Friday’s Fact: Amid Severe Salary Cuts Gazans Take to The Streets to Protest

This week witnessed large-scale public unrest in the besieged Gaza Strip which is likely to further aggravate Hamas and Fatah’s tense relationship at the expense of the Palestinian people. A recent decision by the Palestinian Authority (PA) to drastically cut salaries of civil servants in the Strip in order to manage the financial crisis has greatly angered several thousand government employees. After Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, the Fatah-dominated PA ordered its employees in the Strip to stop working, while guaranteeing the payment of their salaries. While around 50.000 employees continued to work under the de-facto Gazan government – many of whom were employed by Hamas – several thousand government employees followed the PA request and continued to be paid in full.

In March this year, however, the Fatah-dominated PA withheld between 30 percent and – according to some reports – up to 70 percent of the salaries of civil servants in Gaza. It was reported that the salaries were even reduced without prior notice. Employees thus only became aware of the issue when they went to the bank to withdraw their salaries. Tens of thousands of government employees subsequently took to the streets of Gaza City to protest against the cut in salary. Protesters called for the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and Finance Minister Dr. Shukri Bishara.

In an effort to deal with the tense situation, Hamdallah argued that the base salaries of employees would not be affected by the cuts, but that deductions were made on bonuses only. Several Palestinian factions, including the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the Palestinian National Initiative (PNI), issued statements of condemnation, calling the cuts “illegal“ and “discriminatory“. Moreover, politicians inside and outside of the coastal enclave have pointed to the dire living situations that have persisted since the blockade of the Gaza Strip started in 2007.

UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, expressed his “deep concern“ over the recent developments. Also eluding to the fact that the PA’s salary cut only affected employees in the Gaza Strip, he said: [I]t is important that reforms or decisions to reduce expenditures are fairly distributed and made with consideration to the harsh conditions under which people in Gaza live. While saying that the cutbacks were designed to “manage the financial crisis“, caused by restrictions of international funds, PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah failed to mention why salaries of government employees in the West Bank were not reduced in a similar fashion.

Although it may be true that the financial pressure on the PA is mounting – as several reports in recent months have suggested – observers ask why Gazans have to pay the bill. Interestingly, little effort was made to disguise the political considerations behind the policy. Hamdallah let it be known that Hamas’ practice of holding onto to tax revenues – and thus not transferring them to the PA’s treasury – played a role in the Prime Minister’s decision to cut government salaries. This issue was also raised by PA-spokesperson Yousif al-Mahmoud, who blamed Hamas for rebelling against the PA and creating an alternative government.

The Hamas administrative committee to which al-Mahmoud was referring, announced by Hamas in mid-March, is a newly created seven member body. As Hamas subsequently claimed, it is not designed as “a substitute government“. Instead the committee is to organize state institutions and support the work of relevant ministers. Following its announcement, however, observers noted this move be a sign that Hamas is abandoning any efforts to seek reconciliation. In March, a minister close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was reported to have said that “the PA must reconsider the way it is treating Hamas following the formation of the governmental committee“. It appears that the Palestinian leadership has followed up on the advice and the struggle for control over the Palestinian Territories is once again being fought with little regards to the people of Gaza, whose daily existence remains a struggle.