A labour of enmity: HRW’s distorted Jordan Valley report

Apr 21, 2015 | Ahron Shapiro

A labour of enmity: HRW's distorted Jordan Valley report

On April 13, Human Rights Watch released a report accusing Israeli farms in the Jordan Valley of exploiting Palestinian children for labour.

It received widespread media reporting, including a one-sided, uncritical and detailed article in the Fairfax newspapers. Yet this story, and the stories written about it, suffer from an increasingly common syndrome affecting NGO reports about Israel – they are political documents where the language of human rights is used to further predetermined political goals, and neither reasonable standards of evidence, nor fairness, nor context are allowed to stand in the way of furthering these goals.

This report deals with a phenomenon which may be something Israel should properly investigate – illegal child labour in agriculture – though it offers little evidentiary basis to conclude how widespread or serious the problem is. What is indisputable, however, is that the phenomenon in question is a reflection of problems in Palestinian society and indeed the wider Middle East, and this is largely ignored.

Indeed, the report makes the existence of settlements the source of the problem. As such, it sets forth a series of demands of political actions, under the guise of “recommendations”, including an economic boycott against settlement products and the ban on sale of agricultural machinery to settlements.

The inescapable conclusion is that the report was written primarily with the intention of demanding action against settlements, not fairly and professionally addressing the specific problem of Palestinian child labour.

The Evidentiary Problems

NGO Monitor has exposed some inherent flaws of the report that should be the starting point for any critique. It has also blasted Human Rights Watch for what it calls its “obsession” with Israel while ignoring or downplaying more blatant and undisputed human rights problems elsewhere in the world.

Building on the points raised by NGO Monitor, AIJAC identifies three key deficiencies in the HRW report that give credence to the charges of politicisation of human rights and bias. These are: 1) the evidence for the claims and allegations in the report themselves; 2) how those claims were handled and politicised; 3) what important information was omitted from HRW’s report.

Regarding the first point, HRW’s claims were based entirely on Palestinian allegations without any additional documentary or professional evidence provided and without giving the Israeli farms concerned a chance to defend themselves from the charges.

On the second point, HRW’s politicised treatment of the subject matter minimised the central role of Palestinian contractors in this problem as well as their legal responsibilities when recruiting workers to carry out tasks on Israeli farms. The report also exaggerated the negative effects of Israeli settlements on the local Palestinian population.

On the final point, HRW left out of its report the context of the ingrained culture of child labour in Palestinian and greater Arab society, ignored the Palestinian Authority’s glaring budgetary neglect of Palestinian agriculture in areas under their control over the past two decades and ignored the ways that Israel has tried to help Palestinian farmers in the Jordan Valley.

It’s revealing that the photo HRW initially used on the cover of the report, which showed a young Palestinian child picking dates, was determined to have been taken on a Palestinian farm, not an Israeli one. HRW was compelled to swap the photo, and the older teens in the new image were actually of legal age to work on farms.

Here in Australia, Fairfax reporter Ruth Pollard uncritically trumpeted HRW’s report in an article on April 13.

The only actual individual she interviewed for the story was the report’s principal author Bill Van Esveld (she did include a brief comment from an unidentified Foreign Ministery spokesperson that the relevant ministries were studying the report and would respond to it at a later date). Pollard’s readiness to accept the report unreservedly without further investigation is troubling, because it puts NGO employees on par with journalists, even though they are not beholden to the same standards of impartiality that objective journalists are.

Former Israel-based AP reporter Matti Friedman shed light on this troubling phenomenon as it pertains to Israel in his landmark article for the Atlantic last November, in which he wrote, in part:

International organizations in the Palestinian territories have largely assumed a role of advocacy on behalf of the Palestinians and against Israel, and much of the press has allowed this political role to supplant its journalistic function…
Many foreign journalists have come to see themselves as part of this world of international organizations, and specifically as the media arm of this world. They have decided not just to describe and explain, which is hard enough, and important enough, but to “help.”

It’s important to stress straight away that David Elhayani, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, has strenuously denied the allegations, something Pollard failed to report, though some other news outlets did.

“They’ve made up lies, the entire goal of this organization (HRW) is to sully Israel’s image,” David Elhayani, himself a former farmer, told AFP.
“If they’d show me a farmer employing a child, I’d report it to police immediately.”
Elhayani said it was simply not worth it for Jordan Valley farmers to hire minors due to the relative complexity of the agricultural work there.
A farmer would also lose his exporting license if he were caught employing a minor, Elhayani said.
He did however acknowledge there are “Palestinian contractors who come for very specific jobs for a short period of time, when increased manpower is needed.”
“If some child infiltrates (works on a farm through [these] contractor[s]), I have no way of knowing,” he said, stressing that no Jordan Valley farmers directly employed minors.

Elhayani’s comments do seem to hint at what appears to be the source of the main problem – that Israeli farms in the Jordan Valley do outsource certain kinds of labour to local Palestinians by means of Palestinian contractors, and some of these may illegally employ minors.

The problem, then, is not that Israeli farmers are knowingly employing minors – in fact, they have no motive to do so as minors are much less useful on a farm than adults – but that enforcement of Israeli labour laws has been lax. It appears Israeli farms have seasonally supplemented their documented Palestinian workers with undocumented ones hired through an intermediary, and this lack of oversight has at least left open the possibility that some undocumented workers are underage.

This policy has been the source of considerable criticism by Israeli labour rights groups, as Ha’aretz reported last May.

Of course, the problem of farms trying to cut corners around regulations and hire farmhands for cash wages without providing all the workplace benefits that they are entitled to is not unique to Israel, but a global issue. Even here in Australia, the practice is widespread.

Israel, like Australia, is not ignoring the problem, although some complications have apparently arisen about who is ultimately responsible for tightening up regulations in the Jordan Valley. Last year, Israeli agencies responded to the Ha’aretz report as follows:

The Civil Administration responded to Haaretz in a special statement; it said that under a military order, enforcement of labor laws in Israeli communities in the West Bank is the responsibility of the same officials as in Israel proper.
According to the Jordan Valley Regional Council, the municipal authority in the area, “To the best of our knowledge, Jordan Valley farmers employ workers in accordance with the law. Since they are private employers, we do not have any data.”
The Economy Ministry also responded. “The ministry is aware of the situation and as a result has for months, in cooperation with the Justice Ministry and the Civil Administration … been working on amending defense legislation applying in the area. The goal is to apply [Israeli] labor laws … to Israeli employers in this area as well,” the ministry said.
“The High Court of Justice’s ruling in the Givat Ze’ev case applied on the level of private international law alone, giving workers the possibility to file a suit against an employer. But the government cannot acquire enforcement powers regarding laws that have not been applied to the area through military orders.”
The ministry acknowledged, however, that it has the authority in the West Bank to address Israeli employers’ violations of the minimum wage. It can also enforce legislation on foreign workers and labor laws protecting women. The ministry said it would deal with any information it received involving violations of these laws.

The Jordan Valley farmers seem to view the matter differently. They’ve argue that their arrangement is ethical because the Palestinians that work on their farms earn more money than they do on Palestinian farms. (Of course, this is not a valid excuse. They should fully comply with Israeli labour laws).

It’s verifiably true that Israeli farms pay even undocumented Palestinians more than Palestinian farms do – even if you go along with HRW’s report. HRW said the average wage of the teenagers interviewed for their report was 70 shekels a day, while the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics says that the average wage of Palestinians (of any age) working on West Bank Palestinian farms is 58.2 shekels a day. Meanwhile, in 2012, the average daily wage in the PA for children aged 10-17 was 43.1 shekels.

Helping Palestinian Farmers

Moreover, in an interview with the Times of Israel last year, Jordan Valley head Elhayani has said that, while the PA is ignoring the needs of Jordan Valley Palestinians, Israeli farms aren’t.

According to Elhayani, 

…local Israeli farmers paid a total of 200 million shekels a year to Palestinian employees. “What has Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] done for them?” he asked, his voice rising. “What jobs has he provided? What has he built? Nothing. Not one sidewalk. Not one playground.”

Even reporters largely sympathetic to the Palestinian narrative on Jordan Valley farming – like Canadian journalist Jillian Kestler-D’Amours – have agreed that the Palestinian Authority has utterly failed to address the needs of Palestinian farmers, using its budget instead to pay salaries for government workers.

“The PA government in Ramallah has done very little to support Palestinians in the Jordan Valley. The PA has never allocated more than one percent of its budget to the agricultural sector, and between 2001 and 2005, over 85 percent of that budget went to paying PA salaries.
The overall contribution of agriculture to the Palestinian GDP dropped from around 13.3 percent in 1994 to 5.7 percent in 2008, according to a report released by Al Shabaka, the Palestinian policy network.
“The support we get as farmers in the Jordan Valley is less than what we need. The [Palestinian] government does not care about the agricultural situation. Agriculture was damaged because the (Palestinian Authority) neglected it. They didn’t change their strategy,” Moahri said.

Israeli farms see themselves as injecting income into a distressed local Palestinian community that is not being served by their own Palestinian government. It is money that would otherwise, in all likelihood, go to foreign workers.

Elhayani also noted that Israeli Jordan Valley farmers help their neighbours develop their own farms, citing their assistance in helping Palestinians create their own date export industry.

Israeli settlements, he continued, grow dates collectively in the Jordan Valley. They cultivate 18,000 dunam [4,448 acres] of date orchards, bringing to market 40 percent of the world’s majhoul dates, which are hard to grow and had disappeared from the region many years ago. European and even Arab states buy the Jordan Valley dates – the Arab states, he said, ask for plain brown packages with no writing or design. But the settlements also sold saplings and irrigation systems to Palestinians, who now cultivate 8,000 dunam [1,977 acres] of their own date palms. “Do you have any idea how long it took us to figure out how to grow those dates here?” he asked. “We gave that to them.”

HRW’s report creates the illusion that Palestinian farms in the Jordan Valley are suffering due to Israeli agriculture in the region. On April 14, the US-based media watchdog CAMERA published a blog post refuting that claim. In particular, the lucrative Israeli-assisted date crop was providing a financial boon for Palestinian farmers in the area.

The Palestinian date sector has enjoyed significant growth in recent years. According to a report published by Paltrade and the Ministry of National Economy, among others (“The State of Palestine National Export Strategy 2014-2018”):
Palestinian fresh fruit exports have grown at a rate of 52%, compared to global import growth of 21% over the same time period.
The main fruit exports from the State of Palestine are nuts, dates, grapes, strawberries and almonds. The bulk of export growth for the sector has been driven by a rise of exports of dates. Palestinian exports of dates have risen from US$324,000 in 2007 to US$1.2 million in 2010, reflecting an absolute growth of over 250%.

The fact is, Israel has been continually assisting Palestinian farms in the Jordan Valley improve their methods. This sort of agricultural cooperation has been going on between Israel and the Palestinians since 1967.

A Jerusalem Post article from December 1972 reported on this effort to assist Palestinian farmers. The story cited statistics that showed that “agricultural production rose from IL135 million in 1968 to IL280 million in 1972. The farmer’s daily wage increased from IL14.20 to IL31 per day during the same period.”

The report included this: “The [Israeli Agricultural] Ministry’s Director-General Avraham Brum said the government aimed at bringing standards of production and living of West Bank farmers up to par with that of Israeli farmers.”
(“West Bank farm output doubles in four years” The Jerusalem Post; Dec 27, 1972, P.2 retrieved via ProQuest Historical Newspapers)

More recently, a 2011 story in Yediot Ahronot also shed light on this phenomenon:

Cooperation between us and Israel began at the end of the second intifada because we had much to learn from you,” explains [Palestinian] Amid al-Masri, an agricultural landowner in the Jordan Valley, “We cooperate with many Israeli companies on issues like de-infestation, irrigation and seedlings.”

Child Labour: A chronic problem in the Arab world

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the reason why it’s plausible that some minors may have been hired by Palestinian contractors to assist in farm labour is because child labour is so common in Palestinian society.

The unfortunate fact is that Palestinian culture, like that of the Arab world around it, has historically had a permissive – in some communities even encouraging – view towards child labour. This attitude itself has nothing at all to do with Israel.

The fact is, while airing unproven allegations against Israel over hiring underage Palestinians for agriculture work in the Jordan Valley, HRW ignored mountains of proven, documented cases of Palestinian exploitation of Palestinian children for labour in the Palestinian Authority, including in the same district.

Furthermore, in order for HRW to blame Israel’s occupation for the economic distress that encourages child labour, it had to hide the fact that economic conditions are actually worse in Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt – and the child labour problems are worse in those countries than in the Palestinian Authority as well.

The following are just some of the stories about the child labour problem in Palestinian society sampled from over the past two decades:

Now that Palestinians have taken over much of the West Bank and Gaza, some see an opportunity to put a clamp on child labor. But advocates of a stricter policy worry that the culture is too permissive of children working, especially in times of economic hardship.
“The society is really tolerant of the child in the street. It doesn’t really shock people,” says Mervat Rishmawi, a researcher at Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group.
Through her work for the International Labor Organization (ILO), she has found child labor to be a problem in poor countries throughout the Middle East. Children selling goods on corners or working in markets are a common sight from neighboring Jordan to remote Yemen.

  • In May 2000, the Jerusalem Post‘s Arab reporter Lahoud Lamia devoted a feature-length story to the problem of child labour inside the PA, with the introduction “while Palestinian leaders trumpet the dawning of a new era, five-year-olds work long hours to support their families and enrich greedy factory owners.” (“Child labor under the PA–no end in sight” The Jerusalem Post; May 12, 2000; Pg. B6 retrieved via ProQuest Historical Newspapers)
  • In November 2010, the Palestinian news outlet Ma’an reported that Israeli authorities stopped two men who were trying to smuggle 21 children into Israel to sell candy on the street to Israelis. Israel turned over the group to Palestinian police. “[Palestinian] officials said police regularly seize children selling sweets in the West Bank and inside Israel, and called on parents to stop their children working,” the report concluded.
  • An article from February 2012 by the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported from Jenin on the progress of a new PA initiative to decrease the practice of child labour in Palestinian society.
  • The same month, Reuters reported that Palestinian children – in the Jordan Valley, no less – had developed a habit of scrounging for iron at the rubbish tip to sell to scrap metal companies.

Further, as stated before, child labour is not a problem unique to Palestinian society but is rampant throughout the Arab world, including in Jordan, according to the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, (even right on the East Bank, just a couple of kilometres west of where HRW based its report), and also Lebanon and Egypt and in far greater numbers and percentages than in the West Bank. This context is entirely missing from HRW’s report, and none of that can be blamed on Israel or “the occupation”.

Fixing the problem, or politicising the issues?

It bears repeating that nothing the Palestinians or other Arabs do or don’t do about questionable labour practices in their own communities absolves Israel of the responsibility to rigorously enforce its labour laws, particularly in regard to child labour and including – if not especially – in West Bank settlements.

It doesn’t matter if child labour in agriculture is a problem on a much larger scale even in some first-word countries, such as the United States.

The PA has a responsibility to stamp out labour violations by Palestinians in Areas A and B of the West Bank – areas under their complete administrative control. Similarly, Israel has a responsibility to make every effort to ensure labour laws – especially those pertaining to child labour – are enforced in Area C of the West Bank under its own administrative control.

From news accounts, the Israeli government is trying to get to the bottom of the labour issues in the Jordan Valley, and bring them into compliance with court rulings.

If HRW was really concerned with correcting this issue, it would urge the Israeli authorities to speed up and intensify those efforts. Instead, it demands settlement boycotts – and gives the impression throughout its report that Palestinian children in the area would stay in school until the age of 18 if not for the settlements.

Needless to say, this is the opposite of the truth. They would likely be still working, just for lower wages. And, of course there is no call to boycott the many Palestinian farms that employ children – such as the Palestinian farm in the original picture that HRW inadvertently used on the cover of their report.

This is because HRW supports the boycott of settlements for other, political reasons. This report is just using an emotional issue – child labour – to provide another talking point for a larger political campaign. This is why the recommendations HRW provides make no sense as a solution to the problem of child labour.

HRW, which claims to support the human rights of everyone, will continue to suffer from a general credibility problem as long as it continues to have a double standard when it comes to the human rights of Palestinians – putting far too much emphasis on unproven, politicised allegations of Palestinians against Israel while ignoring or downplaying proven human rights violations of Palestinians by other parties, including other Palestinians themselves.

Moreover, HRW’s cynical and transparent attempt to use the banner of human rights and child labour – which by any objective standard is a scourge that has pervaded Palestinian society as well as the broader Arab world in ways that cannot be blamed on Israel – into political weapons by which to demonise and bludgeon Israel over West Bank settlements should rightly be seen as yet another blow to its claimed reputation for “impartial” human rights monitoring.

Ahron Shapiro



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