The Palestinian economy: Caught between Hamas and the West
A massive demonstration was staged in the Gaza Strip on Monday by hundreds of Palestinians who had once worked in Israel and were now protesting the Hamas policy denying them the right to return to Israel's lucrative market.
Monday's rally was one in a series of labor protests reported in the Palestinian territories since Hamas rose to power in March 2006. These rallies often involved hundreds--and at times, thousands--of people criticizing the government for their growing hardship.
The labor rally phenomenon clearly illustrates the increasing severity of daily economic hardships for Palestinians, as well as the failure of their cabinet to "deliver the goods" they had promised. Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, has come under strong international pressure, which has in turn taken a heavy economic toll on the Palestinian people.
After the Hamas-led government took office, two of the Palestinian Authority's leading donors—the US and European Union—cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the PA. Despite the financial crisis wrought on the local population as a result, as well as empty coffers unable to provide wages to 165,000 government workers for months, Hamas has rejected calls to change its policy.
With the government being the largest employer in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by far, the public sector has served as a lifeline for countless Palestinian families and their extended relations. As a result of lack of revenue, many Palestinians have been forced to rely on already meager savings or on overdraft accounts in place of salaries.
By now, the financial crisis can be felt in all areas of commerce. Palestinian Federation of Industries Vice Chairman Sameh Khouzundar was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying that since the elections, Gaza's industrial sector has suffered losses amounting to $35 million—not to mention those of the West Bank.
More Palestinians workers are sure to lose their jobs in the future as industrial activities in the Gaza Strip grind to a halt as factories face shortages of raw materials and the PA—the leading client in the Palestinian market—has no money to replenish them with.
The situation has damaged not only commercial activities, but key sectors as well. In some cases in recent weeks, teachers at West Bank schools were forced to cancel classes after failing to receive their salaries.
Initially, the majority of Palestinians backed their government's argument that the crisis was the result of Western hostility towards Hamas. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh even said in April that his people will survive on "olives and salt." But more recently, the situation has changed as frustrated Palestinians publicly blame the cabinet for their economic woes before television crews and journalists. One worker at Monday's protest explained: "Hamas ministers don't care. I don't know whom to approach, but I need to feed my children," he said.
"I haven't received a salary for 66 days," a teacher marching in a recent protest told the AP. "Of course I'm not happy with the government," he added.
Earlier this month, during a government workers' protest, Sheikh Majid Dwikat, a local religious leader, said that "if this government can't function, it has to think carefully about its people and change its political way of thinking".
The pre-election promises of Hamas' Change & Reform List have failed to materilize. This contributes to the current disappointment of the Palestinian public. The head of the civil servants' union in palestine, Bassam Zakarneh, was quoted as saying earlier this week that "anger among the government employees was growing and risked boiling over into violence."
Clearly, all economic indicators have shown a marked deterioration in Palestinian standards of living since Hamas' rise to power. In the meantime, the Palestinian public grows poorer and more frustrated on a daily basis. Though the Hamas-led cabinet can blame the West for the crisis, such talk does little to improve the lot of the Palestinian citizen in need of money to purchase food and basic services. It is clear that either Hamas policy, or the Palestinian government, should change.