Analysis

Abbas Will Have a Hard Time Ignoring the Social Protests in the West Bank

The general strike over social security law adds to ongoing rivalry between Fatah and Hamas, increased IDF activity in Ramallah and the Palestinian president's seeming indifference to it all

Protesters protesting the Palestinian social security law, Ramallah, January 15, 2019.
Nasser Nasser/AP

“Thieves, thieves, a gang of thieves” was the favorite slogan of the demonstrators Tuesday. They were shouting below the offices of the Palestinian Social Security Institution in downtown El Bireh, just north of Ramallah in the West Bank. They were voicing their opinion of the entire political-bureaucratic apparatus that controls their lives, from the lowly clerk to the man at the top – Mahmoud Abbas, even if his name remained unmentioned.

They were totally indifferent to the fact that on the same day, January 15, he was scheduled to speak at the United Nations as part of what he and his spokespeople portrayed as another important Palestinian achievement – the transfer of the presidency of the Group of 77, a coalition of developing nations, to the State of Palestine, despite its observer status at the UN.

The general strike, organized by the private sector in West Bank cities, that took place in parallel to the demonstration engages people much more than yet another international gesture consisting of a ceremonial recognition of a state existing only on paper.

>> Read more: Hamas could cause an escalation on the Israeli border. Abbas could start a greater conflict ■ Hamas-Abbas tension escalates situation on Gaza front. For Netanyahu, it's bad timing

Did the demonstration, beyond the demand to revoke the law for social security, signify a new uniting force taking shape? Or was it only one more of the powerful centrifugal forces tearing apart the Palestinian political system, splitting it into elements moving farther and farther apart?

The most powerful disruptive force (setting aside Israel’s domination, with its movement bans and restrictions) is the rivalry between Hamas and Fatah. This reached new heights in the last three weeks with mutual accusations of treason.

On December 22, Abbas announced the dissolution of the Palestinian Legislative Council and the holding of a new election for this body in six months. I’ll get back to that later.

File photo: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah, December 22, 2018.
Majdi Mohammed/AP

In late December and early January, Hamas security forces arrested dozens of Fatah supporters across the Gaza Strip, summoning them for questioning and violently dispersing a rally commemorating the founding of Fatah. Hamas forbade further rallies.

In response, the preventive security forces, dominated by Fatah, detained dozens of Hamas activists in the West Bank. Unknown persons broke into the offices of the Palestinian Authority’s radio station and destroyed equipment. The PA removed its people from the Rafah border crossing into Egypt, which resulted in its closing.

On January 9, Hamas members of the Legislative Council in Gaza took a vote and declared that Abbas was politically unfit to remain president. This wasn’t reported in the media, loyal to Abbas, but the abyss lying between the Gaza enclave and the PA’s West Bank enclaves continues to grow.

That day it was learned that elected Hamas members in the West Bank are not receiving their pensions as pensioners of the dissolved Legislative Council, unlike members of all the other lists. All the above didn’t concern the demonstrators Tuesday. They distanced themselves from political parties, proof of the dissipation of the activist-ideological culture that once so characterized Palestinian politics.

Along with the shouting, some demonstrators blew their vuvuzelas, the plastic horns popular at soccer games in South Africa. A row of policemen and national Palestinian security forces, backed by a movable fence, blocked the streets to traffic and prevented demonstrators from nearing the Social Security Institution. No violence was used.

“They probably have family members who also object to this law,” said one demonstrator, pointing to an armed guard standing with his buddies, smoking a cigarette.

Since the teachers in government schools got organized three years ago, seeking improved working conditions, there has been no resolute movement involving the entire public in the West Bank. The social security law was signed by Abbas as a presidential decree in 2016. Since then it has been changed and improved, following criticism by civil society groups and small left-wing groups.

But there has been a gradual marginalization of groups demanding further changes to this law while supporting it in principle as part of a larger system of social justice and mutual responsibility. A large popular movement calling for the law’s annulment is now setting the tone.

Palestinians walk past a closed shop during a general strike protesting the Palestinian Social Security Law in the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 15, 2019.
Nasser Nasser/AP Photo

The fact is, the teachers’ campaign, which received wide public support, was suppressed by the PA’s security apparatus and was disbanded under threats and false promises. This may have been a result of the teachers electing an independent teachers’ representation committee and challenging the system whereby people close to the PA and Fatah are appointed as union representatives.

It now seems that PA officials are listening to arguments against the social security law. They may be afraid of the associations and the snowball effect of the slogan used by demonstrators: “the people want the law canceled,” echoing cries in Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring. Also, their assessment may be that the current movement is sufficiently amorphous so as not to challenge them over political representation.

On Tuesday, when the law took effect, the supervisor of the Social Security Institution announced further changes that would improve workers’ rights and increase their representation. He ruled that the law would not be rescinded, but admitted that there was a flaw in the way the people responsible for the law conveyed its importance to the public.

Every explanation encountered public mistrust and opposing interpretations. In fact, civil society and left-wing groups, which negotiated for amending the law, also failed to convey its importance.

Instead they observed how over the last six months, an alliance was forged between employers and salaried workers opposing the law.

The employers’ objection to setting aside money for old-age pensions or maternity leave is clear, but why do employees object to securing their future benefits?

Palestinians take part in a protest against a social security law in Ramallah, West Bank, January 15, 2019.
Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

“Your insurance has no insurance,” said one sign at the demonstration. Other slogans noted that in recent weeks the Israeli army has entered Ramallah every day, in broad daylight, raiding shops and offices, confiscating surveillance camera records or demanding the internet access codes to these cameras.

People are asking whether there is some hidden message to these raids in neighborhoods identified with the PA. There is no insurance to social insurance because nothing is guaranteed under Israeli supra rule, but also because there is no trust in PA institutions or in the integrity of senior officials and clerks who fill positions there, who will handle the funds gathered from the public under the law.

One such institution is the Constitutional Court, which recommended the dissolution of the Legislative Council. The court was established in 2003 with a mandate of interpreting unclear clauses of the constitution and settling disputes between the executive and legislative branches.

The law was quickly changed in 2006 after Hamas won the general election, with the new version canceling the council’s role in appointing its judges and canceling the court’s authority to oversee the president’s actions. Up to 2016, no judges were appointed to this court, and then nine were suddenly appointed.

One of the court’s first decisions was to let the president oust parliament members, which is what he did to Mohammed Dahlan and his Fatah associates. Sharp criticism of the illegality of these moves and the court’s lack of independence remained unanswered.

The Constitutional Court has now recommended the Legislative Council’s dissolution. Indeed, the council has hardly been active since it was established in 2006. IDF arrests of Hamas members and the refusal of Fatah to admit electoral defeat paralyzed the council.

After the 2007 civil war and the establishment of dual rule, with Hamas in Gaza and the PA in Ramallah, the council never convened in the West Bank, though its members tried to influence government decisions and the public discourse.

Presidential decrees replaced laws. In Gaza, the Hamas faction convenes regularly and passes laws that apply only to Gaza. The council’s term expired in 2010, the same year Abbas’ term expired.

However, the council’s continued existence always seemed a pathway for resuming the activity of joint institutions in the West Bank and Gaza, as a condition for ending the rift. When setting the date of six months later for an election, Abbas didn’t mention a presidential election.

Anyway, no one believes an election will be held in six months, and if it’s held, this will only take place in the West Bank enclave, not in Jerusalem or Gaza, which will exacerbate the rift.

Abbas has made clear that even the appearance of a separation of powers is no longer important to him and that the rift isn’t a tragedy. With his yes-men in Fatah, he’s willing to play his role in cutting off the Gaza Strip from the West Bank.