Fearful Israeli authorities are playing down how desperate Palestinian employees returning to their jobs forced their way into an industrial zone in the occupied West Bank, only a 15-minute drive from Jerusalem.

On February 1, the nearby Israeli municipal authorities of Maaleh Adumim, home to more than 45,000 Jewish settlers, announced, “Shock and panic has been created by a misleading video that shows Palestinians storming the security barrier of the nearby industrial zone.

“We wish to clarify that this incident was created due to an electrical fault in our computerised security system, resulting in overcrowding and long queues of legitimate Palestinian workers trying to get to their jobs. All security measures are in place and there is no need to panic.”

Despite the reassuring messages from the municipality, Israelis have resorted to the social media to express their fears that what happened along the Gaza-Israel border on October 7, is now about to be repeated in the West Bank where more than 400,000 Jewish settlers are living side-by-side with an estimated two million Palestinians.

In a reference to the killing of 1200 Israelis during the Hamas-led invasion of October 7, an anonymous Israeli wrote on X ( formerly Twitter), “The next massacre will be carried out by so-called Palestinian workers. Where is the Prime Minister, where is the Minister of Defence, where is the chief of staff, where is the head of Shin Bet ( Israel’s internal security agency) ?”

Right wing Israeli journalist Caroline Glick, criticising the army, asked why the authorities were permitting Palestinian workers to continue working in and near West Bank settlements, while simultaneously banning them from entering Israel.“This discriminatory policy is akin to inviting a raid and another massacre”, Glick wrote on X.

Fears expressed by such Israelis like Glick explain why more than 100,000 Palestinians have been prevented from returning to their jobs inside Israel. This employment ban has affected both the Israeli and Palestinian economies, raising fears that this is the equivalent of a new pressure cooker waiting to explode.

Enraged Israelis are asking themselves why any Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza should ever be permitted to return to their jobs within Israel. Dinner table conversations among Israelis focus on the 18,0000 Palestinians from Gaza who used to work inside Israel.

Unconfirmed reports speculate that some of them were actually functioning as secret agents of Hamas, collecting intelligence about Israeli targets subsequently attacked on October 7.

The enforced absence of Palestinian workers from the West Bank has effectively paralysed an Israeli construction industry that is desperate for the muscle power needed to construct yet more houses and public buildings inside Israel. Unfinished apartments and office tower blocks that were teeming with activity before October 7 are now standing deserted in major cities like Tel Aviv, Haifa, Ramat Gan and Haifa.

Jewish builders who cannot meet their construction deadlines because of the lack of workers are being forced to take bank loans to tide them over. One unnamed builder was quoted by the Israeli media as saying, “The situation in the construction sector is nothing less than disastrous. More than half of the construction sites in southern Israel are completely shut down because of the shortage of labour. Those still active are only working at 30 percent capacity.”

Eli Avisrour, chair of the contractors (building employers) organisation in the Negev, was quoted by an online magazine, ‘News of Beersheva and the Negev’, as saying, “The construction sector is in urgent need of tens of thousands of labourers. The more the delay, the more substantial the damage that will affect the entire Israeli economy.”

Raoul Srugo, head of the the Israel Builders Association, told an Israeli radio station, “More than half of the construction sites in the country are not functioning, many builders are on the verge of collapse, we are witnessing the collapse of entire companies, hundreds more will collapse in the coming months.”

Desperate Palestinians denied the opportunity of working in Israel are turning out to be a burden for the Palestinian Authority in The West Bank which cannot provide them with substitute jobs. Liberal Israelis who defend the rights of Palestinian workers have raised the alarm of a looming economic catastrophe.

“Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian families have been left without a source of income with no prospect of returning to work”, comments the Maan Workers Association (MWA) based in Tel Aviv. “Banning Palestinians from working in Israel brings them closer to a state of hunger and desperation.”

The MWA adds that replacing Palestinians by importing foreign workers is no solution. It argues that Israel is a far less attractive destination for foreign workers following the October 7 violence in which more than 40 foreigners from Nepal, Thailand and the Philippines were kidnapped and murdered.

Israeli security experts have also warned that aggravating the economic crisis for Palestinians could trigger still more violence. According to Ynet, the country’s largest online news website, Israeli intelligence experts support the prospect of re-employing Palestinian labourers.

“This could otherwise be like a pressure pot that explodes in our own faces.” Unnamed Israeli security officials told the website. “The workers are sitting at home, they are bitter and frustrated because they cannot provide for their families.”

The Israeli government’s bid to bring over tens of thousands of cheap labourers from India has been criticised as unrealistic and “illusionary” by Israeli financial newspaper ‘Calcalist’, the Israeli equivalent of the ‘Financial Times’.

Such warnings have been disregarded by the Israeli authorities. Israel’s Minister of Economy Nir Barkaat is credited with spearheading an initiative to bring over tens of thousands of Indian workers as soon as possible. Barkaat, who visited India last year, has drawn up a detailed plan that would allow manual workers from India to take over Palestinian jobs.

“Given the war time emergency and the most severe and pressing labour shortage affecting our economy, compounded by the dwindling number of Palestinian workers, we are compelled to urgently augment the quota of foreign workers in Israel” Barkaat said in a letter written to cabinet colleagues.

“Consequently under my guidance we have compiled the requirements of the key industries in the economy, revealing the imperative need for approximately 160,000 foreign workers.” His letter was published late last year in the Israeli media.

Supporting Barkaat, two Israelis published a paper last month entitled, “India is the solution”, where they openly demanded the employment of Indian labourers and other workers to be used as substitutes for Palestinians.

“Decision-makers in Jerusalem should simply cut the dependence on Palestinian labourers who constitute a security threat to Israelis”, wrote Oshrit Birodkr and Uri Vartman at the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy (JISS).

“Decision-makers need to understand that India is a cornerstone for implementing the plan to stop relying on Palestinian workers. Relations between India and Israel have significantly improved over the past decade and we should reap the benefits.”

Indian employment agencies have yet to respond to Barkaat’s invitation. Those Indians currently employed in Israel are mostly employed as care workers, and cleaners at shopping malls and Ben Gurion international airport near Tel Aviv. Last month a Saudi owned TV station, ‘Al Arabiya’, highlighted a video of Indian job seekers queuing up in Delhi to register for work in Israel.

‘Al Arabiya’ quoted a man named Keshav Das as saying, “There is no work here, so I will have to work somewhere. I know l am going to a red (dangerous) zone. But I must feed my family, so I will have to go, otherwise my children will die.”

Shyam Bhatia is the author of ‘Goodbye Shahzadi’, a political biography of Benazir Bhutto, and a senior independent journalist based in the UK.