"From this day on, there is no government anymore!"
Palestinian workers employed by the Palestinian Authority declared an all out strike to demand full payment of their wages on 2 September 2006. This movement took place during a military assault by the Israeli regime on the Palestinian territories. The embargo placed on the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) by the Israeli government, the United States and the European Union after the election victory of Hamas in January 2006 has meant that 165 000 workers employed by the Palestinian Authority, went without wages for more than six months. The wages of these workers support approximately a million Palestinians. The strike involved about 100,000 workers and raised important questions about the political situation inside the Palestinian territories following the elections.
Since the strike was announced, the Hamas leadership accused Fatah (the political organisation which used to be led by Yassir Arafat and which was the main component part of the Palestine Liberation Organisation) of having orchestrated the strike to sabotage the Palestinian Hamas government, thus preparing the way for Fatah’s return to power.
Protests against non-payment of wages took place throughout the Palestinian territories over several months. However, these protests were temporarily suspended during the Israel – Lebanon war but restarted on the 14 August once a ceasefire was announced. Even in the beginning, the protests took place under horrific hardship with ongoing Israeli army (IDF) incursions into the Palestinian territories, shelling and ever-increasing poverty for the vast majority of Palestinians.
When the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the effect for all Palestinians was mainly symbolic. They kept on living under siege conditions and none of the main social and economic problems were solved. The Israeli elite hoped that by shutting the Gaza Strip off and denying the Palestinians any freedom of movement, its problems would go away. At the same time the Israeli ruling class used the "concession" of withdrawal from Gaza as an excuse to launch brutal military incursions into the area whenever it thought its interests were at stake. Since the withdrawal of the IDF from Gaza more than 500 people have died and 3000 people have been wounded as a result of Israeli state violence.
Despair and a feeling of helplessness dominate the Palestinian street. Poverty has rocketted and most families are forced to focus on their own day-to-day struggle for survival. In tandem with this, organised crime has become an even bigger problem and many small businesses and shops are victims of extortion. The average per capita income in the Palestinian Territories has declined to 700$ a year compared to 20,000 $ in Israel. Two thirds of the population living in the Gaza strip have no means of providing themselves with basic food items and rely on relief and charity. According to the World Bank, "2006 will be the worst year in the miserable history of the Palestinian economy".
European capitalist powers are increasingly worried about the total collapse of the PNA as a result of civil war or another insurrection. It is this fear that led to European pressure for the temporary reopening of the Karni/El Mantar and Rafah crossings to allow some humanitarian relief to enter. Jan Egeland, the UNRWA chief in the Gaza Strip appealed to the international community to transfer funds to the Palestinian Authority to "disarm the time bomb" (TVNZ 29 August 2006). However, all of these humanitarian efforts are nothing but an attempt to regulate the level of repression, both militarily and economically, in order to prevent an uncontrolled explosion from below.
Surprise election result
The result of the elections for the Legislative Council of the PNA was a crushing blow for the imperialist powers. They had promoted these elections only to discover that the Palestinians elected Hamas and Fatah suffered its worst defeat ever. In practice both Hamas and Fatah got about the same number of votes, 400,000 each – but the splits inside Fatah led to competing candidates in the same constituencies. This prevented them from forming a parliamentary majority. The vote for Hamas signified mostly a rejection of the corrupt policies of the Fatah government and politicians. According to opinion polls this was the main issue for 40% of the people who had decided to vote for Hamas. Anger at the surrender of the Fatah leadership to continued Israeli agression was also an important factor.
For Israel and the imperialist countries, the Hamas victory represented a huge challenge to their authority. The ruling class in Israel, together with the US and the EU, are running a deliberate and consistent campaign aimed at forcing the local Hamas leadership to accept its demands by collectively punishing the Palestinian masses by witholding Palestinian tax revenue and stopping international aid to the Palestinian authority.
The reason for these measures is that all the imperialist powers, including Israel, require the cooperation of servile elements in the Palestinian elite to act as an agent to preserve stability by supressing the anger of the masses. This is the role of the Abu Mazen/Abbas wing in the Fatah movement. Hamas does not fit this role at the moment. Hamas is a populist force basing itself in the slums and seeking the support of the poor masses and their resistance against the imperialist attacks they are subjected to. However, despite its mass support amongst large sections of the Palestinian population, the fundamental basis of its ideology is reactionary and anti-working class.
Starving the Palestinians
The reaction to the Hamas victory in the elections was a coordianted embargo by Israel, the US and the EU. Even the Arab League collaborated by staying silent on the issue. Thirty million dollars of aid to the Palestinian Authority were withheld and Israel stopped the transfer of tax revenue it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority on the border crossings which ammounts to $60 million a month. Because of the fear of US sanctions the Jordanian banks who operated in the Palestinian territories have cooperated with this financial siege and are refusing to transfer funds from international donators. As a result the PNA collapsed financially and its 165,000 employees have not received their wages since March. Because of the high unemployement figures in the Gaza strip 73% of all workers in Gaza work for the Palestinian Authority and the figure is 14% for the West Bank
More and more families now lack access to the most basic services and goods. The situation has grown much since the beginning of November 2005. Then the Israeli government launched a large scale attack on the West Bank in response to the launching of a Katyusha rocket from the Palestinian Territories into Israel.
It should be noted that the local Hamas leadership has officially banned non-defensive fire from February 2005 onwards. This ban was part of the "Tahadiya" ("Calming Down") declared by Abbas at the Sharem-a-Sheikh summit The rocket fire which let to the incursion in November 2005 was in all likelihood launched by other organisations and was used as a pretext by the Iraeli regime to attack the West Bank and weaken the Hamas government.
Conflict between Hamas and Fatah
The local Hamas leadership was surprised to get such a high vote. The panic which shook the leadership was evident when they had to provide answers in government to the Palestinian masses. Hamas’s standing has been damaged by its weak position during the latest crisis. They did not dare to take any radical measures to relieve the suffering of the masses, for example the local banks were left to do as they pleased. On the other hand, many workers who suffered from the financial blockade imposed by the imperialist powers, and many families who have been the victim of military attacks by the IDF, point the finger at the real culprits i.e. the Israeli regime and its international allies.
The feeling of helplessness added to the popular support for a government of national unity in which all parties would participate to head off the current crisis.
The Fatah leadership understands this and has used it to reconstruct their support in certain areas. This provoked in some areas armed clashes between Farah and Hamas activists. mostly students. They confronted each other in a fight over control over the streets. At one point the offices of the Palestinian National Assembly (PNA) were attacked raising the prospect of a full scale civil war as a possible perspective. The leaderships on both sides have no interests in sparking a civil was and started talks to reach a cease fire.
At the same time the organised Palestinian political prisoners, greatly respected in the Palestinian street, held by the Israeli regime in prisons inside Israel presented a new document known popularly as the "Prisoners Document". This document was drawn up under the direction of Marwan Barghutti, the last remaining popular leader of Fatah imprisoned in Israel. It represented an attempt to find a compromise between Hamas and Fatah. Although the document was also signed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners its line of argument and proposals were closer to official Fatah policies.
The local Hamas leadership initially rejected the prisoners document because it implicitly recognised the state of Israel. However partly under pressure of Abbas threatening to hold a referendum on the issue and also because they wished to try to find some solution to the conflict and in doing so consolidate their election victory, the local leadership of Hamas accepted the prisoners document.
In doing this, they increased the tensions between themselves and the more hardline leadership based abroad. These tensions might lead to a split in Hamas in future and they are the reason why a further agreement over the formation of a national unity government has been delayed.
The workers’ protests that were suspended during the Israeli-Lebanese war were resumed immediately a cease-fire was signed. The fact that Hezbollah achieved a partial victory against the mighty Israeli military machine gave confidence to protesters in Gaza and the West Bank. As a protest against the attempts by the banks to confiscate part of the emergency money paid out to workers for loan repayments, demonstrators stormed offices of banks in the occupied territories.
The industrial action taken by the workers resumed the the same day and rumours of an impending all out strike began to circulate.
With a number of partial strikes taking place, the Gereral Federation of Trade Unions (PGTU) began to prepare an all out strike of Palestinian Authority employes for 2 September.
The strike included at its start, 37,000 teachers, 25,000 health workers, and 15,000 other public-services workers.
Mohammed Kheirallah, a math teacher was quoted on the website, IslamOnline, on 2 September 2006, said, "in June, after three months without wages, we did not wish to go on strike because we did not want to disrupt the end-of-year exams. But today, we have had enough. We want to get paid."
In front of the parliament there were continuous demonstrations with thousands demanding payment of wages, unemployment benefit and the creation of more jobs. They shouted slogans, threw stones at building and stormed the gates until they were brutally repressed by the riot police.
In Ramallah on the 30 August, a crowd of 3,000 people demonstrated outside a venue were Abass was meeting UN Secretary General, Kofi Anan. The demonstrators shouted "From today there is no government anymore. From this day on, there is no parliament anymore!" and "We have no money in our pockets."
Not another symbolic shutdown
This was the first general strike called and organised from below in the territories since the PA was established in 1994. This important fact sets it apart from all the other "general strikes" which have been called by the PA, Fatah or the people around Arafat. Often in the past these general strikes were organised to further the political agendas of organisations like the PLO or Fatah.
The strike put tremendous pressure on the local leadership of Hamas because they could not offer any concessions to the workers. The local Hamas leadership subsequently denounced the strike as an irresponsible act led by Fatah to destabalise the newly elected Hamas government. A spokesperson for the Hamas administration, A’azi Khamad described the strike as "illegitimate". The strike was used by Fatah and Hamas for their own political purposes but it would be incorrect to see it as just an episode in the struggle between the two organisations.
Palestinian trade unions
All the trade union leaders are connected to Fatah. The Palestinian trade union federation was formed in the 90’s and brought existing unions together under one umbrella. The leadersship was never democratically elected and the leadership receive their salaries from Fatah to this day. The trade union leadership has never defended the interests of the working class independently of the Fatah government. They have never fought for example for the setting of a minimum wage, instead cooperating with NGO’s and promoting ideas such as fair trade as an alternative to workers’ struggle to improve working conditions and wages. So while the trade union bureaucracy is supportive of the re-entry of Fatah into the Palestinian government the same cannot be said of the strikers themselves.
"Enough is enough!"
When the imperialist powers realised that the strike might spiral out of control and trigger a civil war the European Union decided to transfer funds to pay $340 to each striker. Inas Abu Samra, a 33 year old English teacher and a member of the Gaza teacher’s union declared "They do so to get us to call off the strike. We will accept the money but we will continue to strike anyway. This is a democratic government brought to power by democratic means. They must realise that this strike is the face of democracy"
Abu-Samra also said that at the beginning of the embargo against the Hamas led Palestinian Authrority, the Palestinians were united in their support of the government. Without wages, she said that the population had survived on food coupons and on humanitarian aid but, "We have decided that enough is enough. The PA promised that we will feel a change in our economic situation. But what has happened? The situation only got worse!"
A 26-years-old teacher from Gaza described it this way: "The strike will succeed in the West Bank but not here in Gaza, where in every household there is at least one member of Hamas. The people here prefer to give Hamas another chance. They believe that the financial crisis is not Hamas’s fault" (The Egyptian newspaper "Al-Aharam", 31 August 2006).
When the strike began, the government declared that it had been a failure and the most of the schools were working. They used the fact that one third of all schools in the Palestinian Territories are not controlled by the government.and did not take part in the strike.
But in contrast to the propaganda broadcast on a Hamas run radio station the strike was a huge success. More than 90% of the PA workers on the West Bank participated. Workers erected tents in the street and began appealing for solidarity strikes from small businesses. On the first day of the strike small businesses closed down.
The strike on the Gaza strip knew a lower level of mass participation with about half the administration staff out on strike and most of the teachers. Most government-run schools went on strike and the hospitals ran on an emergency only schedule. Attempts by armed Hamas activists to intimidate the strikers to go back to work failed. But what began on a smaller scale grew nonetheless with thousands of policemen joining the strike on the fifth day and marching through Gaza city. They defied Abbas and Fatah by ignoring his statement that the strikers did not have the right to march against the government.
"We are not against the government, even if we disagree with it. But we have suffered from the lack of wages for seven months", said Nidal Khader, a police officer who took part in the demonstration (AP, 6 September 2006).
The demonstrators stormed the parliament, throw stones at it, and smashed windows and doors. Their attempt to occupy the building was blocked by policemen who were not on strike. In the same day, 30 of the employees in the Prime Minister’s office demonstrated in Gaza alongside several dozens of other workers, under the banner: "We want our wages. We have the right to feed our children".
No to a National Unity Government
The strike is an important event because of the independent class action undertaken by the Palestinian working class. It erupted because of their refusal to endure more suffering. The pressure on the local Hamas leadership was such that they agreed to partial -payment of unemployment benefits even before the strike erupted and agreed to provide free education with optional contributions from those parents who can afford it.
Less than a year ago the local Hamas leadership spoke about the possibility of an Intifada against the PNA. Now it is starting to understand that they themselves could be the target of such an event. The government is in negotiations with the strikers and it looks possible that the conflict will come to a negotiated end. The political direction is towards the formation of a unity government. This will fail in the long run, as such a government will be unable to solve even the basic problems of the masses.
Yes to unity
The Palestinian masses need a new political formation based on the class interests of the workers. Such a formation could break with the current social order and for example take over the Jordanian banks who collaborated with the US imposed embargo that lead to hunger and starvation of the Palestinian masses. Such an organisation would pose the need to take over the properties of the Palestinian elite to cope with the task of managing society in times of crisis.
It could also appeal to Jewish workers and the poor in Israel that serve as the base of support for the Israeli regime.
The national elites, Palestinian or Israeli, have no answer to the needs of the masses and no program capable of solving their problems. Only a stuggle based on the working class and class unity can defeat the occupation and capitalist inspired poverty.
Organising a mass struggle requires building popular committees in the Territories, the foundation of an independent workers’ party representing the oppressed layers in society and the transformation of the trade unions into a militant and democratic force.
The temporary end of military occupation, doesn’t remove the threat of reinvasion, as the latest examples in the Gaza Strip and in south Lebanon have illustrated. The end of occupation in all its aspects, including the checkpoints, the Seperation Wall, and the rehabilitation of life in the Territories, demand a revolutionary struggle in Palestine and Israel for the foundation of a socialist democracy, as part of the overall struggle for a socialist Middle East. Only in a socialist framework will it be possible to establish alongside an Israeli state, a truly independent Palestinian state, free from imperialist and capitalist domination.