A Different Gaza

The independent workers' committees have neither sexy weapons nor media-savvy PR people but they represents a more complex, complete and sincere way than the above mentioned highly visible images.

Every group of armed snot-noses gets more air time than the most courageous Palestinian-Gazan organization to arise in recent years: the independent workers' committees. Inflamed mobs waving a mortar in the air and chanting what the intelligence experts expect them to chant has become a synonym for Gaza. It will soon be joined by images of Gaza yuppies and graduates of American schools of management who together with representatives of private foreign and Israeli firms will present learned graphs explaining why this or that deal is good for Gaza. The independent workers' committees have neither sexy weapons nor media-savvy PR people to prove they represent Gaza and its residents in a more complex, complete and sincere way than the above mentioned highly visible images.

The workers' committees were established in December 2004 following protests by workers and the unemployed in 2002, when Israel Defense Forces attacks and the dramatic, hermetic sealing of the Gaza Strip caused economic and individual situations to deteriorate to previously unknown depths.

The committees argued that the workers and the unemployed were not feeling the distribution of the donations the world was showering on the Palestinian Authority. They complained that the process of referring people to public works jobs or the distribution of financial aid were tainted with preferential treatment. They suspected that some were getting rich at the expense of assistance to the unemployed. They complained that the traditional association of labor unions, which was close to the Palestinian Authority, was not taking care of their interests.

At first their complaints went no further than the usual suspicions that Palestinians voice about corruption in high places. Their requests seemed similar to thousands of others for some kind of assistance. Then, slowly but surely, the language changed. No more individual expectation of "assistance" and "charity" anchored in religious practice and so well suited to Arafat's method of patriarchal rule. Now it became "human rights anchored in law," and the "rule of law." And so the representatives of the committees in Khan Yunis, who met with its governor last week, were shocked to see that he had brought the city's notables along with him to the meeting - as if this was a family squabble and not a struggle in principle.

And so it was that local protests, which the establishment often attempted to obstruct and to portray as traitorous and anti-nationalist, morphed into organized committees with thousands of dues-paying members. In recent weeks they have been waging an impassioned struggle involving protest vigils, demonstrations, and attempts at negotiations with senior government officials, demanding the fair distribution of PA income.

Beyond the self-perception of the Gazans as more daring and determined than the people of the West Bank, there are a few reasons why the Gazans are ahead of the West Bank in this realm. In the narrow and congested Gaza Strip, the socio-economic gaps are more visible and grating than in the West Bank, where contrasts of profligate wealth and grinding poverty are distributed over a relatively larger geographic area.

It is not for nothing that the demand to exempt families of workers from school registration fees is at the top of the committees' list. Without reference to the not-particularly-high level of teaching in the Palestinian public education system, education is perceived as an investment and a guarantee for the future of their children.

The inequality hurts much more when those harmed are your children, and not just you, and when those benefiting live across the street. Gaza's congestion also heightens the differences between the "clerks" and the "public employees" whose salaries, even if they are low, arrive regularly, and those who worked in the private sector in Israel and were left without a source of income.

In packed Gaza, it is easier for people with similar backgrounds and grievances but who live in different areas to meet, exchange views and make organized plans, in numbers that attract attention. On the other hand, Israeli closures in the West Bank cut off the various areas from each other.

Two main experiences that are common to the principal players strengthen the organization. One is that they are all workers who do not depend on the patriarchal-government system, as opposed to government clerks, and they therefore feel no personal obligation to the establishment. The other is that they worked in Israel. The lack of employment opportunities in the Strip and the lack of an agricultural hinterland like the one in the West Bank encouraged hundreds of thousands of people to seek work in Israel. The Palestinians were taken advantage of as a cheap labor force, but their salaries were still high compared to those in the Strip, especially because they worked endless overtime.

Until the 90s and the beginning of Israel's policy of closures, work in Israel created a sense of camaraderie among tens of thousands of Gazans who improved their economic situation without taking favors or charity from anyone. This pride was not crushed even after years of forced unemployment and savings that dwindled to nothing.

The activities of the committees, whatever the extent of their success in the near future, represent a real development in democratic and social thinking, which distances itself from the patriarchal patterns of Arafat's legacy on the one hand, and from the herd patterns of the armed militias on the other.