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As Indian workers find work in Israel, some say they are taking jobs from Palestinians

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One repercussion of the conflict between Hamas and Israel is being felt far away, in India. That is where skilled laborers are vying for thousands of jobs that Israel is seeking to fill - jobs that some say Palestinians once held. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from the northern Indian city of Lucknow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: A devotional song blares from a Hindu temple as dozens of men cram in line for the chance to register for work in Israel. Mostly, though, what the men hear are orders. One official directs the men to sit down over there if they haven't registered.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: As they jostle to get to the top of the line, a security guard orders them to sit down.

UNIDENTIFIED SECURITY GUARD: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: "Do it like gentlemen," he says. "No need for mischief."

Ramakant Biswakarma is a carpenter. He's been here for three days waiting for his turn to register.

RAMAKANT BISWAKARMA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He's bunking with a friend. He says other men are sleeping on nearby pavements at a cheap hotel.

Another man in line, Bahadur Singh, says the money he could earn in Israel - more than $1,600 a month - is more than five times what he'd get paid here for the same work - when he can find it...

BAHADUR SINGH: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: ...But seems nervous about going. He hears there's bombs falling over there. On the upside, he says, this is a deal between the Indian and Israeli governments. This means he doesn't have to risk employment agents fleecing him.

SINGH: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says, a few years ago, he paid an agent his life savings - $600 - on the promise of a job abroad. Then the agent disappeared. It's a common story.

This recruitment drive comes after India and Israel inked a deal in May for thousands of skilled laborers to work in the Jewish state, but the rush to recruit only began in earnest after conflict erupted between Israel and Hamas. After the war began, Israel paused work permits for Palestinians, citing security concerns. That paralyzed Israel's building sector, which relies on Palestinian labor. Then, the vice president of the Israel Builders Association, Haim Feiglin, told Voice of America that his country was negotiating with India to bring in more workers to replace Palestinians.

HAIM FEIGLIN: We hope to engage 50,000 to 100,000 workers from India to be able to run the whole sector and bring it back to normal.

HADID: So shortly after the recruitment drive began, 10 Indian labor unions announced they opposed the move. So did members of India's chief opposition party.

PRAVEEN CHAKRAVARTY: What are we essentially saying by doing this?

HADID: Praveen Chakravarty is a political economist affiliated with the opposition Congress party.

CHAKRAVARTY: We are essentially saying, oh, don't worry. Even if you attack Palestinians and you don't have Palestinian labor, we will supplement that. That is direct intervention.

HADID: Navtej Sarna, a former Indian ambassador to Israel, says what this deal actually shows is the strength of the India-Israel relationship.

NAVTEJ SARNA: The - it shows that the two governments are comfortable working with each other, and this is something which has built up over the last 30 years.

HADID: Those 30 years have been key. Before that, India was a prominent ally of Palestinians. Now, India is one of the biggest customers of Israeli weaponry. That relationship has grown even closer under the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist. Many Indians see the two countries as ideologically aligned and like it that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE RUNNING)

HADID: Back in the line outside the registration office, we meet Manoj Sharma, who waits to register for work in Israel.

MANOJ SHARMA: I love India. I love Israel.

HADID: He says he's even willing to fight for Israel.

SHARMA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: "He says, Hamas killed innocent people. Now, Palestinians have lost their chance to work in Israel." He says, "Indians can do it now."

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Lucknow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
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