Palestinian Women in the Labor Market

Palestinian Women in the Labor Market
A Burgeoning Workforce Curbed by Israel’s Colonialism

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Cucumber Crops Being Harvested

Two women picking cucumber in Birket Ramadan or Naher al-Faleq.

3 June 1940
G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection

Labor market participation rates provide an indication of the degree of economic engagement of a country’s working-age population (those between the ages of fifteen and sixty-five years). Individuals are considered participants in the labor market if they either work or are unemployed. (In this essay, participation refers to employed, self-employed, and nonpaid individuals, such as those working in family businesses.) Nonparticipants include everyone else in the working-age population (for example, full-time students, prisoners, and stay-at-home mothers).

Over the past century (1918–2017), the rates of Palestinian women’s participation in the labor market fluctuated dramatically. The period can be divided into four phases: British colonial rule (1918–47), the immediate post-Nakba period (1948–66), direct Israeli occupation phase (1967–93), and the post-Oslo phase (1994–2017). Each period is marked by a different political structure of colonialism and domination that dramatically altered the economic lives and livelihoods of the Palestinians.

During the British colonial phase (1918–47), Palestinian women’s participation in the labor market was significant, primarily in the subsistence family-based agricultural sector. At the time, subsistence farming in Palestine consisted of small units of land farmed by family members. In addition to farming, peasant women produced simple processed commodities for household consumption, mostly foodstuffs, and sold the surplus. According to the 1931 census, approximately 9 percent of Palestinian women were in the labor market. By the beginning of World War II, paid women’s work started to increase steadily, particularly in urban coastal towns and cities. More Palestinian women were drawn into clerical positions in educational institutions and government offices. Women were also drawn into sewing factories in Haifa, which mainly catered to the British army engaged in the war.

It is not possible to establish whether women’s entry into the manufacturing sector in large numbers was a short-term phenomenon or might have led to a long-term structural change because the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 resulted in the expulsion of the Palestinians from their cities and villages.

In the second period (1948–66), more women across Palestine, particularly in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were pushed into seeking paid work in all sectors. This is particularly true of refugee women who mostly engaged in casual labor in the agricultural sector in large numbers. However, this rise in labor participation subsided over time. Older refugee women, particularly those with minimal educational levels, withdrew from the labor market upon the improvement of their economic conditions. Younger women joined the labor market, but in fewer numbers than those withdrawing from the market. By the early 1960s, the decline in refugee women’s participation rates brought the initial rising trend to a halt.    

In the third period (1967–93), women’s participation rates in the West Bank and Gaza Strip labor force remained low and declined gradually, from 11 percent in 1969 to 6 percent in 1991. This decline in women’s rates of participation after 1967 is in stark contrast to rates for women regionally and globally. It is also in contrast to Palestinian male participation rates, which exhibited a visible rise during this period. Large remittances earned by men who worked in the Israeli labor market and abroad maintained the male breadwinner model, which contributed toward the decline in women’s participation. However, the most significant factor explaining low rates of women labor is Israel’s deliberate and systematic policy of eroding the productive capacity of the local economy, which resulted in the destruction of the agricultural and manufacturing sectors (the two sectors that typically employ women). The magnitude of the contraction in the capacity of the Palestinian economy to generate work opportunities for women was such that even the rise in education after 1967 did not affect women’s labor force participation.

After 1967, Israeli companies and businesses employed Palestinian workers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, the vast majority of Palestinians entering the Israeli labor market were men.  According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, women accounted for less than 2 percent of West Bank and Gaza Strip workers in Israel from 1968 to 1993 and around 1 percent after 1994.  

Because of the settler-colonial relationship between Israel and the territories it occupied in 1967, Palestinian society considered women’s employment in Israel from a political perspective. Women were not responsive to work opportunities within Israel, as such opposition was viewed in the framework of resisting normalization with the colonial power and strengthening the resolve of the indigenous Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The UN Economic Commission for Western Asia report of 1980 noted:

Palestinians believe that as the Palestinian woman joins her husband in the service of the Israeli economy, the capacity of Israel to continue its aggression against the Palestinian people and the Arab nation is enhanced, while the components of the independent Palestinian economy, and consequently, the cohesiveness of Palestinian society, even in its narrow context, are further weakened.

In the post-Oslo Accords phase (1994–2017), women’s participation in the labor market rose from 11.2 percent in 1995 to 19 percent in 2017. Women with postsecondary levels of education, who gradually constituted a higher percentage of the population, were responsible for most of the increase. This rise in participation rates is significant because it represents a reversal in the decades-long decline in participation rates of women in the labor market. During this same period, and for the first time in decades, the participation rates of men started to decline, particularly after the second intifada in 2000, then stabilized after 2014.

The increase in women’s labor force participation after 1994 is mainly due to the expansion of the services sector, which tends to generate work that is intermittent and nonsustainable. In light of Israel’s ongoing colonial policies that undermine the manufacturing and agricultural sectors, women’s involvement in the labor market will remain low because the capacity of the economy in providing jobs for women is limited. This low involvement of women in the productive sectors is obvious when considering their sectoral distribution.


Distribution of Men and Women Workers in Various Sectors in the West Bank and Gaza Strip


(in Percentages)




























































Source: Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, Labor Force Survey, various years.


Women face a multilayered system of exploitation in the Palestinian labor market. Educated and skilled Palestinian women have found their opportunities to access the labor market thwarted by Israeli policies that limit their capacity to be part of the active economy. On the local front, women face discrimination in the workplace as well as inferior work conditions in both the informal and formal sectors. Discrimination partly manifests itself through differences in wage earnings: women earned an average 84 Israeli shekels a day in 2016, whereas men earned 114 shekels (average exchange rate in 2016: 1 dollar = 3,83 shekels). The unemployment rate for women is higher than it is for men (45 percent vs. 22 percent). In the Gaza Strip, the unemployment rates for women was 65 percent in 2016, one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.

To encourage more women to join the labor market, it will be essential to eliminate the pay discrimination and inferior work conditions to which they are subjected. More importantly, the productive capacity of the Palestinian economy must be enhanced. This requires policies and strategies to counter the erosion of the productive sectors, including agriculture, manufacturing, and technology, generated through Israel’s colonial policies. These sectors could be enhanced through a combination of investments including research and development, as well as by monitoring quality control and introducing trade protection measures particularly with regards to goods and commodities that have local substitutes and cannot compete with the highly subsidized Israeli goods.

Boycotting goods and services coming from the Israeli market is also an important strategy to enhance the capacity of the Palestinian labor market. These boycotts would allow quality goods and services produced in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to reach local markets.


Selected Bibliography: 

Economic Commission for Western Asia. “Effects of the Israeli Occupation on Palestinian Women Inside and Outside the Occupied Territories: Social and Economic Conditions of Palestinian Women” (E/ECWA/SDHS/CONF.4/Rev.1). Paper presented at the World Conference of the UN Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace, Copenhagen, Denmark, 14–30 July 1980.

Fleischmann, E. The Nation and Its “New” Women: The Palestinian Women’s Movement, 1920–1948.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Government of Palestine. Census of Palestine–1931, Vol. II. Alexandria, Egypt: Whitehead Morris, 1933.

Hilal, Jameel. Al-Diffah Al-Gharbia: Tarkeeb igtimai wa iktisadi (1948–1974) [The West Bank: Economic and Social Structure, 1948–1974]. Beirut: Palestine Liberation Organization Research Center, 1975.

Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. Labour Force Survey (various years). Jerusalem.        

Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. Judea, Samaria and Gaza Area Statistics (various years). Jerusalem.

Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. Statistical Abstract of Israel (various years). Jerusalem.

Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Annual Labour Force Survey Report (various years). Ramallah.

Rosenfeld, Henry. “From Peasantry to Wage Labour and Residual Peasantry: The Transformation of an Arab Village.” In R. Manners, ed., Process and Pattern in Culture: Essays in Honor of Julian H. Steward, 211–234. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007.

Saad, Ahmad. Al-tatwour al-iktisadi fi Filastine [Economic Development in Palestine]. Haifa: Al-Ittihad Press, 1985.

Sayigh, Rosemary. Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries. London: Zed Press, 1979.

Semyonov, Moshe and Noah Lewin-Epstein. Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Water: Noncitizen Arabs in the Israeli Labour Market. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987.