Five thousand Palestinians who used to work in Israel and have been unemployed for the past 22 months because of the siege of the Gaza Strip, demonstrated yesterday in Gaza City, demanding that the Palestinian Authority provide them with either regular unemployment payments or alternative work.
The daily newspaper Haaretz reports that thousands of people were demonstrating against the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian leadership. "The demonstrators, numbering around 5,000, gathered outside the Palestinian National Council building in the centre of the city, and marched on the empty and partly bombed-out headquarters of PA chairman Yasser Arafat, located in the beach front," reports Haaretz.
The protesters were carrying placards reading, "Work not charity" and "Lift the closure on Gaza". Some waved stale pita bread, while others banged on metal pot lids. "They even dared to chant direct accusations of theft of donations against the Palestinian Authority. 'Where are the millions?' they demanded, in an eerie echo of a chant from the first intifada, which called on millions of people across the Arab world to help the Palestinian cause," Haaretz reported.
The unemployed workers - many of them organised in the trade unions and supporters of the leftist parties among the Palestinians - are demanding that the Palestinian Authority set up an employment fund. The fund was supposed to be set up at the end of 1993. It was supposed to be managed like the Israeli National Insurance Institute (INII), which deducted payments from the Palestinians when they worked inside Israel. An unemployed Palestinian is currently unable to demand unemployment benefit, since the PA has not yet set up a parallel organization to the INII in Israel.
One of the main demands of the demonstrators was an inquiry into the fate of the donations, which came from the Arab regimes in the Middle East. Haaretz reports that throughout the last 22 months, most of the workers have received one or two payments of NIS 500 or NIS 600 ($150).
Mobilisation of the Palestinian working class
The demonstration was the first successful mobilisation of the Palestinian working class, which was totally politically oppressed during the last decade of Arafat's regime. They gave a letter with demands to Arafat's representative in Gaza, A-Tayeb Abed el-Rahim. One of their representatives met with officials from the Palestinian Labour Ministry and the Organisation of Palestinian Workers' Unions (OPWP).
In order to prevent an "internal intifada", the PA immediately set up negotiations with the workers, and decided to publish the names of workers who can expect to receive unemployment benefit. Shafik, a 24 year old Palestinian worker, told our In Defence of Marxism correspondent: "We see how Arafat reveals his real face; not only did he sell us out in 1993 to Israel and the US, but now we find out that he took our money in order to invest it in his corrupt regime. How can anyone believe this man? We want our money back, now! I don't know how he is going to raise it, but I really don't care."
He added: "We are fighting in Israel to achieve our independence, and neither the United States nor the Arab countries are standing on our side. I believe that this situation requires a leadership of workers, and Arafat cannot represent us; we respect his historic role, but he can't serve the interests of the US and the Arab capitalists, and at the same time represent us. Unfortunately, he must go."
The mobilisation of the Palestinian working class began some six weeks ago, when workers from the northern Gaza Strip set up protest tents along the main road and inside refugee camps, and explained to everyone there what their demands are and what their living conditions are like. No political force organised this movement, though several demonstrators identify themselves with the Palestinian People's Party (the former Communist Party, ex-Stalinists). It was a spontaneous movement of workers.
Haaretz daily reported on June 2: "The workers consulted with human rights groups and non-governmental organizations, and even managed to spread the protest to other parts of the Strip, especially in the south, where unemployment is believed to be as high as 60 percent. One NGO provided the funding for a smaller, experimental demonstration 12 days ago, and one paid for the banners used in yesterday's march. Members of these organisations, however, were careful not to dictate or influence the content of the banners."
In the past, when teachers and doctors protested over their low pay, the PA ordered them to appeal to their so-called "elected" representatives in the trade unions. Nevertheless, they failed because the fact is that the leaders of the trade unions get their salaries paid by the PA. Their basic loyalty is to the PA, not to the workers.
Although several Palestinian leaders were in favour of confronting the workers, the Palestinian leadership decided not to intervene in the demonstration. The PA was frightened that it was an independent movement of workers, and not a political protest organized by Arafat's opposition. The popular support of the Palestinian workers, who dared to protest against Arafat's regime, has caused fear not only among the Palestinian ruling class - but also among the Arab ruling classes in the Middle East and in the Israeli government.
Uprisings of workers against corruption and for social justice, as well as popular uprisings of workers and youth in the occupied cities and towns against the Israeli army, could lead to mass uprisings in the Middle Eastern countries. In spite of the PA's efforts to "buy off" the leaders of the protest by offering them jobs, the movement refused to let the PA demoralise the workers. Haaretz reported: "The organisers warned the workers of agents provocateurs, who would try and turn the protest to violence, and insisted that their march pass off peacefully."
Sharon against the unemployed workers in Israel
The Israeli government decided to launch a nationwide pilot program in order to put the unemployed workers in Israel - more than 200 thousand people - back to work. The program is being modelled on the American Wisconsin Plan, and a government team will start working on it in the next few months. Haaretz daily reported that the pilot scheme would begin on March 1, 2003 and run through to the end of 2004. At least 14,000 unemployed people will be obliged to participate in the program; should they refuse they will lose their welfare benefits.
"The program will be divided into four regions - south, centre, north and Jerusalem - and will be run by four foreign companies acting in conjunction with Israeli organisations, including the Government Employment Service. Various categories of jobless people will be involved, including single mothers with children over the age of 3 - who are currently exempt from looking for work until their children turn 7 - and people considered unemployable due to behavioural problems," Haaretz reported.
"Participants will start by undergoing testing to determine suitable types of work for them. Each job-seeker will then be assigned a counsellor who will develop a work plan with the individual. For some, the plan will start with completing studies or taking a professional retraining course; others will begin job-hunting immediately. For those unable to find a job, the government will supply full or part-time community service work," it continued. A senior Finance Ministry official told the newspaper that "there will no longer be a situation in which people receive a stipend and sit at home, except perhaps for drug addicts or alcoholics."
According to jurists, the program will require new legislation - among other things, to permit the cutting of welfare benefits for those who refuse to participate and to authorise childcare and transportation subsidies for those who require them in order to accept jobs that are offered to them.
"The hope is that eventually, as people find work and leave the welfare rolls, the money saved on their welfare payments can be used to bring new people into the program," explained Ruth Sinai, Haaretz commemorator.
The opponents of the program are not blaming only the government of Sharon. Israel's government first began discussing an Israeli version of the Wisconsin Plan five years ago, and the Labour Party - which ruled during the years 1999-2001 - adopted the plan.
Hadassah Rabinov, an activist in one of the Israeli social welfare organisations, told our In Defence of Marxism correspondent: "Everyone knows that the plan has succeeded in reducing the welfare rolls in the United States, but poverty has increased there." Shmuel B., economist at the University of Haifa, said: "I don't think that the state can afford a situation in which the number of people living off welfare is growing, while the unemployed people - who are capable and even qualified - don't look for work, just because the salary doesn't motivate them to work." He added: "In the era of globalisation, only financial investment in creating jobs and encouraging people to work can advance our economy. From my point of view, socialism is backwardness."
Israel's prime minister Ariel Sharon launched a vicious attack on those who oppose these plans. In a meeting of the social-economic cabinet Sharon said: "Let them clean the streets - our cities are filthy - or work in hospitals or guard kindergartens."
"Even if the work is unpaid, at least the person will be doing something in exchange for his stipend. From this point on, we should not give to anyone without receiving something in exchange," Sharon stressed. He complained that the two-year pilot program was too long, though he voted for it. "The economy is burning. We can't wait for the results of a pilot; we need people to get to work now," he emphasized. (Haaretz daily Internet Edition, July 2, 2002)
The only way forward: workers' struggle for socialism
The reality in Israel and Palestine places the Israeli working class alongside the Palestinian working class in a struggle for their future. The bloody war of Sharon also involves launching an attack against the Israeli workers, which is only a part of his war against the Palestinians' struggle to defend their national rights. Israel is aiming to serve the American ruling class by advancing barbaric capitalist policies which will advance the Israeli government's task: to occupy its place among the pro-American states, which are dominated by rulers who are loyal to capitalist globalisation. In its aim to create a "free market" in the Middle East, which will involve massive exploitation of the Arab masses as well as the Israeli workers (while leaving control of the oil of the region in US hands), the ruling classes in Israel and the US will cause mass unemployment, poverty, impoverishment of the masses and beggary. Therefore, the workers in the West Bank, Gaza and in Israel have an interest in uniting their ranks, in order to defeat their common enemy: the nationalist bourgeoisie.
The Israeli working class will not gain anything from Sharon's bloody war; the Palestinian workers will not be the only victims of the new social and political order in the Middle East. Internationalist solidarity of the working class in Israel and Palestine is urgently needed in order to achieve the only solution to years of bloodshed, war and despair: socialism. The only way out of the crisis is by building a leadership of workers, Israelis and Palestinians, that will put forward a socialist alternative.
The bankruptcy of Arafat as leader is well known; he did not lift a finger when the US launched a barbaric assault against the people of Afghanistan. Arafat negotiated with representatives of Israel and the US in order to try to patch together another Oslo agreement. The only way for the Palestinians to succeed in their struggle for self-determination is to have another leadership; not a pro-imperialist leadership as Israel and the US wants, but a proletarian leadership. The only way for the Israelis to end decades of bloodshed, mass unemployment of 200,000 people and tens of thousands of workers living on the minimum wage, is to fight for replacing their leadership with a revolutionary, Jewish-Arab, leadership of the working class. This is the solution that Trotskyists in Israel and Palestine are putting forward.