Workers of Gaza Unite!

Independent workers' groups in Gaza vow disengagement celebrations will not detract from their continued fight against the PA.

Another demand was added last week to the list of demands of the Independent Workers Committees in Gaza, which they have been presenting in the past few months to institutions of the Palestinian Authority and its leadership. The new demand is the indictment of whoever ordered that live ammunition be fired over the heads of workers and their children - schoolchildren - who demonstrated in Khan Yunis last Monday. The original list included the following major demands: an exemption from school registration fees for the children of workers and the unemployed; establishment of a social solidarity fund for the systematic payment of unemployment compensation; the cancellation of debts of workers and unemployed persons who failed to pay their electricity and water bills in the past five years; tight supervision of distribution of temporary jobs by the Palestinian Authority; free health insurance to workers and the unemployed; free elections to the General Union of Palestinian Workers.

The Palestinian police, which vanishes whenever a foreign citizen - a journalist or an employee of an international organization - is kidnapped in broad daylight in the streets of Gaza; the Palestinian security authorities, which failed to prevent the attack by anonymous armed assailants on Moussa Arafat and his assassination at dawn; the Palestinian police and the other security personnel, who disappear whenever a gang of armed and masked members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade take over a Palestinian Authority building - were all out in full (and aggressive) force against several hundred workers and unemployed people who staged a protest on the streets of Khan Yunis last week.

Empty promises

The workers, members of the committees, decided to demonstrate after learning that the promises of senior Palestinian Authority officials, including Mohammed Dahlan, to comply with their main demand and exempt their children from school registration fees were given only to the media and were not passed on to the schools as official directives. The parents had happily sent their children to school, where the principals informed them they would be permitted to study on condition that their parents pay the registration fees. As a result, the workers committees declared a first demonstration on Sunday, at the Education Ministry. They reached a temporary agreement on the formation of a joint committee that would determine entitlements to an exemption from school fees. The following day, when the children were sent "to bring a paper from the Welfare Ministry" to show their parents were in a poor financial state, the workers set up a protest tent outside the offices of the governor of Khan Yunis, whose government position makes him the public representative of the rais, Mahmoud Abbas.

On Monday, representatives of the workers asked to begin negotiations on their demands with the governor, Hosni Zourab. Zourab complained that the workers in the tent were interrupting him and speaking rudely. Abd-as-Samih an-Najjar, who was elected in free elections as the head of the Independent Workers Committees in the Gaza Strip, said Zourab was referring to two or three enraged workers who accused the governor not only of not fulfilling promises, but that he, an-Najjar, had silenced the men. He claimed that everyone there wanted a civilized discussion and negotiations, and to that end he had gone to the governor's office. There, to his amazement, he found representatives of the security agencies, and a few mukhtars - dignitary representatives of family clans "who are good when it comes to handling interfamily disputes, but have nothing to do with our demands, which concern the rule of law."

"We are not asking for favors or gestures from any of the higher-ups, and not for a temporary solution, but rather for the fixing in legislation of the rights of workers and the unemployed," says an-Najjar. "We do no have anything except for our children. And we have the right to ensure that they will also attend university, just like the children of officials and senior government people do. We are not asking for seats and salaried positions, we are asking to be treated with dignity." However, it seems a foul atmosphere began to fill the room, which culminated in the order to dismantle the protest tent.

Security sources in the PA claimed it was the workers who began to throw stones at the policemen, who were therefore compelled to disperse the demonstration by shooting in the air and throwing tear-gas grenades. The workers reject the allegation, and say the police acted violently against their right to demonstrate in a peaceful manner, and intended to attack them as they were squeezed tight in the protest tent, which explains why they were compelled to leave the tent and demonstrate in the streets.

The workers explained the throwing of stones at the policemen as a "need to defend ourselves," after the Palestinian Authority policemen began firing their weapons in the air, with live ammunition. The workers also rescued an-Najjar from the policemen. He had been arrested even though he claims he tried to ensure the entire protest would take place peacefully. "They fired tear gas at us," he says, "and we shouted at them, `In Neveh Dekalim, the Israeli army stood in front of the settlers for days on end and did not harm them, while you, our national police force, throws tear gas at us within five minutes.'" One grenade hit the foot of one of the demonstrators.

Clashes with police

The clashes between the police and the workers and schoolchildren who joined in the protest of their parents went on for several hours. Attempts to prevent the pupils from joining the demonstrators, lest they be hurt, proved unsuccessful. "Everything went out of control," says an-Najjar. The insulting way that "their" police treat them is hurtful. In the meantime, representatives of the Independent Workers' Committees in the northern Gaza Strip, who heard of the clashes launched their own protests in Beit Lahia and Jabalya.

Last week, following the Israel Defense Forces' preparations to leave Gaza, the Strip was still cut in two and the Abu Holi crossing (the "Gush Katif intersection") was closed to Palestinian traffic throughout the day and no central protest could be held. But the representatives in the northern Gaza Strip did succeed in meeting with the governor of their district and explained their position to him. The governor contacted officials in his jurisdiction, and it was agreed to arrange a meeting soon with the Palestinian minister of labor, Hassan Abu Libdeh. Representatives of the committees throughout the Gaza Strip are scheduled to meet on Wednesday and plan their next moves.

The Independent Workers' Committees evolved from the protest tent camps that were set up by workers throughout the Strip, especially those who lost their jobs in Israel due to the prolonged closure, which began some three years ago. It all started with a protest of what they saw as an unfair division of the funds contributed to the Palestinian Authority, funds they did not receive, leaving them as an increasingly larger group of "welfare cases."

They also protested the fact that the criteria for handing out various jobs to the unemployed were unclear. The protest developed into an increasingly more structured and principled criticism - first of all against the Palestinian Authority's policy of "distribution of charity" and "distribution of favors" - in place of a valuing of social welfare and social solidarity to be anchored in the legislation.

But the protest was also directed against the incompetence of the official labor unions, the leaders of which - who receive regular salaries from the Palestinian Authority treasury - no one can remember if, when or how were elected. The official, veteran unions are connected at the hip to the various political organizations, and the distribution of portfolios between them is done according to allegiance to the various PLO groups. They are headed by well-connected PLO members.

The workers and the unemployed who began protesting three years ago emphasize their organizational independence. At first, they received assistance from human rights organizations in Gaza, whose founders were past activists of the Palestinian leftist organizations, but left them. They were particularly assisted by the Palestinian Democracy and Workers' Rights Center, whose director in the West Bank used to be an activist of the Palestine Communist Party, and whose director in the Gaza Strip was a former member of the Popular Front.

Last year, prior to the January 2005 election for the Palestinian Authority presidency, the workers began preparations for the establishment of an independent workers' organization. They held their founding conference on December 18, 2004, at which an-Najjar was elected chairman and a general secretariat was elected, which includes 21 representatives, including five women. Heads of the organization say that approximately 8,000 workers have registered as members; they pay annual membership dues of NIS 10.

`Free insurance'

Prior to the presidential elections, members of the new workers' organization discovered that the only contender who expressed full support for their demands was Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, who set up the Palestinian National Initiative.

They therefore expressed their support for him as a candidate, but as an-Najjar now stresses, it was temporary support.

The Hamas movement, which recently established a workers' association of its own, offered them to take part in a demonstration it organized. At a meeting held last month at the main office in Khan Yunis, they turned down the offer; they realized their most important asset is organizational independence. Therefore, they have also asked that the human rights groups, which have a strongly leftist background, ease up on the professional "embrace" they initially granted the workers' organization, to avoid being stained by any labels. Now they are themselves arranging for various courses to be offered to workers.

The traditional Union of Workers' Associations viewed the independent organization as a threat. Charges were voiced at several demonstrations that the union had sent provocateurs to tangle with the police and turn the clash into a model of "chaos" and "treacherousness" against the national government. Although the establishment Palestinian media generally refrains from reporting on their demands and organizing efforts, in spite of misleading reports that the demonstration in Khan Yunis included protesters from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the independent committees did notch a few achievements: They were assured (on a signed document), that the electric company would not cut off electricity to individuals who have not paid their bills on time ("A NIS 15,000 debt is the minimum," says an-Najjar).

It was also agreed that the unemployed and workers would receive free health care, although this would not include treatment abroad. This promise was given by the former health minister, Jawad al-Tibi, but leaders of the independent workers' organization discovered that not only are people required to pay NIS 50 for this "free" health insurance, but that it is defined as "insurance of the Al-Aqsa Intifada." In other words, as soon as the official end of the intifada is declared, no more insurance.

Will the upcoming meeting with the Palestinian labor minister break from the pattern of the past three years: disregard by the establishment, lobbying on behalf of a sympathetic Palestinian Authority official, noisy demonstrations that lead to a meeting with one official or another and then assurances that turn into a temporary "favor"? In any event, an-Najjar, who anticipates a presidential order by Abbas to regulate the free registration of pupils, workers and the unemployed, promises that if 10 days before Ramadan, which falls in October, their main demands are not met, the workers will continue their protest actions. Calls by senior Palestinian Authority officials for "national unity" and the victory celebrations marking the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, say the workers, will not divert their attention and will not keep them quiet.