Interview with Rasem Al Bayari, Palestinian trade unionist

Rasem Al Bayari

Being a trade unionist is a very dangerous business in Palestine.

Rasem Al Bayari, Deputy General Secretary of the PGFTU (Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions), an ITUC affiliate, knows that well: following the destruction of a PGFTU building in October 2006 and the firing of two rockets at his home in January, on 6 April Rasem Al Bayari was injured by masked men who attacked him while he was in a car with his family.

He describes these events and the enormous problems faced by workers in Palestine.

Have you any idea who could have ordered these attacks?
The Palestinian authorities are to blame for the first and second attacks, both the firing of rockets at my house and the attack on the PGFTU building. Vehicles belonging to the Ministry of the Interior were used in those attacks: any Palestinian can recognise them easily. We know that the people who attacked the radio station work for the Interior Ministry. PGFTU employees saw them and they painted messages on the walls of the radio station after setting fire to it stating that “Hamas has been here”. A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior admitted that the ministry was responsible for those attacks. What is more, the Palestinian authorities failed to condemn the violence against us and did not hold any investigation.

Are such attacks frequent?
We are regularly shot at by the police when holding demonstrations in support of workers’ rights. In October and November 2006, for instance, 13 workers were killed by police bullets at a demonstration calling for the payment of wages and unemployment benefits. We also receive a lot of threats, often by phone, and are warned that the government is going to take some very severe measures against the unions and their buildings. We have complained to the Ministry of the Interior about these threats, asking them to identify the people making these phone calls, but the ministry has done nothing.

Even the members of our journalists’ union who went on strike to support the kidnapped BBC journalist, Alan Johnston, were attacked by the police, but they have carried on fighting nonetheless. They erected tents near the Legislative Council as a base for their protests against the abduction.

Why did they destroy the radio station?
It was a trade union radio station whose aim was to defend workers’ rights and let them voice their opinions. The authorities were against the radio station and said it “poisoned” the people. The station has now been totally destroyed and the equipment was stolen by the attackers. There was 400,000 dollars’ worth of damage.

The main attack took place on 2 February 2007 at 5 am. Six workers were present in the buildings at that time. The attack caused the workers to panic and one of them jumped from the first floor and died later in hospital. The others were arrested and then released.

What about the last attack against you personally, on 6 April?
I was driving around Gaza in a PGFTU vehicle with my wife, my children and my mother. The assailants pointed guns at us, forced me to stop the car and insisted that we get out of it and put our hands up. They then wanted me to get back into it alone and to follow their car. As I refused to do this they opened fire, aiming at the ground in front of me. Some broken bullets and clods of earth injured my neck. My wife and children screamed. Their cries, together with the gunshots, drew a lot of attention to what was going on. The attackers then drove off with their car and the PGFTU vehicle. The latter contained some of our valuables (including my mobile phone and my wife’s handbag). I don’t know what would have happened if I had followed them as they wanted: perhaps they would have killed me, and had hesitated to do so in front of my family. But the attackers were wearing masks so I couldn’t recognise them. That time it was not an Interior Ministry vehicle. Representatives of the Ministry promised me that they would carry out an enquiry to identify the assailants.

How has your everyday life been since those attacks? Do you intend to give up the trade union struggle?
I live a normal life but am careful. I’m particularly careful when moving around. Some people are sometimes afraid of becoming union leaders as they are scared of being attacked by armed men. That fear haunts most Palestinian union leaders, particularly since the recent attacks on my home and the PGFTU office. But despite those attacks, the Palestinian union movement is determined to defend the interests of workers in the Palestinian territories. As far as I’m concerned, I am determined to carry on the struggle. I would even say that these attacks make me more determined to defend workers.

Why have you been singled out in these attacks, rather than the General Secretary of the PGFTU?
It may be because I’m in Gaza, whilst the General Secretary lives in the West Bank, in Nablus, a region that is still under Israeli occupation. Gaza is run directly by the Palestinian Authority.

What is the membership of the PGFTU and how does the organisation help its members in such a situation?
15 unions are affiliated to the PGFTU, which has an overall membership of about 380,000, 10% of whom are women. 127,000 members live in Gaza, with the others in the West Bank. One of the services we offer our members is a health insurance that guarantees them free medical care. We also offer a lot of training to our members, thanks to funding from international and foreign trade union organisations (including some in Spain, Norway and Sweden).

We also help Palestinian migrant workers exercise their rights in Israel: since the sealing off of Gaza many of them are unable to recover their wage arrears or money deducted for their social security by their former Israeli employers. The legal department of the PGFTU is in contact with Israeli lawyers and we send them all the documents they need to defend the rights of the former migrants in Israeli courts. When they do recover these arrears they subtract 10% for their fees and transfer the rest to the PGFTU, which passes them on to the workers.

We are keeping an eye on internal democracy in the PGFTU: some members of Hamas were elected in the last elections in our 15 federations, and we have to be careful that they do not force Islamist tendencies on the unions. There is a danger of amalgams, since under the last Labour Ministry workers’ benefits were distributed via the mosques rather than the PGFTU, which distributes benefits through its offices and without distinguishing between the workers. The recently-formed Palestinian government of national unity does provide us with some hope. It seems to want to strengthen tripartite relations and to fight with us against poverty and unemployment. This new government must ensure security and stability for Palestinians, thereby bringing peace and reconciliation to the region. And if peace comes, prosperity and progress will follow.

How can international workers’ solidarity help you?
We would like help with strengthening the trade union movement in Palestine and also to repair our radio station. I would also like the ITUC to help remove the boycott imposed on Palestinians by Israel and to play a key role in the peace process in the region. Palestinians want peace and the international trade union movement should cooperate with the national unions to convince our governments to aim for peace and reconciliation. We must put pressure on the government of Israel to open the country’s gates to Palestinian workers and to help us build our economy. That will revive the hopes of Palestinians and give them the courage to carry on, whilst helping the Palestinian authorities to maintain stability in our society.

The blocking of the Palestinian territories has a very concrete impact on trade union work then?
Yes indeed. There are 480 check points in the West Bank. The wall that Israel built has confiscated a large part of the Palestinian land whilst dividing families and aggravating mobility problems. I cannot even travel to the West Bank for official reasons, such as meeting an international delegation from the ILO. I have to go via Jordan to meet my General Secretary in the West Bank. The Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank all have problems contacting each other owing to the blockages and we have to use the phone or faxes.

How high is unemployment in Palestine?
There are 400,000 unemployed Palestinians, i.e. 75 % of the work force. Many Palestinian intellectuals and scientists have left Palestine owing to the lack of work. This is having a very negative impact, not least in the health sector. It is also a source of huge poverty, with roughly 80 % of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank living below the poverty line. The fact that many international NGOs have left Gaza has aggravated the situation.

How are Palestinians surviving in this situation?
The majority are living off food aid from the United Nations. Many families have sold their possessions, even wives’ jewellery, in order to survive. Things are also very tough for government employees who have not been paid for over a year.

Taken from International Trade Union Confederation website