The geopolitics of labor: Israel’s quest to replace Palestinian workers with Indians

F.M. Shakil, The Cradle, April 24, 2024 —

Israel is mitigating its labor shortage by importing Hindu-only Indians after revoking work permits for Palestinians – an old colonial practice that could impact its deepening geopolitical ties with New Delhi.

On 10 April, in the thick of the war on Gaza, the Israeli government, facing a labor crisis, announced that it would fly in 6,000 Indian laborers during April and May on state-subsidized shuttle flights.

This decision follows Israel’s suspension of work permits for Palestinian construction workers, a move that has significantly impacted its building sector. Israel’s Finance Ministry estimates that the absence of Palestinian laborers is costing the economy about three billion shekels ($828 million) monthly, which could lead to a loss of three percent of GDP as the building and housing markets struggle with debt amounting to 400 billion shekels ($106 billion).

Simultaneously, New Delhi, overlooking the genocide and humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza, has agreed to send Indian construction workers to replace the displaced Palestinian workforce. This decision aligns with a bilateral agreement to integrate 100,000 Indian laborers into Israel’s construction industry, matching the number of ousted Palestinian workers.

A colonial strategy 

Canadian immigration attorney Aidan Simardone, speaking to The Cradle, compares the situation to historical colonial practices in North America where marginalized European religious groups, like the Puritans, were brought in to service colonial interests. 

Israel, he points out, is adopting a similar strategy by recruiting economically disadvantaged Hindu Indians from regions like Uttar Pradesh, aiming to manage demographic and political challenges seamlessly.

The move is also an attempt by Israel to pull the rug out from under one of the thorns on the side of colonialism. Colonialism requires squeezing blood out of a stone, yet this squeezing depends on the sweat and tears of those who are at the bottom of the barrel.

Simardone notes the inherent risks for the colonizer in relying entirely on an indigenous labor force, as workers will rebel when colonialism reveals its true nature.

To steer clear of this predicament, colonizers bring in labor from other parts. These laborers are often pushed to the sidelines as well, but unlike the Indigenous population, they go with the flow rather than swimming against the tide when it comes to the colonial project.

The plight of Palestinian laborers

Since Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza began over six months ago, the closure of the occupied territories has severed the economic lifeline of approximately 100,000 Palestinian workers, cutting off their main source of income and depriving them of a financial safety net.

Worse yet, many Palestinian workers did not receive their September salaries as the war commenced before their scheduled pay date. 

The fact that so many Palestinians are unable to support themselves in Israel may have disastrous effects on the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) economic agenda and, inadvertently, worsen the occupied West Bank’s security situation.

Kav LaOved, a nonprofit dedicated to labor rights in Israel, reported that Israel’s restrictions have impacted 150,000 West Bank families, now unable to make ends meet or support the extended family, also reliant on a single paycheck:

The PA views the majority of Palestinians employed in Israel as ‘middle class,’ and the fact that they don’t contribute financially is a serious blow to the local economy.

Kav LaOved notes that the minimum wage in areas under PA control is still significantly lower than in Israel, which stands at 5,572 New Israeli Shekels (NIS) per month. In the construction sector, which used to employ many Palestinians, a professional worker can earn up to NIS 10,000 a month. The Hebron region alone makes up one-third of this workforce, with other significant contributions from cities like Ramallah, Jenin, Qalqilya, and Tulkarm.

Muslim minority excluded

Haaretz report claims that Indian candidates seeking work in Israel were, in many cases, made aware that the jobs were not available to Muslim Indians, a move that undermined the rights of the Muslim minority in India.

Simardone explains that Islam is seen as a mutual threat by the right-wing ethnocentric regime currently leading Israel and Hindutva-dominated India:

For both countries, the very existence of Muslims undermines their fascist ethnonationalism, which seeks to build a country solely for Jews in Israel and Hindus in India. That is primarily the reason that job recruiters in India who are posting positions in Israel have specifically required Hindus and excluded Muslims, who are more likely to sympathize with the plight of Palestinians.

What changed India’s policy? 

India’s geopolitical shift from a once notably pro-Palestine stance to a more pro-Israel alignment has been gradually unfolding since 1991 when the first Indian embassy was established in Jerusalem. This shift was significantly reinforced in 2017 with Narendra Modi’s historic visit to Israel, making him the first Indian premier to do so. 

Before this, in 2003, the National Democratic Alliance government, which included the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had extended a warm welcome to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon during his visit to India.

Following the Palestinian resistance’s Operation Al-Aqsa Flood on 7 October 2023, Modi conveyed profound sorrow over the news of ‘terrorist attacks’ in Israel. He wrote on X: 

I am profoundly horrified by the news of ‘terrorist attacks’ in Israel. Our condolences and thoughts are with the families of the innocent victims, and we extend our deepest condolences to Israel during this trying time.

Modi’s remarks exhibited a visible divergence in tone and tenor from the policies India has diligently pursued for the last 40 years. 

Pakistan’s former caretaker minister of information Jan Achakzai tells The Cradle that Israel and India share striking similarities in their political approaches by systematically failing to resolve differences and disputes with neighboring states:

They wear a mask of innocence, hiding their aggressive and disruptive regional strategies while portraying themselves as victims of violence orchestrated by their neighbors.

According to Achakzai, the bilateral ties between Tel Aviv and New Delhi have been steadily improving due to the primary focus on demographic shifts, ghettoization, the genocide in Palestine and Kashmir, and demographic fluctuations.

Ideological parallels 

Trade between the two countries has surged from a modest $900 million in 2000 to a whopping $7.86 billion today. This growth is accompanied by a significant increase in Israeli investments in India’s startups and technology sectors, totaling $270 million by 2021. 

The defense sector particularly highlights the depth of this partnership. India is a major consumer of Israeli weapons, accounting for 40 percent of Israel’s annual arms exports. Since 1992, India has imported about $40 billion worth of fully formed Israeli armaments and prime subsystems.

Their defense cooperation extends to sharing advanced technologies in missiles, electronic warfare, radar, navigation, and weapon control systems, largely facilitated by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO).

Analyst Simardone explains that Israel’s political investment in India reflects a strategic decision to diversify its foreign policy with Asian powerhouses and increase its strategic depth on the continent:

The rising power of Ia Modi-governed India presents Israel with a unique opportunity to befriend a country that has ideological similarities with Israeli methodology. A rich irony also exists in the reality that India and Israel have fallen into the position of oppressors, primarily because European nations had previously subjected both Indians and Ashkenazi Jews to oppression. They have now become the fascists and the colonizers themselves.

However, the partnership faces criticism domestically, especially concerning the program to shift thousands of workers into an insecure environment. The Construction Workers Federation of India (CWFI) has voiced strong opposition to sending Indian laborers to Israel, arguing that such actions tacitly support Israel’s controversial policies in Palestine. 

The association reflects the views of a much broader Indian worker demographic who naturally reject collaboration with an oppressive occupation state that so clearly exploits the Palestinian working class. Instead, CWFI has urged New Delhi to leverage its diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv to advocate for the observance of UN resolutions and to reconsider Israel’s labor-import demands.

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