Protesters lock ministers in building as Gaza salaries remain unpaid
GAZA CITY - Wednesday was not a normal work day for the employees of Gaza's de facto authority, Hamas. Instead, it was a day of rage and frustration over salaries that have gone unpaid for seven months.
Score of employees protested outside the gates to the Prime Ministry Council building in Gaza City - the office of the Palestinian unity government, formed last summer between Hamas and Fatah officials - and ministers were locked inside the building until the late evening hours.
The employees were calling for the immediate payment of their salaries.
“We are demanding our legitimate rights - we work hard and should be paid in return,” said a 37-year-old nurse, holding a banner that read "A nurse without salary", at the barricaded gates of the government compound.
The Palestinian unity government condemned the employees’ protest, as several government vehicles were vandalised outside the office.
The nurse, who declined to give his name for fear of being wrongly blamed for the vandalism, said that without pay, he has been unable to provide enough food for his six children.
Meanwhile, a war of words between Hamas and Fatah continued, as Palestinian Minister of Labor Mamom Abu Shalah promised the government would solve the crisis soon, while Salah Al-Bardawil, spokesman for Hamas' parliamentary bloc, said he had no trust in such promises "until we see [them] achieved".
Thousands of salaries left unpaid
When Hamas took power in 2007, and a split emerged between Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Palestinian Authority-run West Bank, the PA told all its employees in Gaza to stop working, including teachers and doctors.
This forced Hamas to hire new workers in order to meet the daily needs of the coastal Palestinian enclave, and the group hired 50,000 civil servants to replace the previous 70,000 Fatah employees, according to AFP news agency.
Last October, around 24,000 civil servants employed by Hamas in the Gaza Strip - out of a total of approximately 40,000 - received a one-time, $1,200 payment, under the terms of a Qatar-funded plan by the consensus government to pay Hamas-appointed employees a portion of their salaries.
But this did not provide a long-term solution to the problem.
“We are here for a peaceful protest, without any intention to cause damage to public assets, until staff members are respectfully recognised and earned salaries are handed over,” said Khalil al-Zayyan, head of Gaza’s Public Employees Union, during Wednesday's protest, which he added would not be the last.
“We will stay here night and day, until the employee salary crisis is resolved,” al-Zayyan said.
In the final days of 2014, employees held several large protests after the PA called for its laid-off, former staff members in Gaza to return to work, while the Hamas-appointed employees remained unpaid. Hamas called the PA’s request unacceptable.
The Palestinian faction has continued to advocate for its 40,000 employees, but has not been able to pay their salaries because of shrinking revenues due in large part to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's decision to destroy most of its lucrative smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.
While West Bank-based Fatah spokesman, Osama al-Qawasma, told reporters the continued protests were "an act of bullying”, al-Zayyan, the union leader, said the workers had a legitimate right to protest.
“Our suffering is mounting and unpaid staff are unable to pay for family expenses, or feed their children. This is unacceptable,” he said.
'Out of options'
As the crisis continues, the consensus government has called on all Palestinians to prevent the situation from deteriorating.
Meanwhile, Israel continues to withhold $127mn in Palestinian tax revenues, a move that came after the PA's recent decision to join the International Criminal Court. This hole has left the PA unable to pay for much of its own needs.
Moreover, Mofeed Al-Hassaina, minister of housing in the unity government, said the PA had received only one percent of the aid money pledged by donors at an October conference on Gaza's reconstruction following this summer's 51-day war with Israel, leaving it unable to carry out infrastructure projects in the strip, let alone pay salaries.
Recently, Saudi Arabia reportedly sent $60mn to the PA, while Qatar also chipped in $25mn on Wednesday.
According to Gaza Strip's Finance Ministry, Hamas will provide its employees in Gaza with 1,000 NIS (roughly $255) next Thursday, but this temporary effort is unlikely to end the protests on the street.
"I will stay and protest as long as it takes," said a father, who also requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, protesting on Wednesday. "I am out of options and we need to live, like anyone else."