Netanyahu came back to power by forming a government with the most extremist parties in the history of Israel. Six parties, Likud, United Torah Judaism, Shas, Religious Zionist Party, Otzma Yehudit, and Noam – some of them are openly fascist and racists. They are composed of the religious Zionists and settlers. They grew in power because of what happened with Palestinians in 2022 and 2021, when we had bloodshed not only in Gaza, but also internally, between Israelis and Arabs. They rose to power saying that the whole territory, from the river to the sea, must be under Jewish control, and postulating the transformation of Israel to a more Jewish state in order to achieve security – says Yoav Gal Tamir, organizer in the MAAN union, which works between the fences dividing Israel and Palestine. The organization’s main goal is to to address the problems and exploitation of approximately 200,000 Palestinian workers working in Israel and the settlements. 

Interview by Wojciech Albert Łobodziński.

How do you see, as a trade unionist and spokesperson of your organization, uniting Palestinians and Israelis under the Maan organization, the return of Netanyahu? Even in left-wing newspapers which publish in English, the question of bonded labor, and the whole Palestinian-Israeli world of labor under this far-right government has not been raised.

First, I would say that the return of Netanyahu was not a surprise. The last government, the “government of change”, was the government of no change at all. It was the cabinet without Likud, the major right-wing party, and that was all. Its fundamental programme was to go the way Netanyahu went, to show that the so-called liberal opposition can do that. It was the same, from the question of Palestinian case and economy. When it came to the Palestinians it was even worse. Under Benny Gantz 2022, was one of the bloodiest years for Palestinians. His main idea was to attack Jenin, to fight terrorism. The IDF launched the attack on Jenin, where they clashed with Palestinians, who did not have anything in common with terrorists. Of course, during that time the innocent Palestinians were hurt – people who had nothing to do with the perpetrators of the terrorist acts.

Yoav Gal Tamir speaks to workers. Source: MAAN archives.

It was one of the bloodiest years, compared to the last decades. However, in all of this, the government of change was also composed by the Arabs, coming from one of the branches of Muslim Brotherhood.

Yes, a religious party which said: ‘We do not care about Arabs, Jews, the question of the two states solution, we just money for our institutions’. That was the agreement. This government was harsher for the Palestinians than the latter government under Netanyahu. The idea of attacking Jenin proved this – terrorism is not coming from specific communities, like this city, it comes from certain individuals, not societies. Terrorists act alone, and there is no way to see it coming. 

I guess only the intelligence chapters of the IDF or civil police, like Mossad, Aman or Shin Bet could stop the terrorists, and not by storming the cities, but by surveillance and underground work. What was done was just scapegoating of the whole Jenin community.  

Right, those individuals come from every part of Israel, Negev, West Bank, Gaza, you name it. In some places the Palestinian society is more vulnerable, for example in Jerusalem you have 300 thousand Palestinians, who have Israeli ID cards, who cannot vote for the Knesset, but only for local municipalities. It is all overly complicated. But nobody that’s thinking straight could agree that security forces can just aim at one particular community that delivers terrorists.

There are Arabs in Jaffa, Akka and other cities who vote for the Arab parties in the Knesset. So, what is the case of East Jerusalem Palestinians, that is also important for further questions, and for our readers why they cannot vote for the Knesset, while having Israeli documents? 

It is a mess. We have Arab Israelis, they are full citizens, full stop. On the other hand, you have Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem, beyond the 1948 borders. They are entitled to every right that Israeli citizens have. But they cannot vote to maintain this border. There was a government decision saying that there should be 30% of Palestinians and 70% of Jews living in Jerusalem. Of course, this is not true right now. Today the percentage of Palestinians is around 40%.  

Demography is the biggest nightmare of the far-right..  

According to Oslo agreements, these territories it shall be under the control of the future Palestinian state. But we both know where we are when it comes to establishing this state.

Let us start from the beginning. Netanyahu came back to power by forming up his government with the most extremist parties in the history of Israel. Six parties, Likud, United Torah Judaism, Shas, Religious Zionist Party, Otzma Yehudit, and Noam. Some of them are openly fascist and racists. They are composed of the religious Zionists and settlers. They grew in power because of what happened with Palestinians in 2022 and 2021, where we had bloodshed not only in Gaza, but also internally, between Israelis and Arabs. They rose to power saying that the whole territory, from the river to the sea, must be under Jewish control, and postulating the transformation of Israel to a more Jewish state in order to achieve security.

Some of them even mention imposing religious Halacha laws, which would turn the current secular-religious status quo on its head.  

Exactly, this is madness. We have never dealt with something like that. To achieve those things, they must dismantle the one thing staying in their way, the Supreme Court. They want to abolish it by empowering the Knesset to overrule the Supreme Court rules by majority votes. This happens because for more than 50 years the Israeli establishment has been refusing dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli question. 

The last government addressing this issue was, surprise! The government of change. And we saw what they did. They weakened the Palestinian Authority more than anyone else before. The two-state solution became obsolete. 

As a trade union, as MAAN, we saw that the two-state solution was futile from the beginning.

We organized the Palestinian workers, as well as Israeli workers, because both are under Israeli authority, they work here, next to each other. They use the same currency and live in the same communities, sometimes divided by the walls.

We see them as people living here, under Israeli law and order, but with no rights, that is all. This is bonded labor. Now as far as right-wing parties are concerned this is the situation that can go on forever. This is a full apartheid regime. We obviously oppose it; we have an idea of one state solution.

Right now there are demonstrations in the streets, the president is calling for stopping the legislation, and the opposition is blaming the coalition for being antidemocratic. Meanwhile, the same opposition votes along with the coalition in favor of the laws that would make it possible to revoke the citizenship of terrorists, or precisely, of anyone who has been accused of organizing the terrorist attack. Such an antidemocratic law does not exist anywhere in the world. But at this point, coalition and opposition walk together.

But when it comes to Netanyahu and his far-right friends, like Itamar Ben Gvir or Bezalel Smotrich, there was always opposition towards them among the IDF officials who do not want a total escalation. It seems that the IDF was always open for any peaceful, and pragmatic conclusion of the bonded labor issue. How does it look now, with people like the above-mentioned in charge?  

The things that those people asked for are on coalition paper, so far, they have not happened, except for banning the Palestinian flags. Itamar Ben Gvir wanted to establish paramilitary militias, or national guard, and this has still not happened. Smotrich, however, even complains that the military is sabotaging any reforms he wants to implement in the Defense Ministry. The branch that occupies itself with the settlements and occupation zones, that is right now under the Ministry of Defense, and which he wanted to have under his command, is still independent. He is complaining that it is taking too long. 

When we advocate against bonded labor, as MAAN, we say that Palestinians who are coming from the enemy state, are treated as potential terrorists. Although they were cleared by the security forces, to obtain a work permit, they are permanently under control…

The security forces take advantage of employers who sign the working permits. They are meant to monitor the workers.  

But this is a hoax. On the ground, the employers sell work permits, and most of the workers work thanks to permits with the fake employers signed on them. This is the reality. 

If you are asking me, what are the chances of removing this situation through some cooperation with the IDF, I would say it has nothing to do with this far-right government. Most of the employers of the bonded Palestinians are settlers, they have most interest in keeping the system intact. Last time we got the answer from the Ministry of Defense, they told us that they couldn’t disband the bonds systemt, and claimed that everything was fine. The people that are blocking this right now are the ones from the Security and Defense Ministry, it has nothing to do with this government, Smotrich does not have power over this branch of administration yet. There are the old people from the old team. 

I do not see how Smotrich might have reacted to abolishing the bonded labor system, he could have accepted it, we are talking in the end about something very concrete and what would be a great accomplishment for the Palestinians. What is more, we think that doing this, abolishing bonded labor, will help fight against terror. And this narrative is convincing. 

In my view, terror comes from people who are feeling anxious, invisible, not worthy of anything, just trash, under the boot, with no future. In the end, who knows what can happen when you go through the checkpoint, it might be the last time for you to work for your family, you never know, you are under constant pressure. What is more, if you fall from a crane, from a building, whatever happens to you.. You never know what’s going to happen, if someone’s gonna help you or not. 

The Palestinian Authority ambulances must not cross the demarcation line, and there sometimes people are afraid of helping the bonded labor workers. 

Of course, this happens too.. But also some of the workers are forced to pay half or less of their salary to their employers, so they don’t fire them.

With the green card, this would end. Everyone could go to work wherever they want. If the employer does not treat the worker well, he or she will be able to go to court. He or she gets his salary without some sneaky deal with employers who take advantage of his workers. 

What is more, the IDF wants the money to go to the West Bank, not to Israeli employers, because this creates some sense of stability. All those things together would work for the security of the people. 

Coming back to the question, what are our chances with this government? I would say that our problem with this government is that it is fascist government that wants a full apartheid state, it goes against any democratic ideas, trade unions, human rights, LGBT+ rights. Everything. This is why we are openly against this government. Specifically with bonded labor, there is not yet any problem with this government, they are yet silent about it, the problem was with the Security Ministry from before.  

Howe about the coalition paper? Perhaps there is something about illegal workers, in the end a lot of people do not have a working permit. There used to be a lot of holes in the wall, and the IDF gave a blind eye to them, during the COVID-19 pandemic for example, when the whole economy was shrinking. Is there any talk about that? 

During the last months they ended with this phenomenon, they filled all the holes. The last terror attacks made the IDF, and administration give more permits and close all the gaps. They want to strengthen the economy of the West Bank; they see it to limit the potential number of terrorists. OK, but with more permits came more problems, more clandestine trade, etc.

This government.. what they want to do, is that they want to get rid of the Palestinian people eventually. The IDF does not want that. The Ministry of Defense does not want to do that, I mean the administration and the old guard. 

It seems like the whole structure of the state is shrinking right now… and like in any crumbling political organization, we have both young wolves, with their radical ideas, and the old guard that wants to maintain order.

Yes, because the hardline politics will lead to bloodshed! Instead of the Israeli army going into the cities, “maintaining the peace,” the Palestinians are doing this right now by themselves, and it is better than military operations proposed by the right-wing wolves. Now I do not know what the plan is, I mean the plan of Smotrich and Ben Gvir for the day after the Palestinian Authority eventually, even at some far point collapses. We have to keep in mind that there might be a future for their agenda. They think that by the brute force they can keep Palestinians down. We know that it is not true, it would become worse, and worse. 

The alternative is to keep the Palestinian Authority. That is the answer of the opposition, which means denying Palestinians democracy, peace, rights, and the freedom of movement. But to sustain some sort of economic peace let more of them come to work here. Provide them with some poor sort of life, earned by giving up their rights. This is the huge problem; we are between hammer and anvil. We say that what has happened till now, has brought Israel where it is now. All of it brought us more terror, instability, and fear. What is more, it ascended parties that can be called fascists to power, in the end completely weakening the Palestinian Authority and any future it had, if there had been any of it in the first place.  

Just one week ago the chief of the CIA, Bill Burns, said that the situation in Israel and the West Bank resembles the one before the Second Intifada. What is your perception of that? 

Exactly – this is going to lead to the Third Intifada. I agree, Americans have a good record of anticipating events, they predicted the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the first place. 

We work constantly with Palestinian workers, daily. They tell us they are under two boots. One is Israel, the reality of the West Bank and other, sometimes half-autonomous places, and they are equally afraid of both. The one sees them as a threat, terrorist threat, the other sees part of them as potential collaborators. While they are also a huge economic force to be reckoned with. For Israel and the PA, they are a huge asset. They are detrimental for the Palestinian economy; I would even say there is no Palestinian economy without them.  

What we are saying is simple. The situation which we have here, the far right rise to power lives on the hatred and fear of Palestinians. Lives off it, it grows on it, it gets entire justification from it. The left, which is now a minority, has been endorsing the Two State Solution. They gave up, and paved the way for the right, the cabinet of change that governed us before Netanyahu, and the latest, which is even worse. That is how we got here, to the crisis that might end up with the Third Intifada, the full-scale civil war.

The solution to that is a constitution, one founding document equally applying to Israelis and Palestinians, Arabs, Druze, and every other people living here, a truly democratic constitution. This is the only way to solve this situation.  

Yoav Gal Tamir works as an organizer with Maan and leads the unionizing drive of Palestinian workers in the settlements. He also heads several of Maan’s social projects. He lives in Haifa with his wife and two children. 

MAAN was founded in the late 1990s by activists calling for a society based on social justice. It rejects the neoliberal system that destroyed the social safety net, deepened class polarization, and created a stratum of disenfranchised poor in Israel. Grounded in the idea of universal justice, MAAN fights to end Israeli military rule over 5 million disenfranchised Palestinians. It seeks freedom, equality and dignity for both Palestinians and Israelis in a social system based on a green economy.

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