Dec 22 2006

‘Biggest losers’

Published by at 12:12 pm under Blogs

By Daoud Kuttab

The biggest losers in the current political stalemate in Palestine have been the civil servants. Their total number is a bit over 150,000. The actual civil servants are 73,000 and those on the security payroll from the various apparatuses are said to be 85,000. Add to this number those who are retired and the families of the prisoners and martyrs, and you get possibly up to 175,000 Palestinians who have not been paid since February 2006, when the present Haniyeh government was elected.

Civil servants went on strike in September, on the eve of the opening of the school year. This meant that no public schools would be opened, no medical workers would go to their clinics and hospitals and various interior ministry officials (responsible for key documents like passports and birth certificates) would not come to work.

There were some exceptions: emergency hospital staff was not included and passports for important issues, like urgent medical travel or pilgrimage, were granted.

After two months of children roaming the streets, the teachers went back (after getting a downpayment on their salary) but all other civil servant employees remained on strike. Postal workers also cut their strike for a few days when payments were made via the Palestinian post office, even though they were not included in these payments. Many of them complained on local radio that they had to borrow money for transportation to and from work.

The strike was not total. Most of the civil servants in Gaza were not included, and in the West Bank, a thriving underground business has been going on. Passports have been issued to many people even if not for life-threatening ailments that needed travel abroad or for performing pilgrimage.

Palestine’s private sector has not complained very much. The economic collapse expected by many has not materialised. Non-governmental agencies have been thriving and so have UN agencies; UNRWA’s budget has increased.

As expected, the civil servants’ strike has been attacked as politically motivated, fed by the idea that the West Bank, with a stronger PLO presence, has gone on strike while Gaza, with a stronger Hamas presence, did not. Those who do not agree with the criticism say that in Gaza, where there are more Hamas civil servants, they are getting paid indirectly from the various slush funds that Hamas has been able to bring into the Gaza Strip in suitcases carried across the Rafah crossing.

The Haniyeh government has yet to find a solution to the problem of unpaid civil servants. Even though Hamas had said it would not agree to receive any suspicious Western funding, until now no Hamas minister has objected to any of the money that has come in. Some estimate that $1.2 billion has come into Palestine in 2006.

Abbas is scheduled to give a long-awaited explanation to the people of Palestine for what has happened since the elections, including the various attempts to create a national unity government. It is expected that Abbas will declare the present Haniyeh government a caretaker government, which is a compromise between dissolving the Haniyeh government and preparing for elections, or keeping it in power without any clear light at the end of the tunnel.

Striking civil servants said they were ready to go back to work if the government could give them a realistic plan that shows when their past salaries will be paid and when they will get their regular salaries. For the time being, Palestinian public servants will have to wait until the power struggle between Fateh and Hamas is over, and the three million Palestinians who need birth certificates, postal services and medical consultations will have to wait.

Monday, December 18, 2006

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