power must take economic preventive measures and create security files to contain these people. Accordingly, Israel, with its neoliberal settler-colonial logic mixed with its security concerns, has reproduced  Palestinians in the West Bank as a human group operating under colonial demand, so that they can be recalled and disposed of at any time. 

Historically, before the establishment of the PA, the Zionist project of neoliberalism saw an opportunity to strengthen its settler-colonial project and dominate the Palestinians. This began with the strategic merger of American and Israeli capital in the seventies and eighties of the twentieth century.  The October War of 1973, peace negotiations with Egypt in 1979, the Oslo Accords in 1993, and Wadi Araba agreement with Jordan in 1994 deepened the way to promote neoliberalism. Israeli elites now see neoliberalism as a means of achieving economic returns by promoting international investment, opening new markets, and imposing neoliberal rules of the game on Palestinians. When Netanyahu came to power in 2009, he worked hard to implement his neoliberal ideas of “economic peace.” The concept of “shrinking the conflict” espoused by former Prime Minister of Israel, Naftali Bennett (2022-2022) was further evidence of neoliberalism’s encounter with settler colonialism. Throughout these years, it has become evident that the strategic framework of the settler-colonial project since 1967 is based on two fundamental principles: hegemony and economic domestication of Palestinians. These principles, involving the dispossession of Palestinian lands, control over their resources, exploitation of their lands and labor, and the normalization of colonialism by making it more acceptable through limited and controlled economic revitalization, are central to both the logics of settler colonialism and neoliberalism. Despite potential modifications over time, or one principle taking precedence over the other during specific periods to adapt to political changes, they have remained integral to the colonial system. 

Slow death and its resistance

In this context, employment within settler colonialism can function as a mechanism for the elimination of Indigenous people. The imposition of security control over the bodies of Palestinian workers in favor of the colonial economy, which is perceived as a natural response to the convergence of neoliberalism with settler colonialism, appeared as an opportunity for the settlers to intensify the logic of elimination and achieve capital accumulation through it. For Palestinian workers in Israel and the settlements, the use of security control over their bodies as a tool of elimination has become evident through changes in the process and nature of obtaining work permits, navigating Israeli checkpoints, the rise of intermediaries and brokers for work and permits, the installation of surveillance cameras at workplaces employing Palestinian workers, and the introduction of smartphone applications that Palestinian workers are required to carry. Additionally, for Palestinian workers engaged in industrial, service, agricultural, and technological projects that benefit the Israeli economy in the West Bank—whether through subcontracting or publicly with the PA—the employment of security measures to exert control over their bodies has also become a tool of elimination. These measures include the prohibition of employing Palestinians with a history of resistance or those who support resistance, the installation of surveillance cameras within and around these projects, the placement of surveillance cameras inside trucks transporting goods to Israel, and the supervision of the recruitment and training of security personnel involved in these projects.

In this context, the phrase that was repeated by the interviewees, was “this work executed my life”. This phrase, despite its simplicity, reflects another dimension of the entanglement of settler colonialism with neoliberalism, where the settler uses work as a tool not only to manage, control, and contain the resistance of the indigenous population, despite the importance and seriousness of this argument, but more than that, as workers consider this work a systematic tool of elimination. In explaining the significance of this phrase, they mentioned that subjecting them to dealing with these security technologies as part of their daily routines is a tool of slow death. In this context, it’s not coincidental to observe that Israel is amassing wealth from the gradual, slow deaths of Palestinian workers, as it sells advanced technologies like facial recognition systems used at Israeli checkpoints. Israeli checkpoints initially trial these technologies on Palestinians, particularly those workers, before marketing them to other countries and international corporations.

However, the understanding we highlight here gives us not only an opportunity to understand the dynamics of domination over Palestinian labor, but also opportunities for resistance. During conversations with interviewees, a diversity and multiplicity emerged of paths of resistance emerged, from collective to individual, from spontaneity to organization, from secrecy to publicity. This diversity allows for the emergence of paths that seem contradictory, but are not, practices that are unified in their intellectual framework and clear in their trends. It is accurate to say these forms of resistance appear to lack institutional support, unlike the organized efforts seen during the first Palestinian intifada (1987-1993) when the Palestinian national movement rallied Palestinian workers in Israel and the settlements to participate in strikes. However, these patterns of resistance still carry an institutional and organizational legacy, and the rejection of colonialism and its symbols, institutions, logic, practices and discourses  is still the logic that regulates its work. While it is difficult to say that there is one comprehensive theory of resistance in this context, this does not undermine the fact that we are facing a non-union workers’ resistance movement in a settler-colonial context.

In one of several examples, it can be understood  that Palestinian workers in Israel in August 2022 selected the Israeli crossings connected to the Palestinian territories occupied since 1948 to carry out their historic strike, in which nearly 60% of Palestinian workers participated. The strike began with a spontaneous gathering of thousands of workers, refusing to enter their daily work, and raising political slogans rejecting the decision of the Palestinian and Israeli governments to transfer their financial dues through Palestinian banks. While the Palestinian Monetary Authority said that this decision aims to preserve the rights of workers, the workers believe that the Palestinian and Israeli governments want to “broker on their lives”. For these workers, the decision to use the crossing as a protest site was not arbitrary. The crossing, which they rely on daily, represents one of the main tools in manufacturing their slow daily demise as they spend hours waiting to pass through, exposed to surveillance cameras and advanced biometric technologies for facial, eye, and fingerprint recognition, which they view as tools used to monitor, and control them.

This spontaneous and collective labor strike not only reminds us of the forms of institutional resistance that were active in the first intifada, but it also shows us that resistance is an ongoing endeavor. After the settler colonizer succeeded in imposing a complex structure aimed at creating a slow daily death, they attempted to control the livelihoods and survival of Palestinians on their land. To resist this decision is to reject the policies of the settler colonizer and their local agent, as well as to oppose the colonial logic that perpetuates capitalist dominance. This workers’ resistance demonstrates a combined opposition to settler colonialism and neoliberalism. In their essay in this series, Bal Sokhi-Bulley and Ben Rogaly remind us of the deep links between neoliberalism and settler colonialism, where the integration of these systems intensifies violence against marginalized and vulnerable groups and minorities. These links prompt us to rethink resistance against colonialism, settler colonialism, racial capitalism, and neoliberalism, as well as against populist extremism, the nationalist and extreme right, and urge us all to consider freedom from all of this as an essential aspect of our struggle for justice and humanity.

Ihab Maharmeh is a doctoral researcher in the School of Law, Politics, and Sociology at the University of Sussex. He also serves as a researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies and holds the position of editorial secretary at Siyasat Arabiya (Arab Politics). The interviews mentioned in this blog are part of his fieldwork as a researcher. His PhD research focuses on the colonial, capitalist, and racial aspects of indigenous employment within the context of settler colonialism, with a particular focus on analyzing resistance within these frameworks. He has also published several research papers in peer-reviewed journals on settler colonialism, forced displacement, Palestinian workers in Israel and its settlements, and everyday Palestinian resistance.

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