Class conflict within Palestine, as well as within the larger Arab region, is rarely considered a pressing issue in the misleadingly termed "Arab-Israeli conflict". Little focus is often placed on Palestinian working classes, whether in Palestine or in the Middle East
Over the past month, the Lebanese authorities have unleashed a brutal crackdown on Palestinian workers. In June, Lebanese Minister of Labour Kamil Abu Sleiman decreed that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon must obtain work permits like other foreign workers. This move added to the already precarious situation of many Palestinian workers who are not only barred from employment in 72 professions in Lebanon, but over the past few years have also been forced to compete with Syrian refugees, equally desperate to find jobs.
Palestinian refugees have protested en masse in Beirut and throughout the refugee camps, not only against what they rightly saw as an unfair decision, but also against Lebanon's decades-old official policies which have contributed to Palestinian economic and political alienation. It is important to see these developments not only in the context of the current political climate in Lebanon, but also within the broader context of the Palestinian workers' historic struggle against colonialism, capitalist exploitation, and domestic feudalism. Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani argued that three enemies pose the "principal threat" to the Palestinian national movement: "the local, reactionary leadership; the regimes in the Arab states surrounding Palestine; and the imperialist-Zionist enemy...The change from a semi-feudal society to a capitalist society was accompanied by an increased concentration of economic power in the hands of the Zionist machine and, consequently, within the Jewish society in Palestine," Kanafani wrote. Palestine's "three enemies" would intentionally keep Palestinian workers economically dependent and politically isolated.
In the 1920s, Jewish settlers created the Histadrut, branded as a Jewish trade union. The organisation, however, did not really function as a regular syndicate; instead it was "a great colonizing agency", as former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir call it, without which Israel, as a state, would not have existed. One of Histadrut's early missions was to ensure employment for newly-arrived Jewish settlers in Palestine and the systematic exclusion of the Palestinian Arab workers.
The collective interests of the Palestinian "urban upper bourgeoisie" increasingly overlapped with those of the Zionist settlers, due to shared economic objectives. This also contributed to the marginalisation of Palestinian workers and peasants, who found themselves excluded from the new economic structures set up after 1948.
By the early 1970s Israel's growing economy was in need of cheap labour. In 1972, the Israeli state issued the so-called "general exit order" which allowed Palestinians to cross into Israel for work. By then the occupied Palestinian economy was struggling and Palestinian workers in the Occupied Territories were in desperate need for employment, as poverty rates had reached new heights under the yoke of Israeli occupation. Sadly, the economic desperation made Palestinian workers even more susceptible to exploitation, ready to carry out Israel's most difficult and physically strenuous jobs, with little pay, no job security and under the harshest of circumstances. Leaving before dawn to navigate through a series of military checkpoints, often chasing after Israeli employers' cars in search for work that may last a day, a week, or more, these workers epitomised the depth of Palestinian humiliation.
Allowing Palestinian workers to seek employment in Israel, however, came at a cost, as Palestinians enjoyed few rights and were barred from joining unions or participating in any political activities to improve their work conditions. The salaries they earned were charged an automatic payment to the Histadrut, which they could not join officially because they were not residents. To ensure that Palestinian workers could never get permanent residency in Israel, the "general exit order" stipulated that between 1am and 5am they must leave Israeli territory.
The depoliticisation of Palestinian workers extended to the Occupied Territories as well, as any political dissent, even the mere participation in a protest or the arrest of any family member on political charges, would often result in the cancelation of Israeli work permits. The growing impoverishment and sense of humiliation among Palestinians directly contributed to the onset of the Palestinian Intifada, the popular uprising of 1987. Although many Palestinian labourers participated in the events of that year, this massive outpouring of popular anger did not manage to end the cycle of their exploitation, but merely changed their exploiters.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), which eventually became the largest employer in Palestine. But the PA was not able to fully function as a state and take the reins of the Palestinian economy. Instead, it came to be sustained by funds from donor countries, which it distributed and withheld according to its factional, political agenda. It quickly came to engage in the type of exploitation of Palestinian workers which Israel had employed for decades. The PA's manipulation of jobs and salaries as a way to ensure political allegiance or to punish dissent.
The colonising Israelis, the conspiring Arabs and the self-serving Palestinian leaders are still playing the same old game, while Palestinian workers, the overriding class within Palestinian refugee communities, remain the primary target.