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Israel’s Permit Regime

An Israeli economy without Palestinians?
Buildings under construction with a crane in the foreground.

Twenty-six days into Israel’s genocidal campaign against the Gaza Strip, the Israeli megadeveloper Haim Feiglin stood on the grounds of an incomplete residential tower near Tel Aviv. Ever since the Hamas attack of October 7, construction has stood at a standstill. “We are at war,” Feiglin complained to Voice of America, “and the Palestinian workers, which are about 25 percent of our human resources in the sector, are . . . not permitted to work in Israel.” 

Under the “violent equilibrium” that usually persists in the country, some ninety thousand Palestinian construction workers make the daily trek through crowded security checkpoints to cross from the Occupied Territories into Israel. But for more than a month, Feiglin’s Palestinian employees have been either under lockdown in the West Bank or threatened by constant aerial bombardment in Gaza. To get construction rolling again, he is turning his sights elsewhere: India.

The Israeli Builders Association—of which Feiglin is the deputy president—has asked the government to allow construction companies to recruit fifty thousand to one hundred thousand Indian laborers to replace Palestinians on construction sites across the country. Importing temporary workers from abroad is not new: earlier this year, Israel and India finalized plans to integrate ten thousand workers in the construction and nursing sectors, adding to the estimated 136,000 foreign workers already in the country from places like the Philippines, Thailand, Moldova, and elsewhere. The war against Hamas has only accelerated the trend, providing a window of opportunity for Israeli industries to lay the groundwork for the stated vision of an Israel without Palestinians. 

Bolstering the ranks of foreign workers enables the Zionist ethno-state to decrease their reliance on native Palestinians.

Importing foreign labor to supplement “human resources” exhausted by their colonial overseers has a long and sordid history. European colonizers brought enslaved Africans to the New World after committing genocide against indigenous populations. In Trinidad, Indian subjects from the British Raj were indentured into debt bondage to replace emancipated Black people who had left plantations in huge numbers. Fatel Razack, the first ship to carry Indians from Calcutta to Trinidad’s capital, arrived on May 10, 1845. Over the next seventy-five years, thousands more were brought to work on Caribbean sugar fields for paltry wages. Human labor continues to be one of Asia’s most significant exports, particularly to Israel’s neighbors in the Gulf, where employers routinely seize migrants’ passports, force them into dangerous working conditions, and withhold wages. All of these examples have their particular histories and horrors, but they are all part of a colonial continuum in which groups of workers are treated as inanimate, interchangeable parts in the global machinery of capitalism.

Israel’s importing of laborers from Asia follows this pattern. The first recruits from Thailand and the Philippines arrived in 1987 at the start of the First Intifada, when Palestinian permit workers were seen as potential security threats. The number of permits issued to foreign workers also spiked after the Second Intifada began in 2000. Now, following the most lethal assault on Israeli security in the country’s history, the potential import of one hundred thousand temporary workers from India could lead to the most significant decline in the number of work permits allocated to Palestinians since Israel began issuing them over forty years ago. This replacement is a new phase in the evolution of  what the father of settler colonialism studies Patrick Wolfe describes as “the logic of elimination.”  

“Negatively, it strives for the dissolution of native societies,” Wolfe writes, while “positively, it erects a new colonial society on the expropriated land base.” The 1948 Nakba, subsequent massacres, and the current siege of Gaza can all be understood as the negative. The occupation and construction of the Palestinian as a bureaucratic subject of Israeli colonialism is the positive. The permit system that employs Palestinians in Israel is key to this “positive” colonial infrastructure that relies on subjugated natives to sustain the colony—but the erosion of the Palestinian workforce in Israel may indicate a turning point. Bolstering the ranks of foreign workers enables the Zionist ethno-state to decrease its reliance on native Palestinians, preventing their mass slaughter and displacement from having too negative an impact on the economy.  

The physical infrastructure of Israel’s occupation offers numerous visual symbols to represent life—and death—in the Palestinian territories: the wall surrounding Gaza, military checkpoints, Palestinian identification cards, the black tanks that collect rainwater atop Palestinian homes, and as of recently, ashen bodies excavated from rubble. But the cage that encircles Palestine goes beyond the visible. It also exists as a matrix of policies designed to cripple the Palestinian economy. The land and sea blockade of the Gaza Strip, in place since 2007, and harsh trade restrictions imposed on the West Bank have massively diminished its GDP and led to high levels of unemployment: 45.3 percent in Gaza and 24.4 percent across all of Palestine. This pushes thousands to apply for permits to work in Israel every year, where they’re paid substandard wages to do everything from care for elderly to help build illegal Jewish settlements on confiscated land in the West Bank. Despite the routine humiliation of waiting hours to pass through checkpoints and having no legal recourse should an employer withhold wages, the decision to apply often comes down to a matter of survival. Experts call this coercive system the “permit regime.”

When Israel first occupied the West Bank in 1967, it “did not integrate the Palestinians into its economy, but it did create the conditions for the economic dependency that tied them to the Israeli economy for their livelihood,” writes attorney Yael Berda in her book Living Emergency: Israel’s Permit Regime in the Occupied West Bank. Gaza and the West Bank have become what Wael Alhersh calls “reserves of manpower” to be tapped at will. The quota of permits administered by Israel has fluctuated dramatically since the first “general permits” for Palestinians were created in 1970. This pattern of restrict-and-release directly correlates with labor demand—and the needs of Israel’s security apparatus.

Berda likens the permit regime to a thinly veiled surveillance system “predicated on the justification that monitoring movement is the key to preventing terrorist attacks in Israel.” In the eyes of the Israeli state, Palestine’s entire population of five million men, women, and children spread between the West Bank and Gaza are criminals. Thus there are intense security measures taken to administer work permits. Anyone deemed a “security threat” by the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet is ineligible to apply. The criteria for such a designation is extremely broad and often arbitrary. Entire families are frequently labeled security threats. Palestinians can be denied permits if a parent or sibling is on a list, and in one case, a man’s permit was rescinded by the occupation forces after an Israeli soldier killed his eleven-year-old son. Employers in Israel are subject to surveillance as well. They must report the daily ins and outs of the permitted workers they contract. Despite these hurdles, approximately 150,000 Palestinians held Israeli work permits in May. That came to an end on October 7.

When the war started, Israel promptly suspended all Palestinian work permits and barred anyone from entering or exiting the Gaza Strip. This left thousands of Gazan workers stranded in Israel. By late October, videos of IDF soldiers humiliating and physically assaulting permit workers went viral (which prompted a TikTok trend in Israel in which users mock the abused). On November 2, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared on Twitter that “Israel would be severing all ties with Gaza” and its workers. The next day, a group of Gazan workers were finally released from detention centers in the West Bank. They shared harrowing accounts of beatings, electrocutions, starvation, and psychological torture. Expelled back into the Gazan death trap, these men walked home across the Kerem Shalom border crossing to search for the remains of their homes and communities. The fate of a post-war Gaza are unclear. None of these workers know if they’ll ever return to the jobs they once worked. Israeli business owners aren’t holding their breath; indeed, many have been preparing for this for years.

This May, Inbal Mashash, the director of the Foreign Worker Administration at the Israel Population and Immigration Authority, described how foreign labor has supported the rapidly growing Israeli economy and population. “For the past two years, there has been a major increase in the quotas for foreign workers allowed to enter Israel according to varying needs,” he said, mostly in the fields of construction and agriculture. Today, Thais, Filipinos, and Indians are the three most represented nationalities among foreign workers in Israel. 

In comparison to the U.A.E. and Qatar, workers have attested Israel generally offers higher wages, but the system is similarly exploitative. Before they even arrive, many foreign workers must pay job recruiters an exorbitant “placement fee” in order to land a job in construction, agriculture, or elderly care. It is technically illegal for an Israeli recruitment agency to charge placement fees, but this practice persists through a shadowy system of third-party brokers that collude with agencies in both Israel and a foreign worker’s country of origin. According to a Times of Israel investigation, agencies never ask for a placement fee upfront; rather, they secretly employ an uncontracted broker to extort the charge from workers, leaving no paper trail that leads back to the agency. These same brokers offer high-interest loans to workers to pay the fee, sucking them into a parasitic cycle of debt. Once in Israel, many work for less than the minimum wage guaranteed to Israeli citizens, making it all but impossible to balance debt payments, living expenses, and the remittances they send back to their home countries. 

Thais comprise the largest portion of foreign workers in Israel—approximately 23 percent at the end of 2022—and work predominantly as farm hands. In 2015, a Human Rights Watch report found that Thai workers were living in destitute conditions, are regularly exposed to dangerous pesticides, and are required to work long hours without breaks—122 Thai workers died between 2008 and 2013. This prompted a wave of coverage on the exploitation of foreign workers, but little has changed. In May, Haaretz spoke with Thai farmhands who were forced to work through rocket fire in southern Israel. 

The permitting system for foreign workers is intended to be a revolving door: unlike in some Western societies, there is no real pathway for them to become naturalized. In Israel, ethnic identity pre-determines the tiered legal status of  immigrants. Jews, regardless of national origin, are the only people guaranteed full citizenship upon arrival. (Depending on how much time a Jewish immigrant has spent in Israel before relocating, the state will literally hand them a cash payment upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport.) Permanent residence can be granted to non-Jews in rare humanitarian instances. 

For everyone else, precarity is the order of the day. The Israeli economy would crumble without immigrant workers, yet the system is structured to keep foreigners in Israel on a year-by-year basis. Employers are required to renew foreign employee visas annually, with a cap at five years. Many overstay their allotted time, adding to the thousands of other undocumented immigrants who enter Israel illegally (mainly fleeing political repression in Sudan and Eritrea). The government officially refers to those who clandestinely cross the Sinai into the Promised Land as “infiltrators.” In the last fifteen years, some thirty thousand Africans have been deported or left voluntarily. And in 2013, Netanyahu’s government erected a fence along the Egyptian border to discourage further migration from Africa. 

“Israelis did not foresee the long-term stays of any of the foreign workers, assuming that they would provide a convenient source of cheap labor for predetermined, controllable and, above all, temporary periods of time,” writes Israel Drori in his 2010 book Foreign Workers in Israel. For Yoram, a poultry and flower farmer Drori interviewed, the incentives for recruiting workers from Thailand over Palestinians are clear: 

The Thais have no historical baggage. When I worked with Palestinians, I was afraid for my life at every step. I worked with one Palestinian for five years, and I would check his pockets every time he rode next to me on the tractor. I was afraid of being stabbed. Plus, the Palestinians often didn’t show up because of the border closings. You can’t be sure of anything with Palestinians. You don’t know when they’ll arrive, and they always complain about money. The Thais are different; they’re reliable, they don’t argue about wages, are always smiling and pleasant. 

Maintaining a relationship of growing economic dependency between Israeli industry and Palestinian laborers worked to Israel’s advantage until the First Intifada, when the country realized the economic and strategic value of recruiting foreign labor to offset its reliance on Palestinians. While Israel claims to be a multiethnic democracy, migrants and the millions of Palestinians living under occupation exist on the periphery of an exclusively Jewish national identity. Like Palestinians with work permits, their only status in Israeli society is as a cheap labor source. Unlike Palestinians, they are not seen as posing a security threat. This makes them the ideal workers. It’s clear Israel wants more of them.

During Hamas’ Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, many Thais working in fields near the Gaza border met the same fate as their Israeli bosses: at least twenty are still being held hostage, thirty-nine were killed, and many more may be missing, according to the Associated Press. More than seven thousand boarded evacuation flights back to their home country. To stanch the exodus—and prevent the economy from collapsing further than forecasters are already predicting—Israel’s Agriculture Ministry is bribing Thai farmhands with a $500 monthly bonus to continue working as rockets streak the sky.