On October 11th, four days after Hamas’s attack and Israel’s declaration of war, thousands of Gazan workers logged on to the blue-and-white-colored defense ministry app Al Munaseq (“the coordinator”) to find that Israeli authorities had revoked their work permits, stripping them of their legal status. The change meant that these workers could no longer remain in Israel, but they also could not return home to Gaza, which Israel had placed under a hermetic siege and constant bombardment. “Our situation is very difficult right now,” Saleh, a Gazan who usually works in Jaffa, told Jewish Currents, using a pseudonym for fear of further retaliation.
The permit revocation was ordered by the Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli body in charge of Palestinian civilian affairs, and came without any explanation or instruction. And just hours after the permits were revoked, Israeli authorities began detaining the now-illegal workers. By October 17th, 4,000 workers had been detained without trial to check if they “helped Hamas in planning the massacre, ” according to Israel’s Channel 12. Jessica Montell, the executive director of Israeli human rights organization HaMoked, told Jewish Currents that the arrest campaign is “unprecedented in both scope and lack of transparency,” noting that “overnight, thousands of people who had Israeli work permits became illegal aliens and have been rounded up.” Each of these moves is illegal under international law and a “prohibited act of vengeance against the workers,” according to a letter five Israeli human rights organizations sent to Israel’s defense minister, attorney general, and head of COGAT on October 12th.
Before the abrupt revocations, 18,500 Gazan workers held Israeli work permits, with most using them to work low-wage jobs in construction and agriculture. For many, these permits have served as an economic lifeline amidst Israel’s 16-year blockade of Gaza, which has limited the movement of goods and people in and out of the coastal enclave and turned it into one of the most impoverished places on earth. Almost half of Gaza’s population is unemployed, and those who do work make an average of $13 a day. In this context, an Israeli permit can mean a tenfold increase in income, a benefit so cherished that in 2022, one Palestinian told the Associated Press that receiving the permit was—along with his graduation and wedding—one of three “great moments of joy in his life in the Gaza Strip.”
Israel has framed the permits as a humanitarian gesture, according to Miriam Marmur, the director of public advocacy at the Israeli human rights organization Gisha. However, critics have long maintained that the economic benefit of the permits does not testify to Israeli magnanimity, especially since, as Marmur said, the “decades of movement restrictions preceding the permits [constitute] a form of economic warfare.” According to Marmur, under international law, Israel actually has an “obligation as an occupying power to facilitate the movement and access Palestinians need to live a normal life under occupation.” Moreover, critics have pointed out that the permits Israel does provide are frequently used by employers and middlemen to exploit Palestinian labor, and that the permit system does not protect Palestinians’ basic labor rights.
Over the past few years, the permits have also served as political “bargaining chips” in Israel’s dealings with Hamas, according to Marmur. “Permits can be taken away at a whim, and more permits can be presented as an incentive for quiet,” Marmur said. Most recently, Israel rescinded additional permits in July 2022 when Hamas fired a flurry of rockets toward southern Israel, but later increased the number of permits when Hamas sat out a weekend-long exchange of fire between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad. However, Hamas’s October 7th attacks, and Israel’s subsequent vow to destroy the group, have shattered this status quo, leaving the future of the work permits—and the workers—shrouded in uncertainty.
For the thousands of Gazan workers in Israel, the suspension of permits has meant not just a loss of livelihood but also displacement and imminent danger. Saleh told Jewish Currents that until a few days ago, he worked at a supermarket in Jaffa and spent his weeknights in a ground-floor apartment shared with five other workers, most of whom only returned to their families in Gaza on weekends. But Saleh lost his permit last week. Faced with the threat of arrest in Israel, he fled to Ramallah on Thursday night, where, he said, Palestinian locals hosted Gazan workers in shelters, sports centers, stadiums, offices, and hotels. “We all fled to the West Bank once we realized that our permits were withdrawn. Every person, depending on where they work, went to the nearest city to them—Tulkarm, Bethlehem, Nablus, or Ramallah,” Saleh said. But according to the human rights groups’ letter, when Gazan workers arrived at West Bank checkpoints, many “were subjected to violent and humiliating ‘questioning’ and harassment by soldiers,” and even had their phones and cash confiscated.
Israel has also pursued some Gazans into the West Bank, carrying out raids in areas under control of the Palestinian Authority to detain the workers. The Palestinian news agency Wafa reported that 50 workers were arrested in Al Dahriya and Halhul, both in the greater Hebron area. According to the human rights groups’ letter, “the arrested workers are being held against their will in Israeli incarceration facilities” and “being deprived [of] their basic rights, including the right to legal representation.” The letter also says that “there are already known cases of workers who have been subjected to threats and violence at the hands of both [Israeli] civilians and security forces.” Other accounts similarly testify to violent conditions in detention, with a worker telling the Associated Press that after Gazans were detained, the soldiers “started beating us. I got hit in my mouth and my teeth are on the verge of falling out . . . I haven’t been able to eat for three days because of the tooth pain.”
These detentions have created additional panic among the families in Gaza, who are themselves living under Israel’s bombardment campaign. “Hundreds of families [from Gaza] have contacted us,” Montell said, but “we have been unable to locate their loved ones because the authorities refuse to provide information about who has been detained and where they are being held.” Via WhatsApp, Saleh shared a similar account: “People are calling the Red Cross and human rights organizations to ask about people, but their phones are unavailable,” he said. The fear goes both ways, as the Palestinian workers stuck in Israel and the West Bank also worry about loved ones in Gaza facing Israeli bombings. “We don’t know where our parents and families are—don’t know if we’ll see them again,” said Saleh. Another Gazan worker told the Associated Press that his house had likely been leveled to the ground in the bombing. “I wish to return to my family in Gaza,” he said, “to die among them.”