Book Review | Employing The Enemy: The Story of Palestinian Labourers on Israeli Settlements, by Matthew Vickery

Why would 37,000 Palestinians take part in their own oppression, building illegal settlements and working their own land for the benefit of foreign settlers? This paradox is at the center of Matthew Vickery’s Employing the Enemy (Zed Books, 2017). There are about 37,000 Palestinians working in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Some 30,000 have an Israeli-issued work permit, and the remaining 7,000 every day take the risk of working without a permit in areas where they are not allowed.

Dividing the book into two parts, Vickery first examines the living conditions of Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank, based on interviews conducted during the first two quarters of 2016. In the opening five chapters, which constitute the first part, the reader is introduced to the feelings surrounding the settlement work for Palestinians. The shame of partaking in your own oppression; the humiliation of being employed on land that once belonged to your own family; the alienation from the rest of the Palestinian community because you are perceived as a traitor; and, last but not least, the fear of being shot, imprisoned, or having the work permit revoked. As one of Vickery’s interviewee laments his situation of being a construction workers in the settlements, “I hate this work (…) And I know there are people that have this idea that I am a traitor for it – and I understand it, I agree with it even, but I don’t have another choice, I have to do this.” (p. 59).

Area C, the largest part of the West Bank, is under Israeli administrative and military control and only a small portion of the area is open to Palestinians. The area is occupied by settlements deemed illegal by the Palestinians and international community. It is surrounded by Israeli firing zones and divided up by the separation wall and numerous checkpoints. Thus, Israeli control leaves very little space for Palestinians living in Area C to employ and sustain themselves.

Less than three percent of Palestinian applications to build or develop within Area C are approved by the Israeli government and most families no longer have enough land to farm. Hence, the tens of thousands of Palestinians constructing Israeli settlements, picking fruit and vegetables and working in settler-owned farms and factories. Most of those workers do not earn the minimum wage, despite being entitled to $65 for a day’s work under Israeli law. Those working without a permit often earn even less, sometimes as little as $14 a day. As Vickery argues, the Palestinians working in the settlements are stuck in a Kafkaesque system with little to no opportunity to try legal issues, such as being paid below minimum wage or seeking compensation for work related injuries, in court. In fact, Vickery points out that the Israeli government actively avoids enforcing its own labor laws on behalf of Palestinians in the settlements. While it is out of sympathy that Vickery criticizes the unfair application of Israeli labor laws, he is glancing over the implications that such advocacy suggests. Specifically, any implementation of Israeli law in Area C validates the creeping annexation of Palestinian land to which Israel has no legal right.

While the stories told in the first part of Vickery’s Employing the Enemy are more upsetting than surprising, his analysis in the second part of the structure driving Palestinian residents of Area C into economic desperation, which forces them to work at Israeli settlements, is startling. According to Vickery, the structure Israel has set in place and built upon since 1967 has ultimately created a system of “state-instigated forced labor.” By severely limiting the freedom of movement, not enforcing labor laws, seizing the fertile land, and impairing economic mobility, Palestinians living in Area C have no other option than to work in the settlements. “Fundamentally, then, settlement employment is dictated by an outside force (Israel) with policies that have funneled a vulnerable and asset-stripped population into undesirable employment sectors that the majority of Israeli state citizens do not want to participate in.”(p. 115). Because Israel has stripped the building blocks of job creation in Area C from the hands of the Palestinians, the unemployment rate is extremely high. And, while there is a demand for labor in Israel, since the late late 1990s the sight of a West Bank Palestinian working is Israel is rare. In fact, the Israeli government tends to prefer workers from Thailand and Romania, deliberately keeping Palestinian laborers in Area C confined to the settlements, or else unemployed.

Matthew Vickery’s Employing the Enemy provides fascinating insight into issues that are usually only available to the NGO readership. The division of the book into two parts, the first based on interviews and the second a discussion of the structures leading to the desperate situation in Area C, works surprisingly well. Despite being repetitive at times, the book is easy to read, extremely thought provoking and should be read by anyone interested in the structural hardships imposed on the Palestinians living in the West Bank.

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