Why is the Palestinian Authority waging a war on the Union of Public Employees?

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Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (C) sits next to Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (L) and Tayeb Abdul Rahim, general secretary of the Palestinian Authority's executive committee, during a ceremony to mark the tenth anniversary of the death of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah on November 11, 2014. AFP/Abbas Momani

By: Amon al-Sheikh

Published Friday, November 14, 2014

The release of the two trade unionists who were detained by the Ramallah government last week does not mean the issue of the Union of Public Employees has been resolved. There is still a presidential decree stating that the union is an illegal entity even though, for years, it was a legitimate representative that reached agreements with successive governments. Suddenly, however, a war was declared on the union when its role of putting pressure on Hamas’ previous government ended and it started crossing the Palestinian Authority’s red lines.

Ramallah – Overnight, the Union of Public Employees in the occupied West Bank became “an illegitimate entity” in the eyes of the Palestinian Authority (PA), even though, successive governments, headed by Salam Fayyad and Rami al-Hamdallah, met and reached several agreements with the union. The Hamdallah government (unity government) waged an “internal war” against the union backed by presidential decrees a week ago. Now, even membership in the union can be cause for an arrest.

The president of the Union of Public Employees, Bassam Zakarneh, and the vice president, Moin Ansawi, were detained in the Baituniya Central Prison for a week before they were released yesterday evening. Furthermore, the preventive security force continues to detain union member Mohammed Hussein (until the writing of this report). At the same time, the cabinet decided to form a legal committee to prepare, once again, a draft law for unions, including the Union of Public Employees. Why did this union – supposedly established in Ramallah to harass Hamas during the tenth government (unity government) – become the mortal enemy of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his Prime Minister Rami al-Hamdallah?

Yesterday morning, a presidential decree was issued ordering the arrest of the secretary general of the Palestinian legislative council, Ibrahim Khreisheh, who was attacking the prime minister and his policies at a sit-in inside the Council. This turned the case into more than a public opinion issue, especially in light of the decrees issued by Abbas himself. Later on, parliamentary blocs in the Legislative Council held a meeting to protest summoning Khreisheh and the continued detention of the trade unionists.

MP and member of the political bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Khalida Jarrar, said that Khreisheh remained inside the Legislative Council with sit-in participants, adding that members of the police force went to his house as soon as the summons was issued “then came to the Legislative Council but did not enter the building.” Jarrar told Al-Akhbar that arresting trade unionists and summoning Khreisheh “violates freedom of opinion, expression and union organizing.”

The roots of the case go back to the fact that the Magistrate Court in Ramallah dismissed early this month a lawsuit filed by the former minister of labor, Ahmed Majdalani, against the president of the Union of Public Employees and member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, Zakarneh. The court dismissed the case on the grounds that it did not meet the legal requirements. During his trial, Zakarneh, on more than one occasion, called on workers to strike.

It was later rumored that Majdalani pressured Abbas to take action against the union. Sure enough, successive summons were issued and Zakarneh and Ansawi were arrested. This moved the confrontation to the cabinet’s court because seven unions (teachers, doctors, employees in public universities and colleges, pharmacists, dentists, public employees and health professions) issued a statement on October 30 rejecting the government’s decision not to pay employees for the days they went on strike.

Right away, the PA presidency issued a decree stating that the Union of Public Employees is not a legal entity and was not established with any legal basis, “therefore, legally speaking, it does not exist.” The statement said that “the Palestinian president adopted this decree and issued instructions to implement it. Failure to abide by it led to an ongoing state of disorder, violation of the law, obstruction of state administrations and harm to the interests of the nation and the people.”

As soon as the head of the Federation of Health and Nursing Unions, Osama al-Najjar, held an urgent meeting to discuss developments of Zakarneh and Ansawi’s detention, he was arrested, but was released less than 24 hours later. While Zakarneh and Ansawi chose to turn themselves to the police last Thursday, unconfirmed information indicates that Zakarneh was physically assaulted. Besides, the Preventive Security Force arrested Mohammed Hussein two days later without an arrest warrant or prior notification, as Amjad Hussein told Al-Akhbar. Amjad said that a large number of union members were summoned and later released except for his brother. He said they contacted leaders in Fatah but they all said that his brother is “arrested at the president’s order” and that they cannot intervene.

The lawyer for the Union of Public Employees, Mutasim al-Awawda, said that the charges made against Zakarneh include: “Joining illegal associations, professional neglect, and refusal to implement court orders.” He added that Zakarneh “did not answer these charges.” In an interview with Al-Akhbar, Awawda defended his client saying that the papers and documents they have prove that the union existed since 2005, represented the public service sector in and outside Palestine and “has personal correspondence with the president and all the official and unofficial departments, which confirm its legitimacy. However, the public prosecution rejected all of that.” He pointed out that they are waiting for the decision of the High Court of Justice, which will determine if the union is a legitimate body or not “because the presidency does not have the authority to make that decision.”

Several Palestinian human rights organizations issued statements condemning the decision deeming the union an illegitimate entity and the arrest of the three trade unionists, especially after the deterioration in the health of the union’s president and vice president. Ashraf Abu Hayyeh, an attorney from al-Haq organization, said that even though the arrest of the three trade unionists was done in a legal way, “the initial arrest procedures were illegal and were not based on a court-issued subpoena.” Abu Hayyeh told Al-Akhbar that Palestine recently joined international agreements, specifically, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which came into effect and guarantees the right to strike and organize unions. “This gives Zakarneh and Ansawi more legitimacy,” said Abu Hayyeh.

Political Science professor at al-Najah University, Abdel Sattar Qassem, said that the detention of the trade unionists is an “internal Fatah problem.” He added: “the unions were operating in a normal way but when they started to criticize the performance of the PA, especially its spending, disagreements between them intensified and the decision deeming the union illegitimate was issued.” Qassem told Al-Akhbar that the PA president behaves “erratically” because “there is no clear law that governs the relationship between the people and the institutions. When Zakarneh criticized the PA, he was arrested and when Khreisheh criticized Zakarneh’s detention, he was summoned too.” At the same time, Qassem wondered: “How come these unions were legal when they criticized the Hamas government but became illegal when they criticized the PA?” In any case, he believes the issue will somehow get resolved without anyone knowing how, “like a lot of other issues such as the corruption scandals in the PA.”

The Palestinian cabinet decided in its weekly session to form a legal committee to prepare a draft law for trade unions. One day after that decision was taken, the representative of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the Union of Public Employees, Zahi Sawalmeh, was arrested, prompting the Front to call for his release.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

Abba$$ attack on Palestinian unions is desperate megalomania exacerbated by the rapidly rising tide of criticism of his PA/PLO corruption and treason in its collaboration with Israel… Remember, the Nazi destroyed unions because "the unions were a barrier to the Nazi aims of bringing all areas of public life under their control and of winning over the working class to Nazism."

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