One year on, thousands of civil servants in Gaza still working without pay

Nearly 50,000 public servants across the Gaza Strip – police and security personnel as well as 24,000 teachers, ministerial staff, utility and emergency services workers – have not been paid since a standoff between Hamas and Fatah.

File picture of Palestinian medics pushing a wounded man injured from an Israeli strike in Shujaieh neighbourhood, into the emergency room at Gaza City’s Shifa hospital taken on July 30, 2014 during the summer war. Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo
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GAZA // The emergency room of Gaza’s Shifa Hospital is packed with patients and medical staff as Dr Hussam Kaskin completes another shift.

For more than a year, he and his colleagues – doctors, nurses, paramedics, administrators and cleaners – have not received their salaries. Still, they continue to attend to at least 300 patients each day.

"We might get a voucher worth US$25 [Dh92] to spend on food and every two months maybe we receive $200," the orthopaedic doctor told The National.

“It’s very hard because you have to borrow money from family or friends. I need money for my children and for the house. Some people can’t afford to pay their rent but doctors do their job because they have to do it. This job is above politics.”

Dr Kaskin is not alone. Nearly 50,000 public servants across the Gaza Strip – police and security personnel as well as 24,000 teachers, ministerial staff, utility and emergency services workers – have also not been paid.

Their plight is the result of a standoff that has smothered hopes of Palestine’s unity government fulfilling its mandate of holding national elections and ending divisions between the Palestinian territories.

Despite an agreement to recognise a national consensus government in April last year, differences between Palestine’s largest political factions, Fatah and Hamas, have persistently undermined its work. Their split dates back to the 2006 national elections won by Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, which prompted a violent attempt by the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority to maintain power, resulting in Hamas ruling in Gaza and the PA in the West Bank.

In an attempt to weaken the Hamas government following the split, the PA ordered its 70,000 civil servants in Gaza to stop working but continued to pay their salaries.

This forced Hamas to hire new employees whom it is now unable to pay.

Mohammad Siam, head of Gaza’s public sector workers’ union, insisted the unpaid employees would continue working until the matter is resolved.

However, he said, “We are like second class workers compared to the Palestinian Authority employees”, who would get priority to resume their posts should the unity government assume control of Gaza.

“After one year of promises we have seen nothing delivered. We hope there will be an agreement where the two sets of workers can work together.”

Hamas’s inability to pay its $25 million monthly wage bill started even before the formation of the unity government.

The group’s fortunes began to turn after the Egyptian military removed the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi in July 2013.

Cairo expanded its crackdown on the Brotherhood in Egypt to Hamas, which it declared a terrorist organisation in February this year and placed under sanction.

Egyptian authorities also closed the Rafah border crossing and began destroying Gaza’s extensive network of smuggling tunnels, wiping out most of the estimated $200m a year that Hamas earned from taxes on the tunnel trade.

Economic hardship is seen as a major factor in Hamas agreeing to the national consensus government.

In April this year, a 40-member delegation, including eight ministers from the Ramallah-based unity government, left Gaza after only one day into a planned week-long stay.

Unity government spokesman Ehab Basseiso, a member of the delegation, said ministers had travelled to Gaza to begin the work of assuming control of ministries but were prevented from leaving their hotel by Hamas.

“There were restrictions on the movement of ministers, we could not meet with the members of the business community or civil society we wanted to meet,” he said.

After the delegation left Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the PA was “fully responsible” for failures of the unity government.

He cited the payment of salaries to Hamas public servants and a fair allocation of jobs to them under the unity government as central to its success.

“The government should stop its policy of discrimination among the employees,” he said.

Naji Shurab, a professor in politics at Gaza’s Al Azhar University, believes the dispute is an exercise in brinksmanship.

“It’s a message to the PA to look for alternatives and show Hamas can administer Gaza without them,” he said.

“It is not easy for Hamas to lose everything – they want reconciliation but on their terms, and a gap of trust exists between them and Fatah. Hamas is not happy with the conditions for returning old employees and the PA message is if they don’t listen, president [Mahmoud] Abbas won’t listen to their demands and problems.”

Those problems include beginning much-needed reconstruction work after last summer’s devastating war, ending the crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockade and bringing Gaza’s population out of international isolation.

Hamas may seek to achieve these ends unilaterally through a long-term negotiated truce with Israel, according to Professor Shurab.

“Hamas faces hardship with Egypt and the PA but with help from Qatar and Turkey, maybe they can reach a truce with Israel,” he said.

Reports of such a truce have been widely published in the Israeli media and while prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu considers Hamas a terrorist organisation, a truce would support his opposition to a Palestinian state.

“Israel encourages the fragmentation and division of Gaza and the West Bank and a truce [with Hamas] would succeed in ensuring a Palestinian state is not practical or viable,” Professor Shurab said.

Meanwhile, the situation continues to worsen for Palestinians trapped in Gaza.

Unemployment is approaching 50 per cent and there are constant electricity shortages.

Traffic policeman Bilal Najar, 24, said he would not leave his job despite the hardships, reflecting frustrations and Hamas’s determination not to back down.

“I borrowed $1,500 to get married and furnish an apartment. My wife has had to postpone her studies at university three semesters and I cannot shop at some stores because I’ve bought on credit and they tell me to pay them,” he said.

“I have lost hope in politicians from the West Bank because we have made sacrifices and nothing has happened. Policemen have rights to their salaries but even if they remain unpaid I will continue coming to work.”