Under cover of political and other events, without any fanfare or official announcements, Israel has coordinated with Hamas to increase the number of entry permits granted to Palestinians in Gaza. The additional 2,000 permits appear to be meant for Palestinian laborers, under the guise of “traders.”
This is the first time since Hamas mounted a military coup in June 2007 and took control of Gaza that Israel has taken such a significant step in terms of improving the Gaza economy. While the numbers are still relatively small and will not make a drastic economic change to the enclave’s 2 million residents, it’s a start.
Since then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to impose a siege on the Gaza Strip 12 years ago, entry permits are limited to a few specific groups: residents requiring life-saving medical treatment in Israeli or West Bank hospitals; employees of international aid organizations; and merchants given a limited permit for a day or two to conduct meetings with Israeli businesspeople or deal with customs duties and other matters related to imports arriving through the Israeli port of Ashdod.
The 2,000 additional permits (known in Gaza as “tasrih”), and another few thousand that Israel will hand out in the coming months as part of a pilot program being tested by security authorities, were a closely guarded secret. They would not have come to light were it not for an interview earlier this month by the head of the Gaza Chamber of Commerce, Maher Tabaa, with the Saudi al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper. According to Tabaa, the number of permit holders grew 66%, from 3,000 to 5,000, and no less important, the age of eligibility was lowered from 30 to 25.
Tabaa revealed that the “trader” permits were in fact being given to menial laborers who leave the Strip every morning and head to work on Israeli farms, returning to Gaza at the end of the day. Interestingly, local officials in southern Israel, where the Gazans are employed, have kept silent about it. They obviously understand the political sensitivity of the matter given the right wing’s deep aversion to any move seen as rewarding Hamas, not to mention the attendant security risks.
Local leaders in the south have been urging a change in the work permit policy for over three years. Farmers in the Gaza border communities are chronically short of foreign migrant labor because Interior Minister Aryeh Deri adopted tougher terms for allowing in migrant laborers. In addition, Israeli farmers prefer the Gaza labor to workers from Thailand and other countries.
In September 2016, the heads of local councils along the Gaza border met with then-Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and explained their problems. They asked him to consider seriously granting permits to several thousand Gaza residents. None of them went as far as to imagine that things would return to the way they were prior to the first Palestinian uprising against Israel (the first intifada) in 1987, when over 100,000 West Bank and Gaza Palestinians boarded hundreds of buses daily to work on farms, in industrial plants, construction and even in hospitals as orderlies.
Israel has refused to allow Gaza residents to work in Israel since Hamas took over the enclave. The Shin Bet security agency argued at the time that letting workers into Israel posed a security threat and that Hamas could take advantage of the permits to gather intelligence information or to mount terror attacks. Liberman himself did not rule out such an option, but never approved it, either.
In June 2018, with Liberman still in office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his security Cabinet to discuss work permits for Gaza residents in accordance with the findings of a team he had appointed to examine the issue, led by then-Deputy Minister Michael Oren. The team recommended giving 6,000 permits, the same number issued in Israel during the years of the second intifada (2000-2005). Oren also recommended turning the Erez crossing, which currently serves those entering Israel for medical treatment, into a passage for goods and linking it to the port of Ashdod by a rail line through the border kibbutz of Yad Mordechai. At the same time, the United States revoked its funding for UNRWA — the international aid agency that keeps hundreds of thousands of Gazans alive — and an Israeli-Hamas long-term truce deal had just started taking shape.
Cabinet members heard the gloomy projections presented by security officials who warned of Gaza’s economic collapse in light of the humanitarian crisis, but did not adopt any decisions. In the ensuing months, when Palestinian border demonstrations expanded, and incendiary balloons were introduced into the fray, not to mention rocket salvos fired into Israel, none of the ministers remembered that there had once been a report recommending that Israel allow a few thousand Palestinian laborers to work here. And yet, the local council heads in the south of Israel did not give up on the idea and kept up their pressure on security officials. Any politician who ventured south to visit the border communities, whether from the right or left, was regaled with detailed explanations of how granting a limited number of work permits would help farmers in the south as well as the Palestinians in Gaza.
A source in the military’s civil administration told Al-Monitor that the current work permit decision stemmed from a desire to help farmers in the south experiencing a crisis due, among other things, to a perennial labor shortage and also the balloons launched from Gaza that were setting fire to their fields. The source conceded that, paradoxically, laborers from Gaza would now be employed to rehabilitate the damage caused by the explosive balloons. However, farmers in the south have many years of experience with workers from Gaza and some have even kept in close touch with their former workers over the years. He also said that some farmers have sent their former Gaza workers money to help them survive the siege on the enclave.
The laborers now being allowed to enter Israel are doing so “undercover.” They carry trading permits but cross into Israel to engage in manual agricultural labor, not to finalize import deals.
Defense Ministry staff at the Erez crossing check out every Gazan who crosses, and probably wink at each other in recognition of the “trick” that enables the government to bring in labor from the Hamas-controlled enclave without generating a political storm. After all, it is election season.