Fears for thousands of Gazans missing in Israel as workers ‘rounded up, arrested and blindfolded’

Trade unions, officials and humanitarian organisations raise concerns for safety of workers after Israel revokes work permits

Maira Butt
Monday 23 October 2023 15:04 BST

Related: Israel’s war is on Palestinian people, not Hamas, says Palestine’s UK ambassador

There are fears for thousands of missing Palestinians after the Israeli government cancelled work permits for Gazans after the deadly Hamas attacks on 7 October.

Trade unions, officials and humanitarian organisations have raised concerns for their safety after reports Palestinians with permission to work in Israel were rounded up, arrested and blindfolded before being taken to military camps.

The Minister of Labour for the Palestinian Authorities, Dr Nasri Abu Jaish, told The Independent around 4,500 workers were still unaccounted for but are believed to have been detained by Israeli forces. Dr Jaish said he had met workers after some of them were released, sharing stories of alleged mistreatment.

Palestinian workers need permission to work in Israel (file photo)

“They’re being tortured,” Dr Jaish said. “They’re beaten and scarves are tied around their eyes so they don’t know where they are. Many of them are sick and they don’t give them medicine. They don’t give them water or food. They’re in open-air camps and aren’t allowed to speak to each other.

“We’re told one person was killed as he tried to fight a soldier. They broke one worker’s jaw, another one his leg, another one his hands. I’ve met them in hospital.”

The Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli government department overseeing the work permits of Palestinians in Israel confirmed an unspecified number of Gazans had been detained but declined to comment on arrests or their alleged conditions.

Gazan workers in Ramallah, West Bank, after being deported by Israeli authorities two days after the Hamas attacks

Thousands of Gazan workers are said to be unaccounted for

COGAT spokesperson, Shani Sasson, told The Independent: “Due to the war in the south, residents of the Gaza Strip who were residing in Israel and do not hold permits to reside in Israel were taken to a holding facility in the Judea and Samaria region. Due to the wartime situation in the south, it is not possible to return them to the Gaza Strip at this time.”

One worker, a cleaner in his 60s who did not wish to be named over fears for his safety, told The Independent he had been blindfolded with his hands and feet tied.

When the cancellation of work permits was announced, he and coworkers made their way to checkpoints in the West Bank where he says hundreds were arrested. He says they were placed on buses to be taken to camps in undisclosed locations.

“We were blindfolded and had our hands and feet tied,” he says. “I wanted to die. I’ve been working here for years and always get tips. I’ve never done anything wrong and I’ve never been involved in anything political,” he says. “They kept calling us ‘Hamas’ and ‘terrorists’. It was absolutely humiliating.

Governor of Ramallah Laila Ghannam receives dozens of Gazan workers expelled from Israel after having work permits cancelled

“We were kept in a dark room with hundreds of others and especially those under 30 were beaten badly and questioned. The elderly and those with diabetes were refused medication, food or water.

“I just came here to support my family,” said the cleaner, who is now living in a shelter in the West Bank. “All my kids and grandkids in Gaza depend on me, there are 23 people in my family that depend on me. Now I have no home, no job and no money. How am I supposed to live anymore? It’s unbearable.”

The International Labour Organisation told The Independent there were between 4,000 and 5,000 workers unaccounted for.

More than 1,400 Israelis and more than 5,000 Palestinians are said to have died since 7 October

“They might be hiding or sheltered without trade unions knowing, so it is difficult to confirm exact numbers. We do know that arrests are taking place.

“Cancelling work permits will not only affect the prosperity of both Israelis and Palestinians but will fuel tension and social instability. ILO does not have information on the cancellation of work permits yet.

“The displaced workers have no shelter and no income to access basic goods. The trade unions and authorities in the West Bank are providing relief goods, medical services and accommodation but the numbers are too large to manage. We know there are 1,500 in Jericho alone.”

Muhammad Aruri, head of legal affairs at the General Union for Palestinian Workers said he met with several hundred workers at a holding centre last week.

“They just want to know where their colleagues are,” he said. “We don’t know if these people are alive or dead. We’re calling on the international community, on other trade unions to show solidarity.”

Palestinian workers in Israel must pass stringent security tests and are usually hired to do jobs such as agriculture, construction and service work. According to the UNRWA, Gaza has one of the worst unemployment rates in the world at 47 per cent.

“Israel themselves passed their security checks,” Dr Jaish added. “There’s no way these people are Hamas.”

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