Review – Employing the Enemy: The Story of Palestinian Labourers on Israeli Settlements

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Employing the Enemy: The Story of Palestinian Labourers on Israeli Settlements
Matthew Vickery, Zed Books 2017, 152pp, £7.50

This short but excellent book deals with the Zionist settlement project. Dispossessed from their land, Palestinians are deprived of their traditional incomes from farming and herding. As a result, settlement employers benefit from ‘a cheap workforce, desperate for an income’, and they exploit that workforce with ‘impunity’ (p.5). This workforce often has no choice other than ‘toiling in the very facts on the ground that continue to entrench occupation and bring so much hardship and grief to the West Bank Palestinian population’ (p.1). The growth of the settlements creates a contrast between increasingly integrated, prosperous, Israeli commuter settlements and a system of West Bank ‘bantustans’ in which the Palestinian people are heavily controlled and subjected to violent oppression; and the economy deliberately stifled so that the country’s resources and its labour benefit only the occupation.

Vickery describes a ‘segregated’ labour market, where the machinery (military, legal etc.) of occupation relegates Palestinians to the status of ‘second-class workers’ (p.77). One important aspect of this machinery is the system of work permits. These allow West Bank Palestinians employed in the settlements to pass legally through the checkpoints ‘rather than crossing illegally and risk being shot and/or imprisoned’ (p.22). The fear of losing a permit is used against those workers who have them to ensure discipline. For the permit-less workers who make up 15-30% of the workforce in the settlements,  ‘their vulnerability from their known illegal status leaves them more susceptible to exploitation and blackmail from their employer’ (p.11). Corrupt middlemen will charge fees for permits and have even created a black market in fake permits, which carry attendant risks for workers if caught: Mousa paid 2,000 NIS ($566) for a permit which landed him 21 days in jail.

Settlement workers can earn as little as 30-40% of the minimum wage (which is NIS 4,825/$1,253 per month). An unemployment rate of 15-20% ensures that even with these poverty wages settlement employers are guaranteed a steady stream of super-exploitable workers. In order to ensure the steady flow of workers into settlement work, the Israeli state has to prevent any possibility of alternative employment. In Area C, which encompasses 60% of the total area of the occupied West Bank, and is under full military control, building permits are required for any structure – even a chicken coop. 1.5-3% of applications per year are approved. Attempts to graze animals in ‘military zones’ can result in the herdsman being shot. The 1994 Paris Protocol (the post-Oslo economic framework) has totally tied the Palestinian economy to the Israeli state. The collection of taxes and their distribution to the Palestinian Authority is the responsibility of Israel. Any Palestinian production requires markets, and Israel uses the occupation to systematically deny access. Restrictions on development in Area C alone loses the Palestinian economy $3.4bn a year. Israel systematically denies Palestinians mining and quarrying rights, losing the Palestinian economy around $250m a year. With no resources available for development, Palestinians are faced with no choice but to take whatever employment they can find. Movement restrictions are deliberately so severe that access to the settlements is easier than movement within the occupied West Bank. Permit quotas for employers are less restrictive for the settlements than for work within the pre-1967 borders.

One of the most striking aspects of the book is the testimonies of settlement workers themselves. The word that continually reappears is ‘shame’. An estimated 11% of settlement workers are working on land that once belonged to their own families. Perhaps the most ashamed are those who are employed as construction workers. Vickery had real trouble getting Hakim to talk: ‘the idea of speaking about this work to anyone filled him with dread, never mind the constant shame’ (p.50). Hakim feels ‘guilty about this work, people look at me like I am helping Israel… But really I feel I have no choice.’ (p.51). Hakim has been shouted at and accused of being an Israeli spy. Wealthier families who have been fortunate enough to keep their land intact, or who own their own businesses, sometimes brand construction workers as ‘traitors’.  

In the penultimate chapter Vickery discusses the Marxist concept of a reserve army of labour. He points out how the ‘existence of a high supply of unemployed Palestinian blue-collar workers in the occupied West Bank has been of significant benefit to Israeli capitalists’ (p.103) and estimates the scale of the surplus population at around 350,000 unemployed to the 37,000 settlement workers. Though his treatment of the reserve army is brief and somewhat lacking, the book makes clear that it is a vital concept for any understanding of the occupation.

Writing on the occupation in general, Vickery observes:

It would be fundamentally wrong to argue that Israeli occupation and the settlement project, driven by Zionist ideology over the decades, exists simply to exploit Palestinian non-citizens and/or the resources of the Palestinian territories. (pp.104-5)

Although his explanation of the settlement project in ‘zionist ideology’ is insufficient, the observation that Zionism is about something more than the exploitation of the Palestinians is a key insight. As we argued in FRFI 134/135, Israel plays a very particular role in the imperialist system: by receiving billions of dollars in aid in return for defending the interests of US and British imperialism in the region and worldwide,

Zionism has built for imperialism one of the most powerful military machines in the world; it has also secured for imperialism a powerful and loyal social base. Through financial assistance it has bound the majority of Israel's population to imperialism by giving most Jewish citizens an imperialist standard of living amidst a sea of regional poverty. It has created a national labour aristocracy in the region conscious that its privilege depends on its loyalty to the US, to capitalism and imperialism.  

Vickery is therefore absolutely correct when he says that ‘it is clear that the Israeli and Palestinian working classes are not one of the same divided by capitalist exploitation’ (p.106). Zionist privileges are a necessarily cross-class phenomenon made possible by the superprofits of imperialism. The revolutionary national struggle in Palestine finds its most mortal enemies in the Zionist labour aristocracy.

Employing the Enemy contains a wealth of invaluable material and ought to be read by all who want to understand the occupation of Palestine. It does, however, have one major weakness: the lack of a clear political message. Its disappointing conclusion simply calls on the Israeli government to ‘acknowledge, address and answer for’ the situation faced by settlement workers. It would do better to call for solidarity with the Palestinian national struggle, the only force capable of addressing the injustices which Vickery himself so brilliantly lays bare. As we wrote in FRFI 135, the ‘Palestinians are literally fighting a life and death battle for their future. In this battle we know which side we are on.’ Those who know which side they are on will gain much by reading this excellent book.

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