A Survey of Commuting Labor from the West Bank to Israel

Article excerpt

This article is based on a survey of labor commuting from the West Bank to Israel. The principal results from the survey indicate that the majority of commuters had had their land confiscated by the Israeli authorities prior to starting to commute. The results also show that for some commuters their job in Israel represented a first time job while others had been unemployed before commuting. The combined effects of a stagnating indigenous economy burdened by the politics and economics of occupation, and the sudden drop in initial wealth, primarily as a result of land confiscation, represented the major reasons for labor commuting.

The West Bank's economy has undergone tremendous change under Israeli occupation since 1967. Prior to the signing of the 1993 Oslo peace accord between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel, more than three quarters of the West Bank's area had already been confiscated by the state of Israel.2 In the immediate aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel confiscated all state owned and absentee landlord private lands. These measures were similar to those taken after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.3 In 1968, nearly one third of the total area of the West Bank was confiscated by the state of Israel.4 By 1987, 199 Israeli settlements had been erected on Palestinian lands.5

Various interpretations of the Palestinian civil code were used by the Israeli state to seize the property of farmers, including a re-interpretation of the Emergency Law of 1945, the Law of Management, the Law of Unused Land, and the Forestry Law.6 According to Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian jurist, "by 1982, 52 percent of the total area of the West Bank was expropriated by the state of Israel, the majority of which represents prime farmland."7 For an economy in which the agricultural sector employed nearly two thirds of the labor force in 1967, this decline in its initial wealth may be one of the major reasons why labor from the West Bank commutes to Israel. Parallel to the land takeover, Israel also attempted to integrate the West Bank by obliging its inhabitants to buy goods primarily from Israel. In 1996, about 90 percent of all West Bank imports were Israeli.8 This shift in trade from the Arab world, and primarily from Jordan, to Israel distorted the West Bank's trade relations and deprived its manufacturing sector of vital raw materials and cheaper energy resources. The outcome of this distortion prompted Israeli economist Bahiri Simcha to note that "Israeli products are being sold in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip merely because of the level of protection, and the residents thus pay more for goods than they would if they were a separate entity with control over their economy."9 Another outcome of this market distortion was the loss of scale or the higher cost per unit of production.

Israeli control of Palestinian labor movement to Israel has proved instrumental in regulating the Israeli labor market. As Israel calibrates the flow of labor to its market, it can raise or lower its own unemployment rate and, to a lesser degree, the wage rate in any sector of the economy in which commuters are employed. Thus, by controlling labor flow, Israel has de facto added an economic instrument to its political power over the Palestinians. Israel has frequently prohibited Palestinian workers from entering into Israel and thus subjected the Palestinian population to very significant economic pressure. Since the beginning of commuting in 1968, the length of closures has been associated with the cycle of violence. The rise in the frequency and intensity of violence since 1992 has meant that the length and severity of the closures have also increased. Even after allowing 68,000 workers (about half the commuters) to return to work following an extended closure in 1993, the unemployment rate in the West Bank remained high and fluctuated in inverse proportion to the number of people allowed to go back to work in Israel. …