For some, jobs but no salaries

Mohammad al-Saftwai with his two sons. (Rami Almeghari)

“The powdered milk, provided by [the UN agency for Palestine refugees] UNRWA every three months, is not enough. The lack of my salary for the past two months has affected my living conditions,” said Mohammad al-Saftwai, a resident of northern Gaza.

Al-Saftawi is a 28-year-old Palestinian Authority employee who has worked for the Ministry of Justice for the past five years, yet it seems that he has no avenue for justice himself after the Ramallah-based appointed government’s decision to arbitrarily withhold the salaries of civil servants in the Gaza Strip.

His salary has just been withheld for the third consecutive month, further compounding al-Saftawi’s difficult situation thanks to a crippling Israeli closure of the Gaza Strip since the elected Hamas government took control of the coastal enclave.

“With no single doubt, I’m not affiliated with any political party, despite the fact that my late father As’ad al-Saftawi was a leading figure of the Fatah party before he was assassinated several years ago,” al-Saftawi states.

“I find no reason why my salary was [withheld] by the Ramallah government in a way that left me and many others in worse economic conditions … Maybe a malicious report has been filed to the West Bank; however, I have no enemies. I don’t know — really I don’t know what was the reason.”

The Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights affirms al-Saftawi’s complaint that there is no transparency regarding the suspending of salaries. In a recent press release the center stated, “These employees have not had charges brought against them, and there were no administrative investigations carried out prior to the suspension of their salaries. Therefore, the employee does not have the opportunity to verify the reasons for this action, or to defend him/herself according to the law.”

Al-Saftawi, who is the father of two young children, smiled and said sarcastically, “Maybe because I am religious and pray in the mosque, and even so, for me as a graduate of law, I don’t believe that worshipping is [against the laws of] heaven or earth! Where shall I go to pray? Is praying in a mosque a punishable crime?”

Al-Saftawi’s mother, and window of the late Fatah leader As’ad al-Saftawi, Um Ala, stated, “It’s haram [pity], that the salary be cut; may my husband and late president Yasser Arafat rest in peace.” Referring to the apparent abandonment by Fatah of her family, Um Ala questioned, “Why does this happen to us? The late leader Abu Ammar [Yasser Arafat], used to visit this home every for major occasion, and bid support to the children of As’ad, his comrade for decades.”

Um Ala’s other son, Emad, is now serving an 18-year-long sentence in one of the Israeli prisons for his affiliation with the Fatah party now led by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. The conflict between Fatah and Hamas climaxed in June of last year when Hamas routed Fatah forces from the Gaza Strip, where the Islamist Hamas party enjoys widespread support but is also home to Fatah supporters.

In response, the Ramallah-based appointed government, which was installed right after Hamas’ Gaza takeover, began suspending the salaries of thousands of Palestinian Authority civil servants, including teachers and healthcare workers, while demanding that some Gaza ministry employees stop showing up to work. Abbas justified the decision by outlawing the Hamas party and branding Hamas’ actions in Gaza “a coup against legitimacy.”

Samir Emtair, the director-general of the Palestinian Chamber of Government Employees, says that after the June incidents, thousands of employees stopped working in this chamber and in many other ministries.

“Upon the [June takeover], the 150 employees who used to work here before were reduced to only five staff members. With this very limited number, we used to fill in a vacuum in terms of service to the many ministries under the supervision of the chamber of employees,” Emtair explained.

“The Ramallah government demanded the former employees damage all related documents and files, apparently in order to make our job difficult,” Emtair added. “However, thank God, we could overcome this in here and in many other governmental institutions.”

Prior to June, PA institutions in Gaza were run by employees from both parties. However, since Hamas was outlawed by Abbas, Emtair and other officials were recruited by the Hamas government in Gaza to fill in a vaccuum following the departure of the former staff workers who complied with Abbas’s demands.

According to the Chamber of Government Employees, 40,000 Gaza employees have been denied salaries since June. About half of these were workers recruited in 2005.

Recently, the Hamas-dominated government has also taken control of some influential ministries, such as the State Information Service and the Monitoring and Auditing department, a move regarded by the Abbas-loyal government in Ramallah as illegal.

Asked why the Hamas government has taken such a step, Emtair replied, “Simply, I would like to talk about the monitoring and auditing department. This department’s staff have been staying idle since the June incidents, while it should have been working as properly as possible as the current government has been concerned with transparency and accountability since it won the parliamentary elections of 2006.”

On Sunday, the cash-strapped Hamas government paid one month’s worth salary for thousands of employees whose wages were cut by the Ramallah government. The Hamas government has been struggling to operate since Israel and the US imposed a boycott, also adhered to by many European Union governments. The latter two groups are meanwhile promising large funds for the Ramallah-based government in an attempt to bolster Abbas, who many Palestinian critics complain is serving the interests of Israel and the US to the detriment of the Palestinian national cause.

However, tides may turn after last Thursday, when the EU parliament passed a resolution branding Israeli actions on Gaza as “collective punishment” and calling on President Mahmoud Abbas to return to dialogue with the Hamas party.

But change isn’t coming soon enough for many families. “Some employees who are familiar to me, either women or men, have informed me personally that they are increasingly getting sick from staying idle at home. They appear to be willing to return back to workplaces, yet they cannot for fear that their salaries might be withheld,” Emtair said.

Rami Almeghari is currently contributor to several media outlets including the Palestine Chronicle, aljazeerah.info, IMEMC, The Electronic Intifada and Free Speech Radio News. Rami is also a former senior English translator at and editor in chief of the international press center of the Gaza-based Palestinian Information Service. He can be contacted at rami_almeghari at hotmail.com.