During Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to Eastern Europe in the summer, the governments of Romania and Bulgaria agreed not to vote in favour of the Palestinian state at the UN. Israel has since arranged several thousand work permits for Romanian and Bulgarian builders. This is supposedly a win-win deal that shows the creativity of the Netanyahu government (he also suggested replacing striking Israeli doctors with physicians from India). On the one hand, Israel wants to speed up cheap construction to solve its housing crisis. On the other, Romania and Bulgaria will earn foreign currency and reduce unemployment. The deal will also strengthen Israel’s ties with Turkey’s European neighbours.
When my grandfather Hezi Holdengerber arrived in Israel from Romania after the Holocaust, he and his brothers built roofs together. Now Jews work in construction only as bosses or engineers. Half of Israel’s construction workers are Arab citizens of Israel; the other half are Chinese or Palestinian, some of whom are likely to lose their jobs under the new agreements.
More construction workers have died in Israel in the past decade than Israelis died in the wars with Gaza and Lebanon. But since the dead are Arab, Palestinian or Chinese, they don’t get much attention from the mainstream Israeli press. Hasan Sholi, a safety guide from the Arab village of Kabul in northern Israel (it’s mentioned in the Bible, the village that Solomon gave to Hiram of Tyre in exchange for help with building the Temple), is doing what he can to tackle the problem. His Facebook page is the only place where all the accidents are noted and listed. On average, someone falls from a great height on a construction site in Israel every 22 minutes. Between January and November this year, 33 workers died, compared to 23 in 2010. In Britain there are 2.4 deaths for every 100,000 workers. In Israel the figure is about 15. Twenty inspectors supervise 20,000 building sites and 200,000 labourers. And when a labourer dies, his employer never goes to jail.
Sholi says the arrival of the workers from Eastern Europe will only make matters worse. They do not know the Israeli safety protocols and it will be difficult to teach them. ‘What can you do,’ he says. ‘Hasan Sholi doesn’t speak Bulgarian.’