Among the traits shared by leaders of the US and Israel is a sharp political instinct for ethnocentrism — Donald Trump’s appetite for white nationalism and Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision of a Jews-only state.
In response to Trump, we have heard many voices pointing out that immigrants built this country and still are. And in Israel? Who built that country? Palestinians did and still are. They have always filled the labor-intensive sector of the construction industry. Everyone knows this, but it is the subject of widespread denial.
For a long time, the dogma of Labor Zionism camouflaged this inconvenient fact. According to that doctrine, the primary builders were the pioneers and settlers. Unused to skilled manual labor, they staffed the cement mixers, with shovels in hand or bricks balanced awkwardly on their shoulders, and made “New Jews” of themselves through their nation-making toil, “redeeming” another people’s land as their own.
Undeniably, many settlers were involved in the physical construction of what the Balfour Declaration called the Jewish “national home” in Palestine. But they always depended on the superior skills and abundant labor of Palestinian workers, whether in the early Zionist settlement of the Ottoman era, through the long modernizing wave of expansion under the British Mandate, during the successive waves of Jewish immigration after the Nakba, and then, under the Occupation, when a reservoir of cheap labor opened up in the West Bank and Gaza.
So, too, since 1967, Israelis have depended on a supply of stone from quarries in the Central Highlands of the West Bank, which harbor some of the best dolomitic limestone in the world. The stone industry is the largest private sector employer in the West Bank, contributing the largest share of GDP and exports, and is still under local ownership. But since 75 percent of the stone goes to the occupier, the irony is that the very contents of Palestinian land are being strip-mined and effectively utilized to build out the state of Israel and the spreading archipelago of settlements that stretches ever further into the West Bank.
For centuries, the much venerated artisanal skills of the industry’s stone masons have been the mainstay of construction in the region, though these contributions have never been adequately acknowledged by Israeli officials. In pursuit of the longstanding Zionist aspiration for Arab-free workforces, Israeli authorities made periodic efforts to bring in replacements — Arab, or Mizrahi, Jews, after 1948, and then again, as a collective punishment for the first intifada, through the mass recruitment of migrant workers. But through thick and thin, Palestinians have always been the preferred workforce of employers in the construction industry.
Today, the number of West Bank Palestinians working inside the Green Line or in the settlements, with or without permits, has never been higher. For a century or more, Palestinian workers have had a decisive hand in most of the fixed assets on the land that lies between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean coast. In addition, Palestinian masons were recruited to build Amman, and much of the infrastructure of the postcolonial Gulf states —Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — during the long oil boom. It is no exaggeration to say that Palestinians have built almost every state in the region, except for their own.
Why do Israeli employers still favor Palestinians over workers from China, Romania, Ukraine, Poland, Turkey, or Nigeria, who are just as vulnerable to deportation, or who arrive in the country carrying a heavy recruitment debt on their backs? Aside from being cheaper and better, many Palestinians speak Hebrew and have longstanding relations with employers; they cross the Green Line to go home every night, so the state incurs zero social costs; instead of sending their earnings home in the form of remissions, they use their wages to buy Israeli goods at Israeli prices; their transfer off the land and into waged labor has made it easier for settlers to seize chunks of the West Bank regarded as “underutilized” by the authorities; and the “invitation” to work for the occupier lies at the core of the policy of economic pacification — jobs for peace — that is especially favored by right-wing Israeli politicians.
The workers themselves are not in a position of forced labor (unlike the Palestinians who were herded into labor camps after the Nakba), but by no definition could their labor be said to be free, since the alternative in the West Bank is a starvation wage. One worker whom I interviewed recently at Bethlehem’s cross-border checkpoint put it this way: “if we didn’t have work inside Israel, we would have to eat each other.” Given the high levels of food insecurity and chronic malnutrition among the Palestinian population, and especially in Gaza, his comment was a particularly dark joke.
Fractions of the Palestinian working class, after 1948 and 1967, were fashioned into a compulsory workforce (neither free nor forced). This was by design, the outcome of economic policies of underdevelopment. In the meantime, for the Israeli and Palestinian capitalists who are its prime beneficiaries, the Occupation continues to be a colonial goose that lays golden eggs, concentrating wealth in the hands of a few families on both sides of the Green Line. On the Palestinian side, tragically, the avoidance of class conflict— in the name of national unity — has stifled popular opposition to the crony-capitalist circle around the Palestinian Authority.
Now that the two-state solution is all but consigned to the trash can of history, what role should the long record of Palestinian labor in the region play in the the fast-moving debate about who will enjoy civic and political rights in a unitary state? How should the century or more of Palestinian toil be recognized in the future settlement of a secular state on the lands of historic Palestine? Should people who build countries earn rights within them through their labor?
It was this version of sweat equity — John Locke’s labor theory of property—that drove settler colonialism in both the US and Israel: settlers who “improved” the land earned property rights over it. Though this doctrine underpinned the yeoman-homesteader ideal of Jefferson (and the settler envisioned by Labor Zionist theoretician A.D. Gordon in historic Palestine), it has never meant much to the majority of those worked on the land, and it broke down entirely as the industrial system of wage labor took root.
So, too, in countries whose development owes so much to the toil of the indentured, bonded, and enslaved, the claim for state-level recognition of their rights on the basis of their labor has not been very successful (e.g. General Sherman’s promise of “forty acres and a mule”). Yet, in the United States, it is fair to say that the moral argument for recognizing the hard labor of African Americans, Chinese, Irish, Mexicans and others has translated, over time, into civil and legal acceptance of full inclusion and citizenship for these laboring populations.
Unlike the US, however, the Palestinian builders of Israel did not come from elsewhere, and their labor has been done on ancestral lands. What stronger case could there be for recognizing their sweat equity with full rights in a single state?
If and when “final status” negotiations are revived, all of the longstanding Palestinian claims will still be on the table: restitution of lost property from the “ongoing” Nakba; compensation for decades of moral suffering, and, of course, the right to return of refugees, to name only the most prominent. These are debts from the past that need to be repaid, and are part of reparative justice.
But transitional justice requires new claims to pave the way for a successor state. This is where the case for labor-based remedies can and should play a role.
There is a long inventory of monetary debts owed to Palestinian workers: for social insurance contributions taken from their paychecks; underreporting of wages and hours by employers; the denial of minimum wages and social benefits to settlement workers; and the loss of income from border closures, checkpoint blockages, and arbitrary revocations of work permits.
One could add to the list compensations for the denial of the right to work, obstruction of access to collective bargaining and legal avenues for redress, and income deprivation from the policies of collective punishment and economic underdevelopment in the Occupied Territories.
But a full settling of these labor-based obligations might have to go beyond monetary redress and should be inclusive of full rights recognition in a single state. In this case, the root principle of just deserts is not a complex moral proposition. Or, as one of my cross-border interviewees, standing in line at a Green Line checkpoint, put it, “I’ve been building homes every day over there for thirty years. In a way, it’s really my country too, isn’t it?”