Thousands of workers from Gaza, who were employed in Israel at the start of the war, have since disappeared as part of a campaign of mass arrests.
Human rights groups and unions believe some of these workers are being illegally detained at military facilities in the occupied West Bank, following the revocation of their work permits in Israel. Israeli authorities have so far refused to release the names of those detained.
When the Palestinian armed group Hamas launched an unprecedented assault on southern Israel on October 7, around 18,500 Gaza residents held work permits outside the besieged strip. The exact number of workers present in Israel at the start of the hostilities remains unknown, but thousands of them are believed to have been arrested by the Israeli army and transferred to undisclosed locations.
Walid*, a Palestinian worker born in Gaza, had been living in the occupied West Bank for more than 25 years when Israel began its continuous bombing of Gaza, which left more than 7,000 dead and had lasted for three weeks. On October 8, he was arrested on his way to work and detained at a center in the Almon area, also known as Anatot, built on the ruins of the Palestinian town of Anata. that Israel confiscated from the occupied part of East Jerusalem.
According to human rights organizations, this center is among those that the Israeli government has repurposed to arbitrarily detain hundreds of workers, in violation of international law.
Walid, whose real name and personal details are being withheld to avoid reprisals, described being kept in a “cage” without a roof, in direct sunlight, without food, water or access to toilets for three days, according to written testimony provided to the Israel-based human rights organization HaMoked, which Al Jazeera had access to.
It was then moved to an area of approximately 300 square meters where hundreds of workers shared a sanitation cubicle. When he asked to contact the Red Cross, he was cursed and beaten by soldiers.
Walid was released after Israeli officers verified that, although he was born in Gaza, he resided in the West Bank. His testimony is among the few stories that have so far emerged from the detention centers where Gaza workers have been held incommunicado and without legal representation since October 7.
It is difficult to know “where, how many, under what legal status” (they are detained).
“We received hundreds and hundreds of phone calls from family members of people who worked in Israel before the October 7 attacks,” Jessica Montell, executive director of HaMoked, told Al Jazeera
So far, Ms. Montell said, more than 400 families and friends of missing people have contacted the organization, trying to find their loved ones as they simultaneously struggle to survive the bombings and “total” siege of ‘Israel. These calls have declined over the past week as Gaza residents have been increasingly deprived of means of communication.
As part of its work, HaMoked regularly communicates the names of detainees to Israeli authorities to find out where they are being held.
“The Israeli army is supposed to inform us within 24 hours who they are detaining and where they are being held,” Mr. Montell explained. “But for all these people in Gaza, they told us that they were not the appropriate authority to speak to them. »
“It is impossible for us not to know where they are being held, how many are being held, in what conditions, under what legal status,” she added.
A group of six local organizations, including HaMoked, asked Israel’s High Court to disclose the names and locations of detention and ensure dignified conditions of detention.
According to the petitioners, some Palestinians were detained in the Almon area – where Walid was arrested – as well as in Ofer, near Ramallah, and in Sde Teyman, near Beer al-Sabe (Be’er Sheva), in the south of the Naqab or Negev desert.
When hostilities began and the Beit Hanoun crossing (known as Erez to Israelis) into the northern Gaza Strip was closed, workers attempted to move to the West Bank for refuge. among Palestinian residents.
But on October 10, Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) revoked all work permits it had previously issued to Gazans, instantly turning permit holders into “illegal aliens.”
Al Jazeera contacted the Israeli army as well as COGAT, the body that controls the permit system in the occupied territories. Both declined to comment or provide additional information on how many workers had their licenses revoked, as well as how many of them were jailed and on what grounds.
An unprecedented situation
Miriam Marmur, advocacy director of Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization that calls for freedom of movement for Palestinians, said the situation was “unprecedented.”
“Of course, at any given time, thousands of Palestinians are placed in administrative detention by Israel,” she told Al Jazeera. “But these are the first Palestinians to be detained en masse. The nature of their detention, the revocation of their permits and the fact that Israel so far refuses to release any information about their whereabouts… This is not something I have seen before.” , she added.
Mr. Marmur added that the arrests were “illegal and appeared to be acts of revenge in violation of international law.”
According to Israeli authorities, Hamas took at least 224 people hostage during its attack on southern Israel on October 7. Four of them have since been released.
According to Walid’s testimony, one of the officers at a detention camp told detainees that there was no chance they would be released as long as there were Israeli hostages in Gaza.
“This is not an official statement, but it is certainly an indication that, at least for some of the people involved, there is some sort of desire to use these workers as bargaining chips.”said Mr. Marmur.
Under Israel’s permit system, very few Palestinians from the Gaza Strip can leave the territory, as all border crossings have been under Israeli or Egyptian control since Hamas took power in 2007.
Permits may be issued for professional, health or humanitarian reasons, after careful review by Israeli authorities. Most workers in Gaza – where the overall unemployment rate is 45% and youth unemployment has soared to 70% – work in manual jobs in Israel, where wages are much higher.
Human rights groups are concerned about further arrests as raids continue in the West Bank, including areas nominally under the full control of the Palestinian Authority.
“We have never experienced such a situation, where people are trapped and cannot return home, and are placed in a sort of camp,” said Hassan Jabareen, director of Adalah, the legal center for the rights of Arab minorities in Israel. “It was just workers. The only possible comparison is perhaps that with (undocumented) refugees.”
The Palestinian Authority’s labor minister estimated that around 4,500 workers were missing and may have been detained by Israeli forces. Israeli media outlet N12 reported that 4,000 Palestinians from Gaza were being questioned in Israeli detention centers over their possible involvement in the attack.
In addition to Gaza workers, Israeli forces have arrested more than 1,450 Palestinian residents of the West Bank since October 7, according to estimates by the Palestinian Prisoners Society.
The arrests took place amid laws and amendments that human rights organizations say amount to punitive measures.
On October 18, the Israeli Parliament, known as the Knesset, approved a temporary plan that deprives Palestinian prisoners of the right to space of at least 4.5 square meters, allowing cells that housed five people to accommodate more than twice as many.
According to Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI), authorities also cut off access to electricity and water, limited the number of meals per day, confined prisoners to their cells and prevented access to medical centers. as well as visits from their lawyers and other official representatives. At least two prisoners have died in custody since the latest round of hostilities began.
“We call on the Israeli authorities to respect international law and allow food, water and visits,” Naji Abbas, head of the file at PHRI, told Al Jazeera. “And to stop taking revenge on Palestinian prisoners. »
Translated by: AFPS