The question of letting Palestinians from the West Bank resume working in Israel and settlements or keeping them out illustrates the dilemmas Israel faces. Mitigating risk in the short term may lead to more risk in the long term.

Israel suffered an ugly terrorist attack on Monday in a spot where such attacks are uncommon. Two Palestinian cousins from a village outside of Hebron stole cars in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana—a place familiar to many American Jews as a popular landing spot for Anglos making aliyah—and went on a stabbing and ramming spree, killing 79-year-old Edna Bluestein and wounding 18 others. Along with the largest rocket barrage from Gaza in weeks on Tuesday, Israelis were starkly reminded of the ongoing threats to their lives and safety. These attacks, whether they emanate from West Bank Palestinians or terror groups ensconced in Gaza, illustrate the omnipresent challenge that comes from the lack of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and also serve to remind why resolving it is so difficult.

An intersection in Ra’anana

The terrorism in Ra’anana raised the temperature on a debate that has been simmering for weeks over the status of West Bank Palestinians who have work permits for Israel and West Bank settlements. Prior to October 7, there were approximately 150,000 Palestinians from the West Bank who worked in Israel or in Israeli settlements, but work permits were suspended following Hamas’ assault and have not been restored. On Sunday, Defense Minister Yoav Galant called to resume employment for Palestinian workers on security grounds in order to alleviate the tensions that arise from so many workers sitting around with nothing productive to do, and received immediate and unsurprising criticism from Itamar Ben Gvir. After Monday’s terrorist attacks committed by two West Bank Palestinians, there was an avalanche of calls from Israeli politicians to maintain the current policy of keeping Palestinian workers out of Israeli communities. This was irrespective of the fact that Monday’s terrorists were in Israel illegally and without work permits, and were in fact on an infiltrators watchlist, having been caught illegally in Israel before.

It is entirely understandable, and even reasonable, for Israelis to be nervous about Palestinian workers. There is ample evidence suggesting that the 18,000 Palestinian workers from Gaza who received work permits and began working inside of Israel in the past three years provided intelligence to Hamas that was used to deadly effect on October 7. Reliable polling documenting the rise in support for armed struggle among Palestinians does not make all Palestinians—or even the ones who tell pollsters that they favor violent resistance—terrorists, but it does statistically raise the immediate risks of having tens of thousands of Palestinians inside of Israel and Israeli settlements every day. In an Israel still reeling from the terrorism of the Second Intifada effectively replicated in a single condensed day, willingness to take unnecessary security risks is near zero.

The other side of this is that despite the high emotional barrier to allowing Palestinian workers back into Israeli construction sites and farms, the West Bank Palestinian work permit program has been enormously successful and largely risk-free. Since 2015, despite hundreds of thousands of individual Palestinians who have been issued work permits from the West Bank, only 14 have committed attacks on Israelis according to Israeli security officials, which is a number so comparatively small as to barely register. Unlike the Gaza worker program, the West Bank program has a much longer and more extensive track record, and it is one of low risk. It also does not bring with it the same problems of Hamas forcing returning workers under threat of violence to supply intelligence since Hamas does not control the West Bank. The history of West Bank Palestinians with work permits almost uniformly not engaging in terrorism and violence does not guarantee that they will be similarly situated going forward, but it makes the fears of an October 7 repeat should they resume their jobs based more on high emotions than solid evidence.

A soldier checks cars passing through the Israeli military checkpoint between the West Bank and Israel

There are also policy considerations at work in this debate. The Israeli economy, and particularly the construction sector, relies heavily on Palestinian laborers, and replacing 150,000 jobs overnight that Israelis don’t want to do with an influx of foreign guest workers will be a long and logistically complex process that will create its own set of challenges. The Palestinian economy also relies on these workers being employed by Israelis and their larger supply of jobs, and it is not in Israel’s interest to have a failed West Bank economy alongside a non-existent Gaza economy right on its borders. Should that be the result, Israel will soon find that the West Bank landscape looks similar to Gaza’s, with everything that entails, and that the bulk of the burden of dealing with it will be on Israel’s shoulders. 

In addition, there is a security component to this beyond the pure economic aspects. It is true that terrorists can be wealthy and educated, so positing a causal link between poverty and terrorism falls apart; Osama bin Laden was the poster child for this type of terrorist leader. But that is because ideological fervor is not about one’s socioeconomic status, so simply giving people jobs is not going to eliminate nationalist, religious, or other ideological fervor. What is true is that if you have tens of thousands of bored young men with no jobs and no prospects, it will be easy to get them into the streets and push them to make trouble by giving them some cash and some guns, even if they are not natural revolutionaries. Much of the story of the rise in terrorism in the northern West Bank over the past few years is about the collapse of the Palestinian economy during COVID and the corresponding influx of Iranian cash to younger Palestinians who had no terrorist affiliations but were suddenly compelled to form independent militias. Keeping these Palestinian laborers at home is creating a pool of easy recruits for the genuine terrorist ideologues and sowing the seeds of the next Palestinian uprising, something that Galant and Israel’s security services understand but that is hard to swallow when Palestinians are shooting and running over Israelis in idyllic central Israeli towns.

Defense Minister Yoav Galant

Finally, there is the U.S. angle. As reported this week in both American and Israeli outlets, President Joe Biden’s frustration with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is higher than it has been at any point since October 7, with the two men not having spoken since Biden abruptly ended his conversation with Netanyahu on December 23. The administration views the Israeli government as recalcitrant, Democratic senators are introducing resolutions seeking new reporting on potential Israeli human rights violations in Gaza and potentially conditioning assistance to Israel, and the time-honored tradition of anonymous leaks on both sides criticizing the other is back in full force. While with regard to non-Gaza issues, Biden is most immediately upset about Netanyahu’s refusal to transfer the full amount of tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority that Israel collects on its behalf, alleviating some of the economic crunch by resuming entry for permitted Palestinian workers is an easier way for Israel to buy some goodwill. It is becoming even more apparent every day how much Israel relies on the U.S. for all manner of things, large and small, and doing things that will keep the U.S.-Israel relationship on strong footing should be Israel’s top priority, even if it means assuming manageable risks that Israel would rather not assume right now.

It is precisely at challenging times like these when long-term considerations become more important, and also when they become tougher to operationalize as smart policy. Trying to cut off all potential security problems at the pass by not taking any small risks will often make it necessary to take larger risks down the road when the problems are even more formidable. It is easy to see why Israel does not want to let Palestinian workers roam around in the current environment, but that a decision is difficult and even controversial doesn’t make it wrong. It may be that allowing Palestinian workers back in now is too soon, but Israel will have to start balancing its short-term worries with its long-term interests.