This year, in accordance with the resolution concerning the implications of Israeli settlements in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories in connection with the situation of Arab workers, adopted by the International Labour Conference at its 66th Session (1980), I again sent a high-level mission to Israel, the occupied Arab territories, the Syrian Arab Republic, and the Arab Labour Organization and the League of Arab States in Cairo. Once again, the delegation enjoyed the full cooperation of all concerned parties, for which I am very grateful. It reaffirms the broad support to the values embodied by the ILO in situations of conflict.
The ILO mission held in-depth discussions with a wide range of interlocutors from the Palestinian Authority and employers’ and workers’ organizations in the occupied Arab territories, constituents in Israel and in the Syrian Arab Republic, representatives from the United Nations and a variety of international and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). All provided valuable information and insights on the situation of workers in the occupied Arab territories which have guided the preparation of this Report.
The Report depicts a much degraded employment and labour situation. The plight of the Palestinian people has not improved in any fundamental way. Indeed, in a number of respects it has deteriorated alarmingly. With the near total closure of the Gaza Strip following the break up of the national unity government and the continuing impediments to the movement of persons and goods in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, economic and political life is highly fragmented. One in three persons of working age is employed. Enterprises are either closing or operating at well below their capacity. New investments are deferred. About half of the Palestinian population is dependent on international food assistance, a situation which has become even more critical with the rise in food prices. And there is persistent high unemployment among the skilled younger generation, particularly women.
Working poverty is rising, genuine employment is declining, and frustration is growing.
Only the situation of civil servants has improved with respect to last year, thanks to the combined efforts of the Palestinian Authority, the Middle East Quartet and donors. With new injections of cash a mild improvement can be traced in economic and social indicators through the latter half of 2007.
Repeated military incursions and exchanges of fire have dramatically raised the toll of civilian life, Palestinian and Israeli children included, in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Israel.
With the devastation of military action, and the continuing fine net of restrictions on movement, there is no doubt that economic and social hardship is mounting in the occupied Arab territories.
The year 2008 has been signalled as pivotal for peace. The pace of direct negotiations between the parties has picked up with a commitment to conclude an agreement before the end of this year.
In Annapolis, President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert in a Joint Understanding expressed their “determination to bring an end to bloodshed, suffering and decades of conflict between our peoples; to usher in a new era of peace, based on freedom, security, justice, dignity, respect and mutual recognition” (The White House, 27 November 2007).
In Damascus in March 2008, Arab Heads of State renewed their offer, originally formulated in 2002, of an Arab Peace Initiative, and have asked for a review in the light of ongoing negotiations.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his message to the League of Arab States Summit, again pledged his commitment to “a just, lasting and comprehensive peace, the end of occupation, and the establishment of a Palestinian State which will live side by side in peace and security with Israel” whilst calling for a “different and more positive strategy for Gaza” (UN, 2008a).
In March 2008 the European Union Presidency expressed its full support to the Annapolis peace negotiations. It stressed the need for “swift and tangible results on the ground in order to sustain negotiations. Action from both sides to implement their Road Map obligations is vital in order to retain the confidence and support of the Israeli and Palestinian populations, the region and the wider international community” (Council of the European Union, 14 March 2008).
All these efforts and the mobilization of international backing are to be welcomed.
Yet as this Report makes clear, many interlocutors shared the concerns of the ILO mission about the danger of a growing gap between peace talks, which have achieved little progress so far, and the continuing “facts on the ground” as reflected in closures, military incursions, checkpoints, the permits regime, the endless patience required to cross the Separation Barrier, the continuing construction within settlements, and “settlers-only” roads, including the growing separation of East Jerusalem from the Palestinian territory. The feeling of collective punishment continues to be generalized throughout the occupied Arab territories.
There is a huge gulf between the daily plight of Palestinians living under occupation, which they endure with so much resilience and dignity, and the normal life they aspire to. We should not lose sight of the fact that at the heart of the resolution of this long-standing conflict lie the aspirations of women and men, children, parents and the elderly, to live a normal life and apply their skills and energy to improving their conditions.
These aspirations are not unique to the Palestinian situation. They are universal. This is reflected in the Constitution of the ILO and what we call “decent work”, or work in conditions of freedom, dignity, equity and security enabling all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development. It is these values that guide the ILO in preparing its annual assessment of the situation of workers of the occupied Arab territories.
The ILO will continue to draw on these universal values to contribute, within its mandate, to a just and lasting settlement of the conflict in the firm conviction that decent work for all in the occupied Arab territories and Israel is a fundamental ingredient of peace.