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Gazan Workers in Limbo

“We don’t know our fate.”

I came to Israel with a work permit,” said Walid Asfour, in his fifties, as he sat on a plastic chair in a youth center in Ramallah. The building has become a shelter for hundreds of Palestinian workers from Gaza who are stuck in the West Bank after October 7. “The war broke out, and we were forced to leave Israel to come here,” Asfour continued.

Laborers from Gaza with permits to work inside Israel’s jurisdiction have not been spared from the IDF’s retaliation for the Hamas attacks, which has subjected the captive population in Gaza to a relentless bombing campaign and internally displaced more than a million people, pushing them towards Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula—a move many fear is a prelude to forced population transfer.

On October 11, all of the laborers from Gaza who work outside of the Strip had their permits collectively revoked. “We got the update on the application of COGAT,” said Sunday, a worker in his forties. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) is a unit in the Israeli Ministry of Defense which is responsible for carrying out all administrative and civil affairs of Palestinians, in collaboration with the Palestinian Authority. They cut [the permits] off overnight [and] canceled them in one go,” Sunday continued.

A large gym-like room full of men on cots.
Inside the makeshift shelter in Ramallah where hundreds of Palestinian workers were held upon reaching territories under the governance of the Palestinian National Authority. October 31, 2023. | Cindy Steiler

These Palestinian workers not only had their permits revoked arbitrarily. Stranded outside Gaza among armed Israeli settlers and state security forces, they became direct targets. “We got scared,” Sunday explained. “Israelis and settlers started looking at us weird, and [Israeli] soldiers came and started beating the workers.”  

Sunday successfully escaped to Ramallah following the revocation of his permit. But since October 7, thousands of Palestinian workers have been detained by Israeli forces while passing through military checkpoints around the West Bank. There have been no charges or trials for these men: they were simply held as hostages, often in parking lots. According to testimonies by workers, detainees were kept in overcrowded conditions, beaten at the will of Israeli soldiers and prison guards, and denied any legal representation, access to their families, or communication with the outside world.

“The army took us, and they gathered our cell phones, they didn’t take our IDs or money [until later], and forced us to sit on our knees on the checkpoint from nine in the morning until 7 p.m.” said Jihad Elaf, fifty-two, a worker from Gaza City currently stranded in Ramallah. “We didn’t know where they were taking us, and we lost connection. Our families started to think that’s it, we are dead,” Elaf continued. He was ultimately moved to the Ofer military detention camp near Ramallah, where he was held for ten days.

Israeli authorities have intensified and escalated their attacks on stranded workers in tandem with the aggressive war on Gaza, flaunting the abuse and torture of these men on their social media accounts. Photos and videos show soldiers stepping on the heads of workers who have been blindfolded and put in stress positions on their knees, often for hours at a time. “They tied our hands [with plastic ties] . . .  the purpose was to humiliate us,” Elaf said of his time in detention. “They kept us sitting on the cold floor, blindfolded, tied up, and not even told where we were or if it was day or night.”

The workers were also denied food and water. “I wished I was dead. I thought death would’ve been more merciful,” Elaf said. He was only released because he suffered a stroke while in detention. “I couldn’t believe I was being released,” he explained of the night he left Ofer. “Some [detained workers] were released in their boxers, and some in hospital gowns.” At the time of his own release, his money and documentation remained confiscated by the Israeli authorities. “From how dirty my shirt was, the rips on it, my stink, all of it, I could’ve been mistaken for a homeless person,” he recalled. From Ofer, Elaf was taken to a Ramallah hospital, where he had tests done, and then he was transported to Radaneh, a park in Ramallah that was turned into another improvised shelter for workers from Gaza who had fled to the West Bank for refuge.

Along with Elaf, more than twelve hundred other Palestinian laborers were also held captive and mistreated at Ofer. But Israel didn’t stop there. On November 3, Israeli authorities, in coordination with the Red Cross and the Palestinian Authority, sent hundreds of workers back into Gaza amid the ongoing bombardment campaign which has, at the time of this writing, killed nearly sixteen thousand Palestinians and injured tens of thousands of others, with thousands more still missing under the rubble.

Those who remain in the West Bank fear for the loved ones from whom they are separated and in many cases cannot even contact. “Every phone I get I say to myself, that’s it, its news of my family gone. That’s everyone’s feeling here on the inside,” Abu Mohammad, fifty-two, said in October from a shelter in Ramallah. “We are living in a reality of hell. Neither alive nor dead. We are living here as an image, all of our thinking and being is with our families in Gaza, and our children,” he continued, holding back tears.

A group of four men sit on cots. One is on the phone.
Workers from Gaza seeking emergency asylum in the West Bank since the outbreak of the war. October 31, 2023. | Cindy Steiler

With worry for their friends and families consuming their thoughts, the stranded workers who did manage to reach the West Bank were not met with the community support or protection they needed. “When we escaped to the [Palestinian] police stations [in the West Bank] for protection, they kicked us out and said, ‘We can’t protect ourselves to protect you,’” said Mohammad S., another worker from Gaza. Beyond its inability to provide immediate protection from Israeli soldiers and settlers, the Palestinian Authority’s administrative sector has actively denied many workers access to safe shelters, the internet, or medical care.

The plight of workers from Gaza in the West Bank showcases the intentional separation of Palestinians from one another by official authorities, even amid a war. “The government doesn’t want [efforts] to be organized,” said Bana R., a volunteer who has been visiting and monitoring the situation of the workers in Ramallah. “[This is] because [the Palestinian Authority] wants to keep things under their control. They don’t want the workers from Gaza to be contained and welcomed by the social incubator.”

It is not just Gazan workers whom the Palestinian Authority has been unable or unwilling to protect in the West Bank from Israeli settler and military attacks in recent years. Even before October 7, this has been the deadliest year in the West Bank for Palestinian children specifically, and Palestinians generally, since the United Nations began documenting fatalities here in 2005. Most of the deaths were caused by Israeli gunfire to the head, neck, or chest, according to data from the Palestinian Ministry of Health in the West Bank.

Efforts of protection have been largely led by independent local groups. This is not just because of the PA’s complicity with Israel, with whom they collaborate on security at the expense of Palestinians; it is also as a result of Israel’s depletion of the PA’s capacity to withstand the economic, political, and social burdens imposed by the military occupation of the West Bank.

When Gazan workers are used as political currency by the Israeli military on the one hand and treated like foreign asylum seekers by the Palestinian Authority on the other hand, the role of international institutions in safeguarding Palestinian life comes into question. “It’s not supposed to be like this. Where is the Red Cross?” asked Suleiman Abu el-Khair, in his fifties, speaking through tears. “I want to see my daughters,” he continued. “I have three daughters. I want to see them.” Abu el-Khair’s daughters and wife were still in the Gazan city of Deir el-Balah as of October 31.

“We don’t know our fate. We are asking that the world leaders move. What more can I say? We don’t know our fate anymore,” said Muhammad Mugat, fifty-seven, another worker stranded in Ramallah. “We are all targets,” he continued. “That’s the tragedy.”