For the past several weeks, a hostage situation has been unfolding in the Gaza Strip, but it’s not what you might expect: two competing political factions are warring for control of the bureaucracy. Government workers have for months been struggling in protest and paralysis as the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas spar, upending several local agencies, including health, public works, women’s affairs and, perhaps ironically, labor.
For all the uncertainties surrounding the emergent PA-Hamas “unity” government, perhaps the most immediate political question for Gaza is, can they actually govern? The current labor tensions seem to reflect a tradition of Palestinian unions acting as an internecine factional battleground: sidelined local employees of the Hamas administration have gone without wages as the new unity government struggles to establish its operations and key services.
Last week, with labor unrest mounting, the PA announced that the public workers of Gaza (which has relatively high unionization rates) would remain at least nominally on the payroll. Meanwhile, Ma’an News Agency reported in Gaza City that former Hamas employees had started a hunger strike to demand unpaid salaries. Conflict has roiled over the question of backwages, as tens of thousands of Hamas workers—recruited after the faction took control of Gaza in 2007—have gone about seven months without income. As of this week, Israeli authorities continue withholding tax revenues, leaving workers to rely on partial stopgap payments.
Though communications out of Gaza are difficult, Mohammed Aruri, a former staffer of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions who now works with the General Union of Palestinian Workers in Ramallah, tells The Nation via e-mail: “The political and economic situation in Gaza is complicated,” and “very hard to understand…especially after the 2006 election,” particularly from outside the Strip. When Hamas took control of the management of Gaza and hired its own civil servants, he explained, for many displaced former PA employees, “the government in Ramallah ordered them not to work with the Hamas government in Gaza and stay at home [while they] received their salaries every month from Ramallah.” But that labor limbo has again see-sawed.
Although some 24,000 employees received partial payments last October, no payment was issued to more than 15,000 workers in security-related jobs. At a sit-in outside Palestinian cabinet headquarters, Ma’an quoted union official Khalil al-Zayyan: “Our sit-in is peaceful and we do not want to destroy public property, but we will stay here until our members are recognized and their salaries paid…. We’ve had enough of the false promises. Either the government resigns or it takes all of Gaza’s responsibilities, like in the West Bank.”