Meetings, a Strike, and Sightseeing
This morning we met with representatives of the left labor coalition of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU)--the PGFTU is the largest trade union in Palestine, similar to the AFL-CIO in the US, and they have also signed onto the boycott. The coalition appreciated our visit and asked for our support, particularly relating to the boycott. The PGFTU is the second oldest trade-union movement in the Arab world, established in 1924. With the founding of Israel in 1948 the trade-union movement disappeared in Palestine, and by 1967 the union involvement that had been revived in the interim dissolved under occupation. After 1967, there was clandestine organization of three workers federations that united to reform the PGFTU after the Oslo accord in 1994.
Since 1967, the Israeli government tried to eliminate the Palestinian economy and turn it into a market solely for Israeli goods. Between 1948 and 1967, Israel succeeded in evicting 50% of the Palestinian people from their homes, creating hundreds of thousands of refugees in their own land. The Oslo accord in 1994 worsened the economic climate in Palestine, forced Palestinians to leave their land and sell their labor cheaply elsewhere—thus establishing further obstacles to Palestinian autonomy.
Nathaniel asked how the occupation affects worker organizing in Palestine. The Israeli government passed a law forbidding union organizing in the Palestinian territories. Under the occupation, in the 70s and 80s, in union organizers in Palestine began putting pressure on the labor movement to organize workers. They managed to organize a new first strike in a hotel, then a few years later in another hotel and restaurants. In 1987 they began targeting villages. From 1982 to 1985 most union leaders had been arrested, and union documents were destroyed by IDF raids. Nonetheless, Palestinian union activists continued to organize while in prison. To this the Israeli government responded with military resolution 825, stating that trade union organizers must not have “criminal records,” but the union organizers did not obey.
A representative commented that “all is connected; the seizure of land, attacks on workers and farmers who made any signs of protest, the harassment of women, and the denial of Palestinian authority. This meant that Palestinians could not stop the oppression through legal means.”
The most extreme example of the weakened state of the Palestinian economy can be seen in Gaza, where virtually no market exists for Palestinian products. In an area famous for its cut flowers, half of the flower crop has to be burned because of the blockade, denying imports into and exports out of Gaza other than those goods sent from the Israeli government.
A representative raised the issue of the boycott, and stressed that it is against the occupation which denies Palestinians social services, yet forces them to pay even more taxes than Israelis who benefit from government programs.
As an aside, it was noted the Israeli baby formula company that is permitted by Israel to sell in Palestine has two lines of formula, one for Israel and one for Palestine, leading to the suspicion that there is something inferior about the version for Palestine.
Last week there 300 Palestinian houses were demolished. On the Mount of Olives where Israel has established settlements, the settlements' territorial plan form the Star of David.
Another interested anecdote—in order to create the perception that Jews have been in East Jerusalem for 100 years, Israel recently transplanted palm trees from Iraq to the street in front of the Damascus Gate (we noticed these palms during our stay and they seemed out of place because Jerusalem is does not offer the conditions for growing them).
The people we interviewed stressed that “Jerusalem is the key regarding war and peace.” One emphasized “we are not terrorists, we are people. If we are denied our dignity we will never have peace.” Another PGFTU member urged us to raise our voices to Obama that there are 700 checkpoints, and that more than 300 women have had to give birth at checkpoints on their way to the hospital, and that tens of women have died. “We accept hell, but hell doesn't accept us.”
Following the meeting we made our way to the ministry of education where a strike was being held by national university employees who demanded better retirement benefits. After the Minister of Labor spoke, Kate Zaidan made a statement of solidarity to the crowd, and was later interviewed by various international news agencies. Hundered of workers and supporters were present, and the event was patrolled by a contingent of Palestinian security officers with AK-47s.
Next we took a taxi to the Democracy and Workers' Rights Center (DWRC), which was established by lawyers, professors and trade unionists in 1993. We met with members of the DWRC's legal aid and human rights' center. This NGO is committed to educating workers about their rights, establishing the freedom of association and the right to organize, ensuring occupational health and safety, training and education (such as the development of job skills and political consciousness), researching and studying the benefit and salary disparities between male and female workers, the publishing of statistics regarding workers' conditions, and eliminating poverty and unemployment through the creation of skilled job opportunities for men and women equally.
The DWRC representatives in informal discussion raised the problems of organizing the informal sector of the economy (which includes a large number of women), which offers no social security, insurance, services, or pensions. It was noted that women represent 16% of the total work force in Palestine, but the majority of the remaining 84% work in small family businesses, agriculture, and other services for which they are unpaid. And thus their work is unvalorized. 40% of women are below the poverty line and none have access to certain jobs such as construction and transportation.
One of the DWRC members then spoke about the situation of workers in Gaza, whom she has never met in the nine years they have been working together. She explained that there is virtually no private sector in Gaza, destroyed first by the blockade and then by the 2008-2009 military assault, during which the Israeli military deliberately demolished factories and building equipment. One of the few jobs that remains in Gaza is the dangerous job of working in the tunnels to Egypt, the only access to outside goods. Many workers have been killed in the tunnels by Israeli bombs. What can be done to get food to the people of Gaza? She suggested opening doors to small businesses, raising awareness of the crisis, and struggling for unemployment benefits. However, unfortunately the Palestinian populations in Gaza and the West Bank are growing further and further apart due to Gaza's isolation.
It was stressed that the boycott of Israeli goods, which has called for by Palestinian workers cannot hurt workers (Israeli and Palestinian alike) any more than the military occupation does. The costs of maintaining a militarized society include restricted access to regional markets, and Israel's use of cheap imported labor from Southeast Asia not only harms the Palestinian workers who are being excluded from such jobs, but drastically hurts the migrant workers who are treated despicably (who have no rights, whose papers are held with the threat of deportation, and who are thrown out of the country when no one wants to employ them).
Nathaniel asked if the Palestinian ruling class compromises the rights of Palestinian workers for the sake of personal gain. In response it was noted that Palestine is a colonized economy, and though workers' rights are often compromised when deals are made with Israel, one must look at it in the context of colonization and capitalistic greed. Occupation must be ended, benefitting both Palestine and Israel, opening it up to markets in Arab countries.
Following the meeting with the DWRC, we travelled 30km to Arura, our host Muhammad Aruri's hometown (at an elevation of 950m). On our way we passed a fenced-in settlement (lit 24 hours by US tax dollars), and a checkpoint that has been temporarily abandoned to benefit Abbas's political image. First, Muhammad took us to the highest point in the West Bank, from which we could see Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, Nablus, and Ramallah. From here we saw the biggest settlement in the area which houses a branch of Haifa Univeristy, as well as a grazing heard of goats.
We were hosted for dinner at his brother's home beautifully landscaped with Guava, Pomegranate, Olive, Clementine, and Jacaranda trees. While the sun set, we enjoyed a delicious meal prepared by Muhammad's sister-in-law and nieces.
After dinner, Muhammad took us to visit a local school where we met with the Arura charitable society, and organization that offers various services to residents of Arura and surrounding villages. Next we visited a recently built medical clinic (that Muhammad helped fund) which offers nearly-free emergency services to those that do not have the time to make it to the nearest hospital, 40 minutes away.
Exhausted we returned to Ramallah to rest up for another day.