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Palestinian Workers Have a Long History of Resistance

The Palestinian general strike of May 18 fits into a much longer history of mobilization by Palestinian workers. From the British colonial years to the present, those struggles have faced harsh repression, but kept a spirit of resistance alive.

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Palestinians raise their arms during an outdoor rally in Abou Ghosh in 1936, likely to vote to endorse the general strike that would become the longest in modern history., Library of Congress

On May 18, all sectors of the Palestinian people united in a general strike: residents of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip, and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel and their compatriots in the diaspora. The widely observed “dignity strike” recalled two previous all-Palestinian general strikes to advance national demands in 1936 and 1976.

The strike challenged the divide-and-rule tactics that Israel has deployed to disperse and dominate Palestinians since its establishment in 1948. Equally important, it highlighted the significance of Palestinian citizens of Israel, not only as a force in Israeli politics but as a component of the entire Palestinian people.

The High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, the unofficial leading body of Palestinian Israelis, who comprise about 20 percent of Israel’s citizens, initiated the strike call. Subsequently, both Fatah and Hamas — the dominant parties in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, respectively — as well as the Palestinian Authority endorsed it. Palestinian trade-union federations in the West Bank also approved the strike.

 

“The assault on Palestinians in Jerusalem, in Sheikh Jarrah and at the al-Aqsa mosque” and “the assault on the [Palestinian Israeli] public in general and in mixed cities in particular” prompted the May 18 strike, stated a spokesperson for the High Follow-Up Committee. Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List of three primarily Arab parties in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, added

The Netanyahu government’s provocative and violent policy of repression have failed and will not succeed in repressing our struggle or diverting us from our path — an organized and just civil struggle against the occupation, the blockade [of the Gaza Strip], the attack on Gaza and for peace and equality.

The most visible expression of the May 18 strike was the shuttered Arab-owned businesses in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, as well as in Israeli cities with large Palestinian populations, such as Haifa, Jaffa, Lydda, and Acre. It was widely observed by working-class Palestinian Israelis and East Jerusalemites, who are disproportionately represented in the construction, sanitation, hotel, and restaurant sectors, as well as the ranks of taxi drivers and bus drivers. Several hundred workers were fired for striking.

According to the Israel Builders Association, only 150 West Bank Palestinian construction workers showed up for work, resulting in estimated losses of nearly $40 million. “If we would all fight that way for workers’ rights, maybe we would achieve something,” remarked one striking crane operator. However, most Palestinian Israelis in the health care sector, where they are particularly prominent — comprising 17 percent of physicians, 24 percent of nurses, and 47 percent of pharmacists — did not observe the strike.

Many Palestinians, like Mudar Younes, head of the National Union of Arab Municipalities, could not remember a previous occasion when Palestinian Israelis initiated a strike that spread to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The last time it happened was forty-five years ago.

Land Day 1976

The first occasion that Palestinian citizens throughout the country resisted Israeli policies as a national collective was the Land Day general strike of March 30, 1976. Land Day protested the 1975 Galilee Development Plan. The terms of the plan confiscated about two thousand acres of privately owned Palestinian lands and allocated them to the construction of the all-Jewish town of Carmiel and fifty smaller Jewish settlements in order to “Judaize the Galilee.” Israeli security forces shot dead six unarmed Palestinian demonstrators and wounded one hundred more that day.

The main immediate consequence of Land Day was the consolidation of an alliance of left-wing political parties called the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, which was led by the Communist Party. It became the most popular political party among Palestinian and non-Zionist Jewish citizens of Israel for the next fifteen years. 

There were solidarity strikes in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon on Land Day 1976. Ultimately, Land Day became a widely observed symbol of the Palestinian people’s connection to their land in all Palestinian communities. 

Land Day 2018 initiated the Great March of Return organized by youth from the Gaza Strip. Weekly Friday demonstrations, rather than strikes, continued until December 2019. During that period, Israeli forces shot dead 183 Palestinians, of whom only a small minority were members of armed groups (estimates range from twenty-nine to forty-seven). They also wounded 9,200 more.

The General Strike and the Arab Revolt of 1936–39

The striking crane operator’s observation about the May 18 strike suggests a potential linkage between the Palestinian national cause and the class demands of working people. That potential was realized in the 1936 general strike against the Zionist settler project and British colonial rule, during the 1922–1948 period when Britain governed Palestine under a mandate from the League of Nations.

 

Inspired by a Syrian general strike that had secured a promise from France to negotiate Syria’s independence earlier that year, the Palestinian Arab community conducted the longest general strike in modern history between April 19 and October 16, 1936. The strike was the opening phase of the 1936–39 Arab revolt. Its demands were a ban on further Jewish immigration and sales of land to Jews, and the establishment of a national government — which would reflect the large Arab majority — responsible to a representative council. 

Locally organized Arab National Committees in Nablus and Jaffa initiated the strike call. They immediately won strong support from Arab workers, most notably the port workers of Jaffa and motor vehicle drivers, as well as urban trades people, merchants, and radical nationalist youth. 

 

By the summer of 1936, peasants had asserted their participation as the strike developed into an armed revolt in the countryside. Volunteers from Iraq and Syria joined the fight. One of them, a former Ottoman, then Syrian, army officer named Fawzi al-Qawuqji, proclaimed himself military commander of the revolt. This was a sign that ordinary Palestinians were losing control of the movement. 

Al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni and the Arab Higher Committee conspired with Britain’s clients, the kings of Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and Amir Abdullah of Transjordan to end the general strike in time for the citrus orchards of the strike “leaders” to be harvested. The kings published letters ludicrously proclaiming: “We rely on the good intentions of our friend Great Britain, who has declared that she will do justice.”

Resisting the Peel Commission

In July 1937, a British royal commission proposed to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, which would have entailed the forcible transfer of up to 225,000 Palestinians to Transjordan. In response to the Peel Commission plan, the banning of the Arab Higher Committee, and the arrest of its leadership, peasants resumed and intensified guerrilla warfare in the northern hill country after the summer harvest.

With the traditional notables now playing less of a role, the revolt took on the character of a social revolution directed against landlords and urban elites. Peasant guerrilla bands imposed a moratorium on all debts, cancelled rents on urban apartments, and seized the property of wealthy urbanites who had fled the country, selling it at a mock public auction for nominal prices. 

 

By August 1938, the peasant movement controlled several cities. Rebel leaders decreed that all Palestinian women should wear headscarves and men should put aside their middle-class fezzes and adopt peasant headdress — the kaffiyeh. This allowed rebels to circulate in cities without being readily identified and turned the kaffiyeh into a Palestinian national symbol.

The British Army, in collaboration with Zionist militias, brutally repressed the Arab revolt, killing four thousand rebels and wounding fifteen thousand. They arrested more than fifteen thousand people and deported several notable leaders. 

In 1938–39, partisans of competing notable factions began assassinating their rivals in a small-scale civil war. Among the targets was Hasan Sidqi al-Dajani, the head of the Arab drivers’ union. He was aligned with a faction opposed to al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni, whose supporters were the likely assassins. 

Meanwhile, the Zionists seized the opportunity of the Arab general strike to build a new port at all-Jewish Tel Aviv and to expand the Jewish labor force at the port of Haifa. The combination of massive repression, internal dissension, a leadership void, and economic dislocation meant that Palestinian Arabs were later unable to offer substantial resistance to the Zionist takeover of 78 percent of Palestine during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, known as the nakba.

Mandate Era Labor Strikes

As Zachary Lockman shows in his history of Arab-Jewish relations in the labor movement of Mandate Palestine, Palestinian Arab workers, who began engaging in strike action for economic gains as early as the 1920s, faced a dual challenge. 

First, the dominant political tendency in the Zionist trade-union federation, the Histadrut, rejected Arab-Jewish working-class solidarity. The Histadrut also owned a construction company and many enterprises related to the labor Zionist settlement movement. It sought to secure employment for Jewish workers in as many workplaces as possible and feared that if Palestinian Arab workers gained experience in trade-union organization, this might enhance their political capacity and nationalist consciousness. 

Second, nationalist notables sought to convert the nascent Arab labor movement into their clients and steer its supporters away from class consciousness. 

Arab and Jewish workers organized jointly as early as the formation of the Union of Railway, Postal and Telegraph Workers in 1922. But the Histadrut leadership undermined its unity. In 1925, most of the Arab workers left and joined the Palestine Arab Workers Society (PAWS).

Nonetheless, there were a number of notable joint actions by Arab and Jewish workers during the 1930s. In August 1931, a ten-day strike of truck and bus drivers who were protesting new taxes on gasoline and duties on motor transport immobilized traffic throughout the country. 

 

In February 1935, hundreds of Arab and Jewish workers employed by the Iraq Petroleum Company in Haifa struck for higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions. Their action inspired other workers in the Haifa area, the industrial center of Palestine, including the railway workers who were now represented by two unions, one entirely Arab and the other primarily Jewish. The Histadrut undermined Arab-Jewish solidarity by seeking to use this labor upsurge to get more Jews hired — the same issue that had broken the unity of Arab and Jewish railway workers a decade earlier.

The Even Vesid stone quarry and limestone kiln was jointly owned by the Histadrut’s construction contracting office and a wealthy Haifa Arab businessman, Tahar Qaraman. The owners paid Arab workers twelve piastres a day and Jewish workers twenty-five piastres for roughly the same work. The Arab workers struck in April 1935, demanding a daily wage of fifteen piastres, an eight-hour day, and the removal of a hated foreman. The Histadrut, in its role as employer, fought the strike, but was eventually embarrassed and raised the Arab workers’ wages. 

The Even Vesid strike exemplifies the limits of Arab-Jewish working-class solidarity in Palestine. The company’s profitability and the jobs of the better-paid Jewish workers depended on Arab workers receiving subpar wages, even though this contradicted the Histadrut policy of hiring only Jewish workers.

By 1944, there were a hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs in the wage-labor force, their numbers swelled by the wartime needs of the British military. A substantial number of them joined or were under the influence of the Federation of Arab Trade Unions and Labor Societies, established by dissident Arab members of the Palestine Communist Party in 1942. By the end of World War II, Communists led about 20 percent of the organized Arab working class.

 

Threatened by the growth of radicalizing Arab trade unionism beyond its control, the Histadrut began competing with the largest Arab union federation, the PAWS, to represent both Arab and Jewish workers in the British military camps. On May 10, 1943, without consulting the PAWS leaders, the Histadrut called a strike of military-camp workers, seeking a cost-of-living allowance that regular government workers had previously received. PAWS leaders considered the Histadrut action a political challenge and called on Arab workers not to strike. Most did not. 

Rival Movements

This strike split the Palestine Communist Party into an all-Jewish faction, whose members had supported the strike, and Arab members, who had opposed it. The latter went on to establish the National Liberation League (NLL). The NLL promoted both the Palestinian Arab national struggle for independence from British imperialism and Arab trade unionism. In 1945, it established the Arab Workers Congress (AWC), which soon challenged the PAWS for preeminence among Arab workers.

While national tensions between Arabs and Jews intensified after WWII, joint actions by Arab and Jewish workers reached a high point. This was in part because the NLL and the AWC distinguished between the Zionist movement and the Jewish community, especially workers, and advocated cooperation between Arab and Jewish workers on economic issues.

 

During the fall of 1945, a joint committee of the Histadrut and the PAWS negotiated and won the demands of the 1,800 workers at Haifa’s Consolidated Refineries, the largest industrial employer in Palestine. The Histadrut and the AWC went on a joint twelve-day strike of Socony Vacuum workers in April 1946. The PAWS, under pressure from supporters of al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni, refused to join the strike, which nonetheless achieved some gains for the workers. 

Another Arab-Jewish strike broke out at Consolidated Refineries in January 1947. It too was undermined by the PAWS leadership. In March of that year, 2,500 Arabs — the vast majority of the workforce — and Jews at the Iraq Petroleum Company struck for fourteen days and achieved a partial victory.

 

The largest postwar Arab-Jewish joint labor action was the April 1946 strike of blue- and white-collar postal, telegraph and telephone, and railway workers throughout the country — the first general strike of railway and postal workers in Palestine. They were soon joined by government civil servants and Public Works Department and port workers, with about twenty-three thousand workers taking part in total.

The incapacitated British Mandate administration had to concede to many of the strikers’ demands, including wage increases, a cost-of-living allowance, and pension improvements. Neither the Histadrut leaders nor conservative Palestinian nationalists welcomed this expression of Jewish-Arab solidarity.

After the Nakba

The Arab-Israeli War of 1948, the nakba, dispersed and weakened the Palestinian Arab working class. Former members of the National Liberation League living in the West Bank who established the Communist Party of Jordan provided the only organizational continuity.

Most of the 156,000 Palestinians who remained in what became Israel after the war were ruled by a military government from 1949 to 1966. The Israeli authorities tightly regulated their movement and employment outside their villages. Under these circumstances, engaging in strikes was out of the question.

Moreover, the Israeli government banned the Arab Workers Congress, which had barely survived the 1948 war, before allowing Palestinian Israelis to join the trade unions of the Histadrut in 1952. Many were nonetheless excluded from membership and denied employment on that basis. Not until 1965 were Palestinian Arab citizens able to vote in Histadrut elections as full members.

Palestinian teachers strike - Rich Wiles (Al Jazeera)

In the rest of what had been Mandate Palestine, Transjordan annexed the West Bank after the 1948 war to form the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The Kingdom’s rulers banned strikes. To this day, they are still heavily constrained by the 1996 Labor Law. Egypt administered the Gaza Strip from 1949 to 1967. Strikes were effectively illegal in Egypt after Gamal Abdel Nasser consolidated his power in 1954, and the same restriction applied to the Gaza Strip.

The Occupied Territories Since 1967

After Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, tens of thousands of Palestinians from those territories began working in Israel and, paradoxically, in the construction of the Jewish settlements. Well over 100,000 Palestinians had permits to work in Israel by 1990 and tens of thousands more did so without permits — constituting perhaps as much as one-third of the Palestinian wage-labor force. 

Their conditions were very precarious. They were not permitted to join the Histadrut and were ineligible for most of its social benefits, although they paid an “organization fee” equal to 1 percent of their wages. This was supposedly to cover the cost of collective bargaining, in which they were never involved. Many were paid less than the legal minimum wage but striking to remedy this was out of the question.

 

The Communist Party of Jordan was the only political tendency that attempted to organize West Bank workers before the 1967 Israeli occupation. But the party was illegal and its achievements were limited. In the late 1970s, the four principal Palestinian political factions — Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Communist Party — organized competing trade-union blocs leading to a definitive split in 1981. 

Moreover, trade-union work was subordinated to the national struggle, as labor leaders decided to “freeze” the class struggle because “we discovered that the danger from the occupation was greater than that from the capitalists.” While some business owners cooperated with the unions to resolve labor disputes, others acted like “normal” capitalists, obstructing the efforts of workers to form and join unions and playing one union bloc against another. 

Nonetheless, there were a handful of strikes against Palestinian employers in the West Bank through the late 1980s. The most intense were strikes of educational staff: a mostly unsuccessful hundred-day strike of Palestinian public-school teachers employed by the Israeli government in 1981 and a partially successful three-month strike at Birzeit University in 1986. The latter thwarted the institution’s plan to fire all its employees and rehire them at lower salaries in response to a financial crisis.

The First Intifada of 1987–1991 saw many strikes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to advance Palestinian national demands. They were similar in character to this year’s general strike, although Palestinian citizens of Israel did not join them. Only in the later stages of the Intifada were workers’ demands as such raised.

 

Despite efforts to reunite, the rivalry among unions aligned with different political factions and the undemocratic practices consolidated in formal politics in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the Oslo agreement continue to weaken Palestinian trade unionism. Nonetheless, there were notable strikes of West Bank taxi drivers in 2012 and teachers in 2016. 

Teachers, who had not received their full pay in months, struck again in October and November 2020. Supporters of the Palestinian Authority (PA) criticized this and other strikes of PA employees. In fact, the PA often does not have the funds to pay its 130,000 employees because Israel periodically refuses to transfer duties and tax receipts to it as the terms of the Oslo Accords require.

In January 2021, eighty Palestinian workers went on strike at the Yamit factory, which manufactures water filters in the Israeli-operated Nitzanei Shalom industrial park near Tulkarem. They had organized with an Israeli independent left-wing trade union called Maan, which was the only union willing to organize in this politically fraught situation. This was the first such action in a West Bank industrial park, where all the owners are Israelis, but Israeli labor laws do not cover the Palestinian workers because their workplace is technically not in Israel.

However, there is still no substantial recent history of independent and functional Palestinian trade unionism in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, and Palestinian citizens of Israel remain integrated into the Histadrut. These factors meant that the Palestinian general strike of May 18 could only be a primarily commercial strike in which important sectors of workers participated but without asserting their own autonomous class demands.


Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan professor of history and professor of Middle East history at Stanford University. His latest book is Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2016).

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