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Israel-Hamas war: Will Indian workers replace Palestinians?

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
November 16, 2023

The Israeli government has pulled work permits for thousands of Palestinian construction workers in the wake of the Hamas terrorist attacks in October. Indian workers might be asked to fill this gap.

New apartment buildings are under construction on the outskirts of the Ramat Shlomo Jewish settlement in the Israeli-annexed eastern sector of Jerusalem
The Israel construction market was valued at $71 billion (€65.37 billion) in 2022Image: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP

Amid the ongoing fighting in Gaza, Israel is reportedly looking to hire construction workers to replace Palestinians.

It is believed that as many as 90,000 Palestinians had been working in the construction sector in Israel, but the terrorist attacks by the Hamas militants in October prompted Israeli authorities to revoke their work permits.

According to media reports, the Israel Builders Association has since urged the government to take steps toward hiring up to 100,000 workers from India.

"Right now, we are negotiating with India. We are waiting for the decision of the Israeli government to approve that. And we hope to engage 50,000 to 100,000 workers from India to be able to run the whole sector and bring it back to normal," Haim Feiglin, vice president of the Israel Builders Association, was quoted as saying by Voice of America news.

Palestinians dependent on work in Israel

Some 20,000 Indians are believed to already be working in Israel, many as caregivers to the elderly.

P. R. Kumaraswamy, an Israel expert and professor at the school of international studies at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the presence of foreign workers has increased despite violence escalating in recent years.

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"Earlier, people from India, Nepal and Sri Lanka have been present as caregivers. Their presence in the construction industry is relatively new and is an outcome of the cycle of violence," Kumaraswamy told DW.

"At the same time, without any domestic employment opportunities, Palestinians are heavily dependent on the Israeli labor market, and influx of more foreigners or reduction in the number of Palestinians into the Israeli labor market will increase their hardships," said Kumaraswamy.

Indians stay despite threat of war, violence

The war between the Israeli army and Hamas could also threaten the security of guest workers.

Hamas is identified as a terrorist organization by the EU, the US, Germany and many other countries.

Sherly Benny, who is originally from India's Kerala state, said some Indian caregivers had been shifted to hotels in view of the ongoing conflict. The danger is nothing new to her — three years ago, her sister-in-law died in Ashkelon, which borders the Gaza Strip, after Palestinian militants fired at the site.

Still, Benny said she has no plans to leave Israel.

"We try to be safe, and we are trying to live normally. There are some areas like Ashkelon where caregivers stay in large numbers, and the situation is tense," Benny told DW from Ashkelon.

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Many Indians currently in Israel are willing to accept security risks in exchange for attractive remuneration and other benefits, some of which are not available in other countries.

"Most caregivers in Israel are required to look after only a single person and the salary is good. Now the construction and hospitality sectors are opening. Israel is a safe place. The Iron Dome has intercepted thousands of rockets from Gaza, giving everyone a sense of security," Solomon Mylakkadu, an Indian caregiver who has been working in Tel Aviv for 16 years, told DW.

Trade unions flag concerns

The reports of inviting workers to Israel have not gone down well with India's trade unions. Workers' representatives say Indians would be in "serious risk" under such an arrangement.

While any details of the worker replacement scheme remain vague, 10 major trade unions have already called on the Indian government to refuse the request made by Israel's construction sector.

Separately, British human rights group FairSquare also urged the Indian government not to send its citizens to Israel to replace Palestinian workers who have been deported, saying it would be unjust.

"As one of the world's largest democracies, India should devote its efforts to ensuring a cease-fire, not profiting from more violence," FairSquare director Nicholas McGeehan said in a statement.

Agreement to send workers already in place

The Israeli construction market was valued at $71 billion (€65.37 billion) in 2022 and projected to grow at an average annual growth rate of more than 2% during the period 2024-2027, according to a GlobalData report.

The government aims to develop transport and energy infrastructure, alongside building residential projects.

India's Foreign Ministry has remained ambiguous in its comments on the reported scheme for Indian guest workers.

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"In Israel, already a number of workers are employed, especially in the caregiver sector," said Arindam Bagchi, a ministry spokesman. "We have been discussing a bilateral framework in the construction and caregiver sectors. But this is a long-term initiative, and I am not aware of the specific requests."

The framework referred to by Bagchi was signed during the visit of Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen to India in May, months before the Hamas attacks on Israel, and it foresees 42,000 Indians to work in Israel, including construction jobs.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic