Palestinian union hit on all sides

Hamas militants have repeatedly attacked Palestinian trade unionists
Hamas militants have repeatedly attacked Palestinian trade unionists

An article from the Al-Jazeera website detailing the repression faced by trade unionists in Palestine not only from the Israeli state but also from the 'national liberation' militias of Hamas and Fatah.

Submitted by Ed on July 25, 2007

Taken from Al-Jazeera English, by Omar Khalifa.

With 47 per cent of the potential Palestinian labour force unemployed and a per capita income 23 times less than that of Israel, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) has a difficult enough job.

Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June, however, their job has become much more difficult.

The PGFTU, in the West Bank and Gaza, has been attacked from all sides - by Hamas, a Fatah militia and Israel - in acts that have included, they say, murder attempts, raids, shootings and rocket attacks.

In June, the PGFTU said Hamas seized their headquarters and ordered the union's staff to discuss how they were to operate under Hamas rule.

According to Shaher Saed, general secretary of the PGFTU, the union refused to negotiate. As a result, Saed said, three assassination attempts were made by Hamas on Rasem Al Bayari, the union's deputy general secretary, which included a rocket attack on his home in January and the bombing of his office in February.

On Tuesday, Saed, who has been linked to Fatah, said Hamas executive forces had seized two more offices - in Gaza and Khan Younis - taking much of the property within.

The PGFTU has said that the attacks were "blatant violations against union freedoms, democracy and diversity".

"Palestinian workers are not only facing outside siege, but they are also facing inside siege ... by Hamas' military force, in a time when the workers are in great need for humanitarian assistance, medical care and social protection."

Dr Azzam Tamimi, director of the london-based institute of Islamic political thought, said: "The PGFTU is a Fatah organisation ... Fatah, in the West Bank, has been destroying offices of Hamas.

"Now, Fatah is trying to say that Hamas is trying to do exactly the same in Gaza. Which from my sources, seems to be untrue."

Saed said: "They don't like us. In the end, we are independent, we are speaking freely, we don't care about the Israelis or anyone here or there. For that reason, they don't like our language."

Fight for rights
The PGFTU campaign for the rights of workers in the Palestine territories. The union was established in 1965, and has offices and representatives in many areas from Rafah to Jenin.

Matt Egan, an international officer for Unison, the UK's biggest trade union, said: "By crossing sectarian and national boundaries with their outlook, trade unionists are incredibly vulnerable in places such as the Palestine territories.

"They challenge the agendas of Hamas, Fatah and Israel, and sadly I think they're going to continue to suffer ... even with international solidarity from other trade unionists."

Saed said: "After what happened ... my deputy secretary general is afraid for his life. They [Hamas] have followed him three or four times to interrogate him. I don't know whether they wanted to beat him or kill him.

"They accused him of being a sympathiser with Israel, and said that he is against Hamas."

The PGFTU has said that Hamas has since refused to give back the occupied office, and activities of the trade union have stopped completely. Hamas spokespeople were unavailable for comment.

Tamimi, however, said that these statements were merely a result of the "propaganda war" in which "claims and counter-claims are part of the political polemic between the two sides [Hamas and Fatah]."

Israeli pressure
The PGFTU has not only accused Hamas of victimising them and preventing them from doing their work.

On July 4, an Israeli army unit broke into the PGFTU office in Ramallah in the early hours during a raid. Saed said they destroyed the office, filing cabinets and computers.

Saed has still not been given a reason for the raid.

Israeli authorities denied that office equipment was damaged, but confirmed that the raid of the trade union building took place "in order to protect the citizens of Israel".

"Two arrests were conducted ... In the process of locating the wanted men that were hidden in the building, two doors were broken," a statement read.

"For most of us, it's forbidden to go outside or to travel to a particular area, by Israel," Saed said. "Many of my leaders cannot attend any conference outside of the country.

"The PGFTU has a good relationship with trade unions all across the world. Of course, we have a good view of events here ... and the collective punishment from the Israeli army," he said.

Fatah kidnap
One week after the Israeli raid, Saed, leader of the PGFTU for 15 years, was forcibly taken from a Nablus restaurant by Fatah militiamen in masks.

Saed said the men threatened him with violence if he did not resign from his trade union position and end his involvement in other Palestinian civil society organisations. He was released after around half an hour.

"I was sitting with the chairman of CGIL [Italian General Confederation of Labour], the biggest trade union in Italy. Six gunmen came with masks and M16s, and asked me to go with them," he said.

"They asked me, "why are you helping Hamas?" I said, first of all I have not helped either Fatah or Hamas ... Maybe they wanted to do something wrong with me."

Abdullah Abdullah, a Fatah politician said: "It did happen ... But it was by mistake, they apologised. The ministry of the interior has dealt with this case.

"The whole phenomenon of armed militias in the West Bank has ended," he said, in the wake of the formation of the caretaker government, which is rejected by Hamas and effectively only holds power in the West Bank.

For Raja Khalidi, chief of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Developments (Unctad) Assistance to the Palestinian People Unit, attacks on Palestinian trade unions "are not common ... [but] directly linked to the political identity of each of these organisations," he said.

Dr Mohammad Shtayyeh, head of the Palestinian economic council for development, and a former minister, said this is because "trade unions and civil society organisations have been fully politicised".

"Shaher was kidnapped not by Hamas in Nablus, but by pro-Fatah militias ... And he himself has been affiliated with Fatah in one way or another. The issue is therefore not simply Hamas versus Fatah ... it is much more complicated than that."

Bassim Khoury, of the Palestinian Authority, said: "Instead of belonging to the citizenry, they belong to parties. They have social roles to play, but they don't succeed."

Social liberation
After forty years of occupation, these social issues, such as workers rights - issues at the core of the PGFTU's doctrine - have always been superceded by national issues in the Palestinian territories.

"The national cause will always continue to trump other issues in Palestine, including women's issues, class, and whatever struggles in social circles are necessary," Khalidi said.

"You can't expect very much in a situation, classically speaking, of national liberation."

Saed said: "In the end, they [PGFTU board] asked me to resign ... because it was endangering my life.

"But I will continue ... I know it's dangerous, but i just want to do my job."

In the last four years, the PGFTU, which relies mostly on foreign donations from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt and organisations such as the Red Cross, has assisted more than 250,000 Palestinians into work or with financial support, according to Saed.

"I have more than 350,000 unemployed workers who still need my help," Saed said. "And I will continue to fight against poverty in Palestine."

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