Skin tanned and hands calloused from working forty-two years under the sun, Emad Khalil, a sixty-one year old retired laborer, sits in front of me. For thirty of those years, he worked in Israel. His story documents a tremendous change in attitude and policy towards Palestinian freedom of movement, employment opportunities, healthcare, and relations between Palestinians and Israelis.
After Egypt lost control of Gaza following the 1967 war, work opportunities in the latter were limited by poor infrastructure and a collapsing economy. The closest opportunity for work was in Israel, as it was prior to the First Intifada; only then, unlike now, ports and crossings did not restrict movement. Emad describes:
“I started working at the age of sixteen as a builder’s assistant. Work was available for everybody back then. You just registered at the work office and either they called you or you checked every couple of days. You would most likely have a job in building or farming. You gave them your ID and they did the rest. They would contact your company for the legal work and get your health insurance in case any medical assistance was needed.”
Emad worked for an Israeli company under an Arab Jewish supervisor. Poverty, lack of education, and inadequate infrastructure strategically paved the way for Palestinian labour demand across the border. Most of the employees were Palestinians of similar socio-economic background. Like Emad, they were illiterate. Education was considered unimportant compared to more immediate financial concerns. Few went to university though workers were encouraged and even rewarded for learning Hebrew.
Emad describes a forgotten period where Palestinians and Israelis, in the wake of growing prosperity, recognized their similarities, and even socially engaged outside the workplace. His relationship with his first boss was such that he attended Emad’s brother’s wedding.
“For once I thought that we could live in peace and a better economy,” Emad reflected. “People coexisted somehow. The politicians, however, did not like that.”
Emad worked for his first boss for five years. In 1976, the business was sold and Emad picked up work where he could. For a short period of time, he worked as a fruit picker for a farm that had Arabic inscription at the entrance. When he told his father and uncle about this peculiarity, they informed him that the farm had originally belonged to his great grandfather. Such experiences were not uncommon.
Life after the Paris Protocol
During the First Intifada in 1987, a large-scale boycott campaign began in response to clashes between Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and Palestinian protesters in the West Bank. The impact of the Boycott was dampened by the collapsing economy in Gaza. Workers grew reluctant to leave Israel.
The changes imposed on the Palestinian economy by the Paris Protocol on Economic Relations, an agreement signed by Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1994 and included in the Oslo II Accord in September 1995, led to irrevocable decline in Gaza. The protocol included Israeli regulation of customs, value-added taxes, purchase taxes, integration of the Palestinian and Israeli economies, and the besiegement of Gaza’s borders. Palestinian workers were no longer able to cross the borders without being subjected to manual checks by armed border patrol officers and long waits at checkpoints. A journey that had taken Emad thirty minutes became an unpredictable wait of up to eight hours. Exhausted and demoralised workers began to lose work as the relations between the workers and their Israeli employers deteriorated.
The changes imposed by the Paris Protocol led to an approximate 36.1 % decline in economic output from Gaza between 1992 and 1996. Workers faced increasing levels of unemployment, returning to Gaza with few job prospects.
Robbed of sight
Despite the difficulties in obtaining a job and the barriers imposed by checkpoints, Emad continued to work in Israel until 2000 when his thirty-year career came to a devastating end.
“I was on a construction site in the late winter of 2000. We were building a wedding hall near Jerusalem. My job was to nail the wooden boards in order for the other workers to use them. The nail gun was malfunctioning , so I had to do it manually with a hammer. The rain from the night before had wet the boards, which weakened them. I picked up a nail, grabbed the hammer and hit it, but the nail was too thin and snapped. The fine tip of the nail flipped into my eye and suddenly everything turned dark. I started shouting to the others. One worker heard me shouting and saw blood coming from my eye. He called an ambulance and escorted me to the hospital.”
Upon arrival to the hospital, Emad was required to show his identification card to check he had adequate medical insurance prior to treatment. He was then taken for surgery to remove the nail from his eye. Sadly, the operation was unsuccessful and Emad lost the majority of his sight in that eye. He was told that he needed to schedule another operation but could go home in the interim. He called the work office to arrange the surgery through his employer, who was legally responsible for the provision of his health insurance.
“The employer avoided covering my surgery because the costs were too high, so I had to call a lawyer and file a case to get my rights. I could only attend the first court session as I was deemed a security risk and subsequently denied permission to travel to Israel. I worked in Israel for thirty years and suddenly my life was made insecure. Now I am in Gaza, jobless, blind and denied medical treatment.”
The lack of access to the medical care, to which he was entitled, has left Emad permanently disabled, unemployed and unable to afford university tuition fees for his four children. Denying him permission to attend court in Israel was in direct violation of the Universal Declaration of Human rights (article 13) which states the right of freedom of movement within states.
The human rights group B’Tselem also argues that the restrictions on ill, wounded and pregnant Palestinians seeking acute medical care is in contravention of international law which states that medical professionals and medical patients must be granted open passage.
A future towards permanent disengagement?
Since the imposition of the Israeli siege on Gaza in 2007, there have been three major assaults and numerous smaller indiscriminate attacks, with the last in 2014 claiming the lives of over 2,250 Palestinians and displacing over 500,000. According to a United Nations report in 2015, it is predicted that with the on-going economic crisis, Gaza may be uninhabitable by 2020. Israel’s long term strategy for permanent disengagement from Gaza seems entirely plausible given the growing trends of economic restrictions, cyclical warfare, and severe cuts on fuel provisions and infrastructure. Emad Khalil’s story is a sample of history in which, outside the domain of political maneuvering, there may have been an alternative road of shared social and economic prosperity for Palestinian and Israeli citizens.