By Emmanuel Farajun, Tel Aviv, July 1979. Originally published in Hebrew by The Israeli Socialist Organization (MATZPEN) in “Dapim Adumim” (“Red Pages”), no 5, May 1978.


Palestinian Workers, A Reserve Army of Labour in the Israeli Economy


In Israeli society the term “Arab”, i.e. a member of the Arab society in the territory occupied by Israel has a two-fold meaning: firstly, the Arab as a person, born and bred in Palestinian-­Arab society, is a non-Jewish inhabitant of a Jewish State, and secondly, the Arab as a worker, arriving to work early in the morning from his village, building houses and roads, cleaning, gardening, fixing cars, pumping petrol and returning home at night – to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Galilee or the Triangle. The Arab as a person is most loathsome. His mere existence is a threat to the Jewish character of the State of Israel. He belongs to the Arab nation, against which the colonising Jewish so­ciety has been struggling since its infancy. As the writer A.B. Yehoshua puts it: “That is why this nation was warned to remain alone, virtually alone, separated from the nations surrounding it… there is nothing more dangerous than embracing these nations into our midst (and they are in our midst, they are entirely woven in our economic infrastructure and encroaching into other areas, too…)”.1 The Arab as a person is persecuted and hated in Israeli society. All sorts of means are sought to hide his existence and even to expel him. He cannot join a kibbutz or a moshav – the plume feather in Israel’s bonnet; most Israeli cities and Jewish settlements are closed to him by force of local regulations and state laws (in the whole of Israel there are only six settlements with a mixed Arab and Jewish population); at night, after work, he cannot walk about freely in the streets of Tel Aviv. He has to huddle in dark corners, lock himself in at night or return home to his village. The term “Arab” does not even appear in official Israeli statistical publications, according to which there is only one nationality in Israel – the Jews; the rest are “the minorities”, “non-Jews”, “Christians”, “Druze” and so forth. The Arab worker, however, is welcome everywhere In Israeli society – and this enrages “liberals” like A.B. Yehoshua.

In the kitchens and gardens of the Israeli elite, where he cooks, cleans and prunes, through building sites, petrol stations, carpentry shops and factories and even in army camps. The abolition of daily passes and structural changes in the Military Government in 1966, enabled many Arab workers to move relatively freely (except in the southern region); the gates so to speak, opened wide for him. The Histadrut (General Federation of Labour), a cornerstone of the Israeli establishment, not only allowed him in for the first time since its establishment in 1920, but also changed its name from the General Hebrew Federation of Labour to the General Federation of Labour for his behalf. As we shall see the Arab worker became a decisive factor in the major sectors of the Israeli economy: in the construction industry, in road building, in tourism, agriculture and various other industries. He is gradually moving into many typical Israeli industrial production areas: food processing, textile industries, building material manufacture and many other industries. We shall attempt in this survey to describe the characteristics of Arab labour power in Israel. We’ll ignore, in other words, as far as possible, the Arab as a person, as a citizen and as a member of the Arab-Palestinian nation, though this constitutes a vitally important aspect of the national and class structure of Israeli society. We’ll try to focus on the role of the Arab worker in Israel’s economy – workers both from inside the “green line” and from outside it, i.e. from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The obvious difficulty of distinguishing between the two aspects and isolating the economic side of the story is illustrated in the following honest journalistic account, written by Ya’ir Kottler in an article about the civil guard and its role as the guardian of Jewish purity in Tel-Aviv:

“The time is two hours before midnight. In a back seat of the jeep there are two young armed volunteers (civil guards). Their mission – to comb Shuk HaKarmel (the Tel Aviv central market). They are searching for Arabs spending the night in Tel Aviv – in tiny nooks, on building sites, in warehouses, even behind greengrocers’ counters. They are not supposed to stay on in the Jewish city beyond one a.m. unless they have special permits which most of the workers from the occupied territories, flooding Tel Aviv and the neighbouring municipalities do not have… The civil guard is helping the police. The frightened Arabs, unaware of the police-type-authority of this civil militia, answer questions and show their papers. They are harassed. They are temporarily detained in a base near a large school. Although they cannot be arrested before one A.M., they can be harassed. This is precisely what is done. The district police chief, comman­der Moshe Tiomkin, says in an interview, that in his district, which contains 1.1 million people, there are already some 70.000 Arabs from the occupied territories – 50 per cent of whom work In Tel Aviv proper. This is an undoubtedly astonishing figure. The police cannot cope with the problem. They seek the help of the civil guard. But the volunteers have not joined the guard in order to become semi-official policemen, hunting and interrogating Arab workers seeking shelter from the law in fox holes, in locked poultry shops, in back yards and in rented rooms in Jewish houses. ‘Can we detain thousands? If we do this’, says Tiomkin, ‘we shall be the first to suffer. The following morning the big city will lose its workers. They are building the city’. If they are detained no one will clean the streets… Somewhere near the beach we stopped three Arabs. One was terrified – he had no papers – he came to work with a friend from Hebron. The Hebronite, 19 years old, has been working in Tel Aviv for the last 5 years, mostly as a night watchman, earning 70 IL per day, sometimes more. He wouldn’t give up his work in Tel Aviv for a state of his own. He simply fell in love with the Jewish city, with its girls and its entertainment spots. Jews aren’t workers – he says, adding that Shuk HaKarmel is full of Arabs from Gaza. Commander Tiomkin is of the opinion that the increase in crime in the district, particularly in Tel Aviv, is partly a result of there being tens of thousands of Arabs from the occupied territories there. They remind him of a ‘slave market’.”2

This essay does not, in fact, deal with the overall role of the Palestinian-Arabs in the Isra­eli economy but examines their contribution as workers, be it labourers, self-employed workers or skilled workers, since the Arab labour power in Israel operates mainly within the bounds of salaried or a self-employed work. The capitalist stratum within Arab society is very limited and there are virtually no Arabs in administrative positions. Arab society in Israel has a limited economic base: according to official reports3 there were only three Arab-owned industri­al enterprises in Israel in 1976. Israeli economic-politics does not permit factories to be opened without active government aid. But State institutions do not permit even the most con­sistent of the collaborationist villages to develop Arab-owned industrial zones (see, for exam­ple, an article about Kafer Qana, Ha’aretz, Nov. 4, 1977). Two of the existing enterprises are small sewing workshops and the third is a metal factory (200 employees) in Yarka, in the Galilee. Even if one or two other enterprises were founded during the last few years, the fact remains that there is no Arab capitalist bourgeoisie in Israel. Moreover, Jewish-Israeli enter­prises in Arab villages are few and far between according to the latest reports there are some 50 small enterprises, mostly sewing workshops and carpentry shops. The Arab bourgeoisie is a petit-bourgeoisie made up of merchants and farmers. More than 70 per cent of the total Arab labour force is made up of salaried workers, mostly in production: construction, agriculture, industry and services, i.e. hotels, restaurants, etc. Only a small proportion work as clerks, or in the public services, in finance or in the professions. One must conclude that the Arabs’ almost exclusive contribution to the Israeli economy is as productive workers, from whose labour someone – a contractor, an industrialist, a businessman – profits directly. Only a few of them are self-employed: farmers, sub-contractors and so on.

The unique role of the Arab worker

If we follow the growth of this labour force, its composition, the sectors in which it is concentrated and its socio-economic characteristics, we shall discover that there is a definite regularity in the growth of the Arabs’ place and role in the economy. During the history of Zionist settlement in Israel the Jews tried as a rule, to create a so­ciety based on the purity of Jewish labour, at least in some focal sectors. But the natural development of a capitalist economy as well as constant clashes with the Arab world concen­trated the Jewish worker more and more in purely strategic production. At first this meant agricultural production – settling on the land, erecting Jewish colonies, moshavim and kibbutzim whereever possible – (the rules of the Jewish National Fund [JNF] were drawn up to this end: to forbid the sale, lease of its lands, or the right to work them, to non-Jews). Other such sectors were the diamond industry, the ports etc. With the establishment of the state and the deportation of many Arabs from hundreds of villages came the expropriation of most of the Arab lands in order to sieze control of the Arabs’ main property – the land, as an important step towards the total control of agricultural production. On the other hand, with the increase of the Arab population remaining under Israeli rule (more than half that population was “aquired” by Israel as a result of the Rhodes agreements and the change in the cease-fire line in the area of the Triangle and Wadi ‘Ara) from 160,000 at the end of 1949, 400,000 in 1967, to 550,000 in 1978 – the pressure of workers willing to work for low wages and in bad conditions, made itself felt.

At the same time, an important change occurred in the Israeli economy with the developing Israeli armament industry in the sixties, particularly after decisive changes both in the geography of the country and in the allignment of powers resulting from the June ’67 war – changes which brought a huge flow of capital into Israel, turning it from a privileged protegè of the West into an ally with a local council status. Following these changes, agri­culture ceased to fulfil a strategic role and the accelerated economic development both in agriculture and in industry created an ever increasing demand for a cheap, mobile and under-privileged labour force: a free labour force in the classical economic sense of the term. This role was filled by the Arab worker, both in the new territories just annexed to Israel and by “Israeli” Arab workers, just starting to flow into the market in large numbers.

Because of the need to sustain a colonising society, living sword in hand, in constant conflict with the world around it, it became necessary to grant the Jews full privileges and to try and main­tain, at all costs, a high standard of living for them, in order to prevent emigration (“Yeri­dah“) and help create a maximal state of political stability. In order to meet this demands, the freedom of action towards the Jewish workers, especially on the part of the bourgeoisie in government, i.e. the Avodah (Labour) party and Mapam (the bourgeoisie of the public-beauro­cratic economy), must be curtailed. Secure employment and salary, a standard of living higher than that of the surrounding Arab world, became a cornerstone of the Israeli political system. Thus post ’67 accelerated economic development created the above mentioned demand for “free” labour, i.e. cheap, mobile, impermanent and lacking political representation – a demand which could not be met by Jewish workers.

Post ’67 military and political development also created a huge demand for Jewish labour power in the armament industry, in the army and in the general administration of the territories re­cently occupied. The inevitable result was that the Arab labour force started taking an active role within this free labour, in the above mentioned sense, at the disposal of the Israeli economy, which until then was mostly made up of oriental Jews. We will show that since ’67 it has become, – together with the lowest strata of the Jewish proletariat, made up mainly of oriental Jews, – a major and indispensable element of the Israeli economy.

Israeli civil industry, particularly the private sector, is becoming dependent on Arab labour power. The ethnic division in the territories governed by Israel is becoming more and more economically significant: on one hand there is a privileged group, working in industries and State services, the army and strategic industries – a shielded group, with a certain monopoly, immobile, hard to fire and whose working conditions are constantly being improved through organised struggles and political pressures (the Histadrut, the AVODAH party, etc.); and on the other hand the free part of the working class, granting the economy its flexibility, its capacity to adjust to crises. The latter group turns the manpower reservoir into a labour market in the classical capitalist sense and is, as denotes the title of this work: the reserve force of the Israeli economy. At the same time, this free labour makes the private bourgeoisie, both in agriculture and in industry, independent of the Histadrut, the State bodies and the bureaucracy.

This force is one of the sources of strength of the private bourgeoisie, as opposed to the State-bureaucratic bourgeoisie (i.e. the Histadrut, the kibbutzim, etc.) The Histadrut cannot attack a private businessman employing Arabs by applying pressure or by strikes – since everybody is in the same boat regarding the Arabs. A strike by Arab workers would endanger both sectors. Moreover, due to the relative abundance of Arabs in the Israeli economy, their maneuverability is limited and their bargaining powers almost nil. Thus Arab labour has contributed to strengthening the private bourgeoisie in Israel in relation to the State-bureaucratic bourgeoisie. This causes some rather ridiculous situations in which representatives of the State-bureaucratic bourgeoisie ­like A.B. Yehoshua, a “leftwing” Zionist – talk and act more dogmatically, more firmly and with more racist jingoism against the “Arab presence” in Israel than their counterparts on the right – some of whom would like the two nations to live together – under Zahal’s iron hand, of course.

The survey and its chapters

This survey, for the most part, is made up of statistics. It tries to chart the growth of the Arab working class in Israel and its present position, using Israeli official publications and to a lesser degree, occasional articles published in the Israel press. The figures, though indicative, tell only a small part of the story of the Arab workers in Israel. Only a full sociological survey could tell the whole story. A short visit to some Israeli towns would re­veal that figures could never describe the situation. Be’er-Sheva, for example – a town “washed clean” of its pre-1948 Arab inhabitants, like hundreds of other towns and villages captured by the Israeli army during the war – and which now has a population of 100,000, attracted over the years thousands of Bedouin-Arab workers from all over the Negev. Most of these Arabs were Fellahin, driven off of their lands by the kibbutzim and moshavim whose aim was, to “make the desert bloom”.

These workers cannot, of course, live in Be’er-Sheva: the houses they build are not destined for Arabs but for new immigrants, for Jewish workers etc. As a result, Be’er-Sheva is now surrounded by a belt of tin huts where the Arab workers live. These townships, from which the workers emerge in order to build Be’er-Sheva and work in its factories, are not serviced by water, sewerage, electricity, or roads. Like the black townships in South Africa, their very existence is illegal and with the expansion of the town they will no doubt be pushed out, beyond the city boundaries. Such townships tell more about these workers than any list of figures. They are to be seen on the fringe of other cities in Israel, like Ramleh and Haderah.

The government and its “settlement minister”, Ariel Sharon, keep reminding us that tens of thousands of Bedouins have “infiltrated into the coastal plain” – into the heart of the Jewish state. Mister Sharon forgets that these very same Bedouin infiltrators fill his car with petrol, work on his large agricultural farm and that without their “infil­tration” many Israeli enterprises, including many export lines, would have to close down. But this survey does not touch upon any of the above mentioned social aspects. The survey has four chapters: the first chapter deals with the working population as a whole and with the reserve force of the Israeli economy. It seems that the Jewish industrial reserve force in Israel has largely diminished – all skilled and semi-skilled workers are fully, though not always efficiently, employed – despite the five years recession, since the ’73 war. The manpower problem is of course related to the general population balance between the two nationalities: the Israeli and the Palestinian. In this chapter we shall see, for instance, that the growth of Arab labour is twice that of Jewish labour.

The second chapter deals with the division of Arab labour, both from the territories and from Israel, into various sectors and enterprises. It seems that in the heavy industries, where direct profit is made, the Arabs contribute more than their proportion in the population and in the general labour force. We shall also try to estimate their relative contribution to the overall production of Israeli workers.

The third chapter reviews an important characteristic of the Arab working class – its mobility which distinguishes it from the Jewish proletariat. This very mobility makes it a “free” labour power, economically speaking, totally effected by the fluctuations of the market. The recent recession which did not bring about unemployment in the Jewish sector, dramatically reduced the number of Arab workers, particularly from the West Bank, working in Israel.

The fourth chapter deals with salaries and working conditions. This chapter is on the borders of statistical research and in order to fully cover this subject one has to study the social conditions of the Arab working class – which is beyond the scope of this work. It seems, how­ever, that not only the income per capita of the Arab working class is half the income per capita of the Jewish (salaried) working class, but also that within each occupation there is a difference of 25-40 per cent between the salaries of Arab and Jewish workers.

Continue to… Chapter-1: The Arab working class


  1. Bitfutzot Hagolah” (in the Diaspora), 1975-6. p. 38
  2. Ya’ir Kottler, Ha’aretz, 9.9.1977
  3. H. Harari, “Israeli Arabs, 1976, in figures“. Giv’at Havivah – Arab Research works. No. 10