The school year began in Gaza on Wednesday, and thousands of teachers on the Palestinian Authority payroll still don’t know if and when they’ll be forced into early retirement.
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Similar uncertainty plagues the health system, where staff paid by Ramallah are also slated for an early pension.
In July, the Ramallah government, headed by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, announced its intention to send into early retirement 6,145 public sector workers in Gaza aged over 50. But there has been no announcement on an exact date, or the names of the retirees and ministries.
This number makes up over half of the 11,000 workers paid by Ramallah who have continued working in Gaza in the past 10 years since the Hamas takeover. Most are employed in the two most important ministries: education and health.
They also have seniority and experience, and include employees with important jobs such as school principals.
Early retirement means an allowance of 40 to 70 percent of their salary, 1,200 to 3,000 shekels ($830) a month, based on seniority and their positions.
A large percentage of PA public sector employees in Gaza – all members of the security services and a substantial percentage of the employees of government ministries and the judiciary – stopped working in July 2007, when the government divided between the Strip and the West Bank and Hamas took control of the security forces.
At the time, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas demanded that all public sector employees stay home as a condition for receiving their salaries, in the belief – which proved mistaken – that this would trigger the fall of the Hamas government. Now too, early retirement is a means for pressuring Hamas – albeit of dubious effectiveness.
After Ramallah’s announcement of the early retirement plan, the Hamas government interviewed thousands of candidates for the jobs that would become available, mainly in the school system.
But in the absence of a date and names, the potential replacements are also in a state of uncertainty. It’s relatively easy to find substitute teachers, but it’s far harder to find experienced doctors, particularly specialists – on top of the already serious doctor shortage in Gaza.
The government health system in the Strip employs 1,869 doctors, about 900 of whom receive salaries from Ramallah.
A total of 2,871 doctors are registered in Gaza, according to a 2016 report by the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry.
Several doctors have already declared that they refuse to take early retirement, so as not to subvert the already weakened health system and harm the patients.
Anyone who continues to work under Hamas will lose his pension rights, but there have been reports that Hamas representatives and senior Fatah people in Gaza who support Abbas have met to consider letting several doctors continue working, beyond the letter of the law, in the recognition that their work is essential.
The teachers to be sent into retirement are expected to lose a significant percentage of their income, which is low in any case, and to suffer from inactivity and its consequences.
That’s already the lot of tens of thousands of public sector workers sent home by Abbas, whose salaries are actually a living allowance or unemployment compensation.
At the end of 2015, there were 25,498 Gazans registered as salaried workers in the PA civilian public sector in Ramallah, and 33,200 employees in the security services.
The members of the PA security services in the Strip, all of whom are unemployed, have already begun the process of early retirement.
Among candidates for compulsory retirement in the civilian sector are employees of the finance and energy ministries, who are far fewer in number than the teachers and doctors.
At the start of the month, several energy authority workers discovered they had been transferred to early retirement when they received their July salary slip; the pension deduction no longer appeared, and the sum was lower than their salary.
The Ramallah government’s early-retirement decision is one of a series of Abbas’ political steps to pressure Hamas to disband the Gaza administrative committee that it created and let the “consensus government” established in June 2014 resume its activity in the Strip.
The other steps have been reducing the salaries of public sector officials in Gaza (those who work and those who don’t), reducing the electricity supply, cancelng allowances for the 277 prisoners released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange who are identified with Hamas, and nonpayment of the salaries of Hamas members elected in the 2006 election to the now paralyzed parliament. (The number of former prisoners being considered has actually dropped to 210 after a partial agreement.)
If these steps don’t bring about a change in Hamas’ approach, the PA is expected to force early retirement on all 5,000 remaining salaried workers by the end of the year.
These steps are designed to make things difficult for Hamas financially, politically and in terms of image.
Since the collapse of the smuggling-tunnels economy in 2013, when the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power in Cairo, the Hamas authorities have been paying only 40 to 50 percent of salaries in the public sector, which are sometimes delayed for months. Another 6,000 workers whose salaries must be paid are therefore an additional burden on the movement.
But Hamas recently has shown signs of a minor economic recovery, and the salaries it paid this month were somewhat higher – 60 percent of the original salary.
This improvement is due to the income from the gasoline and diesel fuel entering the Strip from Egypt for about a month and a half now.
In its recent agreements with Egypt, Hamas requested about 800,000 liters of diesel oil for gas stations daily, both for private and public use; about 600,000 for power stations; and about 300,000 liters of gasoline for private use.
The amount actually transported by truck from Egypt via the Rafah crossing is far smaller, and some people are wondering how long this cumbersome and expensive system will last.
Fuel and electricity woes
Meanwhile, the Hamas government charges one shekel more per liter than the purchase price in Egypt – which is lower than that in the West Bank and Israel (a liter of diesel fuel in the Strip goes for 4.36 shekels, with 95-octane gas going for 4.87 shekels). In this way, Hamas has taken in several hundreds of thousands of shekels more per day over the past month.
Hamas has also accumulated money collected from residents for electricity purchased from Israel – money it refuses to send to the treasury in Ramallah. The collection rates are low, but even so the sum collected this year is estimated at about $100 million, which is used to buy the fuel from Egypt.
In the meantime, the electricity situation hasn’t improved. Gaza needs about 500 megawatts daily, but even before the current crisis it had to suffice with only 208.
Israel continues to sell the Strip 70 megawatts, instead of 120 as in the past. The power lines from Egypt, which are supposed to supply 28 megawatts, suffer from many technical problems and are often out.
The system for transporting fuel from Egypt doesn’t allow for the transfer of sufficient quantities for the Gaza power plant, so the supply to each district in the Strip is limited to four hours a day.
According to a Palestinian source, the Egyptian authorities promised the Hamas delegation that visited Cairo about two weeks ago that they intended to add power lines to Gaza and supply another 50 megawatts.
To date, most Western countries that donate to the Palestinians have approved of Abbas’ punitive efforts because they are ostensibly designed to end the split in governments and target a government the Western countries don’t recognize.
Reducing the number of workers and government spending on salaries has always been a demand of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and already several years ago the donor countries stopped paying the salaries of PA employees in Gaza who don’t work.
But the deterioration in Gaza’s humanitarian situation as a result of Abbas’ steps is stirring concerns among the donors; according to a Western diplomat, several have already expressed their dissatisfaction.
Reports from the Strip reflect the public’s anger at Abbas and Hamas, but talk of opening the Rafah crossing is making people somewhat more hopeful. If Egypt exports goods directly to Gaza that today enter only from Israel, it would increase Hamas’ revenues at the expense of the PA, which is the recipient of the customs duties and import taxes collected at Israeli ports.
If exports via the Rafah crossing are also permitted, agriculture in the Gaza Strip is likely to revive.
In a meeting with reporters and political pundits last week, Yahya Sinwar, Hamas' leader in the Strip, said “the coming months will herald a positive development in the handling of the problem of poverty and unemployment in the Strip” – a development directly connected to the opening of the crossing, the understandings with Cairo and the warming of relations with Egypt.
Gazans are also waiting for the fulfillment of Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan’s promise to channel about $15 million every month from the United Arab Emirates to social initiatives in the Strip.
It looks as if Abbas’ calculations that he can force Hamas to change will once again prove mistaken. Sanwar told reporters that there’s no problem dismantling the administrative committee, and that it’s not an obstacle to reconciliation. He said similar things to the Fatah people but claims he received no clear answer from Abbas.
As in the past, the financial crisis is forcing Hamas to find creative solutions that require it to show flexibility without surrendering power centers and basic principles.