“We Built This Country”: Palestinian Citizens in Israel’s Construction Industry, 1948–73
oral history
political economy
gender and sexuality
military administration

This article explores the experiences of Palestinian citizens in Israel’s construction industry in the twenty-five years following the Palestinian Nakba and the establishment of Israel. The article relies primarily on the narratives of thirteen Palestinian individuals who were construction workers, foremen, contractors, organizers, and activists, as well as their family members, interviewed by the author in October 2018. The article utilizes these narratives alongside archival and secondary sources to examine four primary issues: 1) the conditions and considerations that drove Palestinian citizens to effectively become migrant workers in the Israeli job market, specifically in the construction industry; 2) workers’ attempts and experiences of creating spaces of safety and intimacy away from home with their peers and, at times, with their employers; 3) the pressures workers felt to conceal themselves in Jewish spaces because of their racialized hyper-visibility, alongside their experiences of the social invisibility which made their exploitation possible; and 4) how workers and their communities made use of the knowledge, skills, and resources they gained in an industry into which many of them were driven through necessity, to rebuild and reimagine their own communities in the wake of catastrophe and to resist the state’s stranglehold on their development.

Author biography: 

Nimrod Ben Zeev is a fellow at the Polonsky Academy for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. He thanks the interviewees and their families, including those whose narratives are not included here, for their openness, thoughtfulness, and hospitality. He also thanks Assaf Adiv, Fady Asleh, ‘Issa Boursheh, Leena Dallasheh, Suheil Diab, Anis, Layla, and Hanna Khoury, and Shira Robinson; as well as On Barak, Ayelet Brinn, Kathy Brown, Basma Fahoum, Dotan Halevy, Naama Maor, Sherene Seikaly, Heather Sharkey, Paraska Tolan Szkilnik, Eve Troutt Powell, the editors of JQ, the participants of the 2019 New Directions in Palestinian Studies workshop at Brown University, where an earlier version of this article was first presented, and two anonymous reviewers, for their thoughtful comments and suggestions on this article. This research was supported by the Social Sciences Research Council’s International Dissertation Research Fellowship, the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, and the University of Pennsylvania Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy’s Graduate Fellowship.