Thousands of Palestinian laborers lined up last week at the chamber of commerce in Jabalya, the largest of eight refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, in hopes of receiving one of 7,000 permits to work in Israel. 

A similar size group gathered in southern Gaza at Khan Yunis to obtain their permits, but the chamber of commerce offices were closed.

Many Palestinians want a job in Israel, where wages are higher than in Gaza. The unemployment rate in Gaza is around 50%, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, but this figure only reflects the first quarter of 2021 and is likely much higher.

“I have met construction workers who are willing to work 12-hour shifts for just 20 shekels [$6.20],” said Samir Zaqout, deputy director-general of the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. “With conditions like this, people don’t have a lot of options, so when a man hears that he can register to work in Israel for 200 to 250 shekels a day he jumps at the chance. Unfortunately, only a small number of people will be getting permits relative to the huge demand.”

Israel had closed its border to Palestinian laborers after the 11-day conflict with Hamas in May. Now it is reopening its borders and loosening other restrictions to help ease Gaza’s battered economy impacted by the war, reduced international aid and the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Israeli officials, Hamas leadership decided to allocate the 7,000 work permits to merchants, rather than to laborers. However, thousands of laborers rushed to get a permit nevertheless and some 10,447 applications were submitted in Jabalya alone, according to the chamber of commerce.

The Gaza labor union blamed the chamber of commerce for the misunderstanding caused by the late announcement that permits would be limited to merchants. 

As of Wednesday, roughly 4,000 had been granted, leaving another 3,000 to be distributed.

The rush for permits reflects the dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza and financial distress in the Strip. One senior Hamas official said more than 300,000 people are looking for jobs in Gaza and that the 7,000 permits won’t even make a dent. He said he believes that Israel was issuing permits in response to an Egyptian request to ease conditions for Gazans and to reduce tensions in the coastal enclave.

“The crowds of people [applying] only underscore the deep distress, and that should send a signal to everyone – Israel, Egypt and the international community,” the official said.

Ahmed, a Jabalya resident and father of four, said he currently has no source of livelihood. 

“I came to sign up,” he said. “Now, they’re telling us it’s only for merchants, and the question of who is a merchant isn’t clear to a lot of people.”

“People also had the feeling that they would be registered today and get approved the same day, but it’s [now] clear that all the lists are going to Israel and that they will decide there who gets approved and who doesn’t,” he added.

“There is no work in the Gaza Strip,” explained Fathi Abu Nur. “Yesterday I heard that workers are registering to get permits (for Israel).”

“I hope things will get better because the current situation is really difficult,” said the unemployed 40-year-old father of five.

According to the northern Gaza chamber of commerce, applications are only being accepted from men between the ages of 26 and 58. In addition, those men must prove they are vaccinated against COVID and that they are not employed by the Hamas government.

The exclusion of women has become a source of anger in Gaza.

“Barring women from applying for a permit amounts to double or triple discrimination against them,” said one female Gaza resident. “A wife and mother carries all the weight of the family on her shoulders. It’s not as if when a man is unemployed, the wife is quietly sitting around at home. A woman has to fight for every piece of bread for her children and will take any kind of work that she can to ensure basic food for her kids. But the chamber of commerce isn’t including her in the permit quota.”

In August, Israel granted 15,000 work permits to Palestinians in the West Bank in order to strengthen the ailing PA economy. In addition, Israel has been easing restrictions on the Palestinian Authority, including reopening crossings, expanding the fishing zone off Gaza’s shores and permitting entry of certain goods.

“This is an important step that will strengthen the Palestinian and Israeli economies and our shared interests,” Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz tweeted after the Cabinet vote on the measure.

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