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Israel-Hamas War: Advantage India
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By Sarosh Bana

On April 5 2024, Israel’s Ambassador to India, Naor Gilon, announced the departure of Indian construction workers for Israel as replacements for Palestinian workers barred from working in Israel following Hamas’ 7 October attack, India was abstaining on a UN Human Rights Council resolution calling for an arms embargo against Israel and pressing it for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

Gilon’s statement to the media that the first batch of over 60 Indian workers had left for Israel was upheld by India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal who told newspersons, “As you are aware, these workers have gone to Israel as part of a government-to-government agreement that we have signed with the country.”  

Israel dismissed as a “distorted text” the UN resolution that sought Israel’s culpability for what it said were possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip. India was among 13 of the Council’s 47 member states that abstained, while 28 adopted it and only six opposed.

A debate has been raging in the Knesset whether to import workers from foreign countries so as to lessen Israel’s dependence on Palestinian workers, or to employ Palestinian workers from Judea and Samaria to bridge the present shortfall.

“The time has come for us not to depend on Palestinian workers,” said Transportation Minister Miri Regev, who had visited India and Sri Lanka in February. She told the Knesset: “There are 100,000 workers in Sri Lanka and India who are ready to come to Israel. We need to stop the bureaucracy and bring them as quickly as possible. You can also lower the price of labour per day. There is no reason to pay a worker NIS [new Israeli shekel] 1,500 per day."

Many in India deemed racist the Minister’s proposal to shortchange Indian and Sri Lankan workmen. NIS 1,500 translates to about US$400 or Indian Rupees 33,210 per day, whereas a construction worker in India earns a monthly average of Rs10,000 to Rs20,000 (US$120 to US$240). Understandably, only much better job prospects would motivate an Indian labourer to move to a warzone, that too to a developing country where the cost of living is far higher. Some labourers reportedly said Muslim workers were not being considered.

Israel Builders Association vice president Haim Feiglin was quoted last November by Voice of America as saying the Netanyahu government was considering his association’s request for allowing between 50,000 and 100,000 Indian workers to help stabilise Israel’s construction sector. He explained, “We are at war, and the Palestinian workers, which make up about 25 per cent of our human resources in the sector, are not coming and are not permitted to work in Israel.”

The issue has raised a storm in India, with 10 Central Trade Unions asserting that nothing could be more ‘immoral’ and ‘disastrous’ for India than ‘exporting’ workers to Israel. Pointing out that about 130,000 Palestinians were employed in the construction sector in Israel, the trade unions jointly stated, “Such a step will amount to complicity on India’s part with Israel’s ongoing genocidal war against Palestinians and will naturally have adverse implications for Indian workers in the entire region.” They additionally called for a boycott of Israeli products by India and urged Indian workers to refuse to handle Israeli cargo.

Thousands of Palestinian workers from Gaza who were stranded in Israel with the sealing of the border crossings since the outbreak of hostilities have been deported back to the besieged territory. Each is a breadwinner for his family back in Gaza, and the International Labour Organisation forecasts Palestinian unemployment rate to rise to 45.5 per cent by June.

Noting that India and Israel have been deliberating on a bilateral framework in the construction and caregiver sectors, another MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had said, “But on the larger issue, we have been working towards giving our citizens access to the global workplace.”

About 18,000 Indians reside in Israel, primarily caregivers employed by Israeli elders, apart from diamond traders and IT professionals.

During his India visit in May last year, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen had signed the “Framework Agreement on Facilitation of Temporary Employment of Workers in Specific Labor Market Sectors in Israel” for facilitating the employment in his country of 42,000 Indian workers, 34,000 in the construction field and 8,000 in the nursing sector. The move was expected to ease Israel’s rising cost of living and aid thousands of families waiting for nursing care.

While the Narendra Modi government in India deems it a high achievement in “working towards giving our citizens access to the global workplace” – its 2020 data show about 13.6 million Indians living overseas, about 9 million in the Middle East – in the present context in Israel, the issue is more of ethics than of economics.

While the government hails the Indian diaspora as “India’s goodwill ambassadors”, sending workers to Israel will simply swell the ranks of migrant labourers from India, underscoring the abysmal failure in tackling growing joblessness back home that has reduced millions to poverty. Moreover, sending labour from India to replace Palestinian workers at a time they have lost their jobs and possibly their homes and family members, is akin to capitalising on their misfortune.


Sarosh Bana is Executive Editor of Business India in Mumbai, Regional Editor, Indo-Pacific Region, of Germany’s Naval Forces journal, and India Correspondent of Sydney-based cyber security journal, Asia Pacific Security Magazine (APSM). 

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