All eyes are currently on the Gaza Strip, where Israel’s bombardment has killed more than 3,000 Palestinians and displaced another million in an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe.
Meanwhile, in the occupied West Bank, the conflict is also ratcheting up: More than 55 Palestinians have been killed, hundreds have been arrested in raids, and Israeli authorities have distributed tens of thousands of guns and combat gear to Jewish settlers.
In the shadow of this violence, yet another humanitarian crisis is unfolding for thousands of Gazan workers who have been unwillingly dumped in the West Bank.
Israel allows more than 18,000 Gazans to work in Israeli cities under special work permits. But since Hamas’s devastating surprise attack in southern Israel, the country has revoked their permits, criminalizing all Gazan workers who had been in the city during the assault.
Now, thousands of these workers are stranded in the West Bank — some having taken refuge there, others having been rounded up and forced there by Israeli police forces. An unknown number have also been detained in an Israeli holding facility, Israeli officials told the Washington Post.
“[They] had the police arrest them, detain them, treat them like terrorists and criminals,” says Mick Bowman, a British activist for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign who is on the ground in Ramallah. “These are people who were there legally.”
He met dozens of these stranded workers at local shelters in Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority — which governs the occupied West Bank, a region that’s been divided in power between Israel and the PA since 1957 — was providing them with basic necessities.
Israeli authorities had seized most if not all their possessions, including money, medication and even documentation, Bowman says, leaving these men destitute. One man told Bowman an Israeli soldier broke his arm while forcing him through a checkpoint into the West Bank.
“I’ve seen photos of how they’ve been treated, blindfolded, handcuffed [and] kept in detention centers,” Bowman, 65, tells Analyst News. “But [they are] not allowed to make phone calls back to their families [in Gaza].”
Israeli authorities did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s a forcible displacement of a sizable body of people, which is against Geneva Conventions. Never mind the breaches of labor rights, wrongful detention … they were taken out of employment, stripped of any money.”
Most of these workers are married men with wives and children in Gaza, Bowman says, and are riddled with anxiety about the fate of their families under Israel’s complete siege of the territory. But they also fear for their fellow workers who have disappeared or been detained.
“Thousands of them had gone missing,” Bowman says. “Everyone said ‘I’ve got a cousin, brother, whatever, I haven’t been able to contact them since we were rounded up.’ Friends don’t know where they are. We don’t know what’s happening to these people.”
The Gaza Strip, a 141-square-mile coastal territory that stretches from its border with Israel and the Mediterranean Sea, is home to around 2.3 million Palestinians. Unemployment has become rife in the densely-packed urban enclave since the Israeli government, aided by neighboring Egypt, imposed a crippling air, sea and land blockade 17 years ago, following a civil war that put Hamas in charge of the territory. Today, the unemployment rate in Gaza sits at an astonishing 50%.
Until the blockade began in 2007, the Israeli government issued hundreds of thousands of work permits to Gazans, allowing them to cross the barbed fence — dubbed the Iron Wall — in search of better job prospects in Israel. These permits are highly coveted: One month’s wages as a worker in Israel is equivalent to years of work in Gaza.
The Israeli government resumed the permit program in 2021 to boost employment in its construction, agricultural and automobile sectors. Some 18,000 Palestinians have been working in Israeli cities ever since.
While Israel presents these work permits as a gesture of goodwill, critics argue that they’re a tool to enforce control over the Gazan population. In September, about 9,000 Gazan workers were barred from entering when Israeli authorities sealed off the northern Beit Hanouna crossing in response to demonstrations at the Gaza border that erupted following a spate of violence.
Now, following Hamas’s unprecedented attack, Israeli authorities have abruptly stripped all Gazan workers of their legal right to work in Israel, pushing them into the West Banks and prohibiting them from returning to their families in Gaza.
Bowman describes the scenes he’s been witnessing as a “form of collective punishment,” with innocent civilians being punished for the actions of Hamas.
“It’s a forcible displacement of a sizable body of people, which is against Geneva Conventions,” he says. “Never mind the breaches of labor rights, wrongful detention … they were taken out of employment, stripped of any money.”
Article 49 of the Geneva Conventions prohibits an occupying force to “deport or transfer” civilians to or from occupied territory. Yet despite its illegality, Israel has reportedly dumped Gazans en masse in the cities of Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus and Hebron, where one of Bowman’s colleagues reports that these stranded workers’ circumstances are no better.
“Israel’s error is hell on earth in Gaza,” Bowman says. “But it’s pretty bad in the West Bank as well.”