Trade union action in the West Bank (WB) has resumed since early 2023. The response by the Palestinian Authority (PA) indicates that it intends to make minimal concessions to union demands, out of a belief that meeting these demands requires changing the PA’s spending priorities, which it is unwilling to do.
For their part, trade unions continued to persist in their demands. With time, trade unions have become harder to contain, which has invited the phenomenon of unknown assailants shooting at union protests, in a message of warning aimed at trade union leaders.
There are four possible scenarios. The first involves the possibility of trade unionists retreating under pressure. However, this is uncertain because many segments of Palestinian professionals can no longer cope with economic burdens. The second scenario would see the formation of a unified leadership for strike action. This is possible, especially since the success of the strikes in 2023 was the result of inter-union solidarity. The third scenario would see the emergence of a secret union leadership that directs the movements. Teachers have moved in this direction, and it is possible that others will join them if the teachers’ movement succeeds. The fourth scenario would see the transition of trade unions from demanding better work conditions to demanding political reform. While opportunities for this scenario exist, the second and third scenarios remain more likely, respectively. If their efforts fail, their path will be open to the fourth scenario.
In the first four months of 2023, WB witnessed major developments in the trade unions’ action. Of these, two are crucial because of what they may usher in: The first is the success of the leadership of the Unified Teachers’ Movement in leading an extended strike ongoing as of 5/2/2023. The second development is shooting by unknown assailants at the car of the head of the Nablus branch of the Engineers Association, which requires a study of the impact of new variables on the course of interaction between the unions and the PA government. The Assessment will proceed along two tracks: the first diagnoses the problem, and the second identifies possible scenarios.
First: The State of Trade Unionism in WB in the First Quarter of 2023
To explain the state of the trade union movement in WB in the first quarter of 2023, there is a need for a review of the main milestones in the relationship between the PA and unions, as follows:
1. Prior to the establishment of the PA in 1994, trade unionism involving federations and syndicates was dominated by a general national-patriotic character.
2. After the establishment of the PA, unions were marginalized, as were the rest of the institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
3. Trade unions that existed in WB and Gaza Strip (GS) before the establishment of the PA, maintained the ability to renew their leadership through periodic elections, but their general national role declined.
4. Salam Fayyad’s government and the Fatah movement were able to use the General Teachers’ Union of the PLO and the Public Employees Syndicate to disrupt government work in GS, by calling for employee disobedience, which was carried out in great harmony between Salam Fayyad’s government and those unions.
5. Starting in 2012, the Fatah movement leveraged The Union Public Employees against Salam Fayyad and his government, and went so far as to declare a general strike by employees, on 17/10/2012, in protest of the delay in the payment of salaries.
6. After Rami Hamdallah was appointed prime minister, the government and the Fatah movement cracked down on trade union movements that had been used previously. Bassam Zakarneh was arrested, and The Union Public Employees was dissolved on the grounds that it had no legal status.
7. In 2014, various protest movements began in WB, some targeting the policies of the occupation, and others calling for internal reform, against corruption and nepotism, against the background of the conflict between Muhammad Dahlan and Mahmud ‘Abbas. A financial crisis also hit the PA amid a decline in foreign aid, and the dwindling ability to raise funds though local banks.
8. In this atmosphere, studies have highlighted the unequal distribution of wealth and income. The PA authority failed to carry out reforms called for by experts, and engaged in stalling tactics in granting professionals their due pay adjustments.
9. The reason the PA refused to respond to the demands of the unions, especially the teachers’, is that this would change the PA’s priorities in distributing resources. This then led to the escalation of trade union action, in particular action by the Bar, Medical Association (Physicians Syndicate), Engineers Association, and the Unified Teachers’ Movement.
The demands of the lawyers’ protest movement were not about pay as much as about reform, in response to decrees issued by President Mahmud ‘Abbas aimed at limiting the role of the judiciary, turning it into a department attached to his office.
The Bar Association announced a strike, and refrained from attending court sessions, but the president refused to respond to their demands, until Jibril Rajoub presented an initiative. The president then retracted the above-mentioned decisions, but formed a higher judicial council headed by him on 28/10/2022, which sparked a new wave of condemnation among lawyers and human rights groups.
The Medical Association made specific demands including a 200% increase in the professional allowance for all, but the government gave those practicing general medicine an increment of 150%. The Medical Association joined in solidarity with the Bar Association’s strike against the president’s decrees, shifting its demands from pay to reform.
However, President ‘Abbas escalated against the Medical Association, issuing a decree-law on 23/10/2022 to dissolve the existing association and form a new one. However, protests escalated by civil society institutions, human rights organizations and unions, and the decree-law was repealed within days.
With regard to the Engineers Association, their dispute with the government is specific, with the Association demanding for the engineers to obtain an increase in the professional allowance from 90% to 120%, similar to pharmacists and dentists, based on an agreement signed with the government in 2020. The agreement stipulates that its implementation would begin on 1/1/2022, but this did not happen, prompting the Engineers Association to go on strike. During the course of the strike, unknown persons shot at the car of the head of the Nablus branch in the Engineers Association, Engineer Yazan Jabr, on 6/3/2023 at night. The Association denounced in an official statement the attack, and called on the police and security forces to do their duty and arrest the perpetrators. The Engineers Association declared their determination to continue the strike until the implementation of the agreement. The Association agreed with the government, in the presence of mediators from civil society groups, on 7/3/2023, to implement the agreement gradually, so that the increase begins with 5% of the salary, although this had been rejected in the past. The Engineers Association in WB issued a statement on 9/3/2023 thanking the government and the president, deeming the agreement reached between the government and the Association a victory for the struggle of the engineers and their union. The statement indicated that the implementation of the agreement would start by granting engineers a 5% increment over the salary for the month of March, while the remaining 25% would be granted in the event that the government’s financial situation improves.
As for the teachers, they do not have an elected union to represent them. The general union that speaks on their behalf is appointed by the PLO, and has intervened more than once in favor of the government. After several rounds of strikes, the government imposed sanctions on trade union leaders, including the referral of the teacher Samed Saoubar to early retirement without giving reasons, following his participation in leading the teachers’ movement in 2018.
Thus, the teachers resorted to choosing a secret leadership for their movements, and called it the “Unified Teachers’ Movement.” The movement succeeded in holding strikes in all schools in WB, starting from 5/2/2023, in protest against the government’s failure to implement its commitments in May 2022.
After several rounds of dialogue, civil institutions specialized in educational and human rights affairs announced that an agreement had been reached between the General Union of Teachers and the Council of Ministers. These groups said that this agreement was sufficient to resume the educational process, stressing the agreement was based on the implementation of an initiative launched by those institutions in May 2022, consisting of five points:
1. A 15% pay increase for teachers, provided that this is done gradually.
2. The democratization of the teachers’ union.
3. Adopting a system for the teaching profession.
4. Restoring discounts.
5. Regular working hours and in lieu time.
The General Union of Teachers announced that it had reached an agreement with the government on Thursday 9/3/2023, but the Unified Teachers’ Movement announced on the same day that the strike was continuing. The teachers said the agreement did not meet the demands of the teachers, and that it fragments the rights of the teachers in a way that opens the door to procrastination. The teachers organized a huge sit-in, in which thousands participated, on Monday 13/3/2023, in front of the Prime Minister’s headquarters in Ramallah. The PA resorted to the judiciary and issued a decision to stop the teachers’ strike, as it had done with the engineers before, but the teachers’ strike continued.
Second: The Expected Scenarios
There are several scenarios that could materialize concerning the continued escalation of the trade union struggle, or the thwarting of trade union movements by the government and its security forces. They are summarized in the following scenarios:
First Scenario: Trade Union Leaders Back Down
Trade union action is expected to decline in this scenario on the following bases:
a. The government’s ability to impose administrative penalties against leaders of trade union movements.
b. The government’s ability to incite people based on the damage they suffer from the disruption of public services.
c. The government’s ability to obtain judicial decisions that oblige the unions to stop strikes or be subject to penalties.
d. “Bullets by unknown persons” pose an increasing threat to trade union leaders.
The government was able to thwart many trade union movements, even before shootings by unknown persons emerged. This means that it is possible that intimidation may force trade union leaders to back down, after the deployment of shootings as an instrument, reinforced by the approval of the Engineers Association to sign the partial agreement with the government.
However, this is not a certain scenario, especially since the Unified Teachers’ Movement rejected the agreement that divided the demands and continued its protest activities.
Second Scenario: Trade Unions Unite, and Protests Grow
There were multiple indications last year that there is coordination between the various unions, which is likely to increase due to the following considerations:
a. The unions’ conviction that the government is unlikely to respond to the interests and needs of the professional segments, hence prompting the continuation of protests and demands.
b. The unions understanding that the government singling out the unions helps it thwart their action, and enables it to evade the implementation of the agreements, especially since those that the government was forced to sign came after the unions united in solidarity.
c. The unions came to the conclusion that the plight of professionals is due to the list of priorities of the government, according to which it distributes resources. In this list, workers are at the bottom of the ladder, which requires a joint struggle.
It is likely that the coordination between unions will expand and become entrenched, especially since the unions can no longer bear the continuation of the status quo, and the government is not showing any willingness to change its priorities, in addition to escalating its measures against unions.
Third Scenario: The Emergence of a Secret Trade Union Leadership Directing the Movements
Developments in trade unionism resulted in a shift in the relationship between unions and the government, as follows:
a. The government and the Fatah movement exploited trade unions for political goals, especially under Salam Fayyad’s government.
b. Under Rami Hamdallah’s government, trade union movements began to mobilize, but the government and the Fatah movement were able to contain these movements using both soft and hard tactics.
c. Under the government of Mohammad Shtayyeh, trade union action increased, and the government became less able to contain them, so it resorted to issuing court decisions to stop strikes. Despite this, some trade union movements were able to sustain themselves.
d. The most prominent development in trade union work is the emergence of a secret leadership of teachers’ movements, bearing the name the “Unified Teachers’ Movement.” This movement proved its ability to lead continuous action despite all attempts to abort and contain it.
These shifts indicate that it is possible for secret leadership in all unions to emerge, in order to avoid government sanctions, as well as gun attacks by unknown persons.
Fourth Scenario: Unions Lead Political Reform as an Entry Point to Realizing Sectoral Demands
Union activities entered the fray of political reform, through a strike by lawyers against the decrees issued by President Abu Mazen, and the solidarity shown by the Medical Association and Engineers Association with this strike. This opens the door for unions to take the lead in political reform, and this scenario is supported by the following considerations:
a. The unions have come to the conviction that the lack of justice in the distribution of resources is due to political reasons, not technical reasons, and therefore achieving sectoral demands requires waging a political struggle.
b. The unions leaders have come to the conviction that the state of the PA allows this struggle for reform to be waged by the unions, and that this struggle will find supporters from within the PA, because they will not see it as a threat to the existence of the PA, but rather as leverage for it.
c. This scenario requires conviction by the Palestinian factions to support this trajectory, to permit it to play out, and not to interfere to control it or benefit from it for the sake of their traditional rivalries.
Forecasting the Likelihoods of These Scenarios
In short, it can be said that despite threats, the possibility of unions retreating before their demands are met is uncertain, but they will prefer to resort to unified union struggles in which pay demands run parallel to reformist ones, although the priority will be working conditions in the near term. If the process of securing rights fails, secret trade union leaders may emerge, in addition to public ones, that move the trade union struggle gradually towards the reformist struggle.
1. Recommendations for the government: In order for the trade union struggle to end with the fulfilment of the trade unionists’ demands, without cracks and internal tensions, the PA can:
a. End the sanctions imposed on trade unionists.
b. Take serious measures to change spending priorities, so that the budget allows for raising the salaries of professional sectors, especially teachers.
c. End the General Teachers’ Union monopoly of the representation of teachers in a non-democratic manner, opening the way for teachers to join the membership of the union, and facilitating real elections for its leadership.
2. Recommendations for Palestinian factions: In order for the factions to be a lever for the trade union movement, and not a burden, they must pay attention to:
a. Not politicizing these movements at the current stage and preventing the PA from trying to use “politicization” as a pretext against these movements.
b. Providing all the support required for the success of the movements on the media and grassroots levels.
c. The need for some factions to give up playing the role of mediator between the unions and the PA, and focus their role in supporting the union movements.
3. Recommendations for unions: unions must realize that their struggle to achieve justice for professionals is long and arduous, and requires courage and wisdom, as well as constant coordination. This requires:
a. Opening a continuous dialogue between the union councils, and between the trade union blocs in the various unions with each other.
b. Informing grassroots on the problems, movements and demands on an ongoing basis, so that the public remains supportive of union action. It appears that union action will be difficult and bring in many side effects, therefore, it is worthwhile for the unions to keep all movements and activists, whether on the ground or online, and public figures, informed of the latest developments to secure their support.
c. Trade union councils must beware the policies of containment, attempts to divide them and thwart them, and the possibility of the PA working to turn public opinion against trade union action.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Dr. Nuhad al-Sheikh Khalil for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.
 Raja Al-Khalidi, The Trade Union Scene in Palestine, site of Assafir newspaper, Beirut, 11/12/2013, https://assafirarabi.com
 Employees of Palestinian Authority Institutions on Strike in the West Bank, Ennahar El Djadid newspaper (Ennahar Online), Algeria, 17/10/2012, https://nhar.tv/sTQi0
 Dahlan accuses Abu Mazen of stealing more than a billion dollars of Palestinian money. An interview with Muhammad Dahlan on Dream TV with journalist Wael Al-Abrashi, site of YouTube, 17/3/2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fakHEyf3uB8
 Mohammed Samhouri, Decoding the Current Palestinian Financial Crisis, Sada, Middle East Analysis, site of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2/5/2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/79050
 See Nasr ‘Abdul Karim, Report on the Salary Gap in the Public Service – The Reality and Proposed Measures to Bridge It, site of the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity (AMAN), Ramallah, Palestine, September 2017; and see Saber Ramadan, Hirak al-Mu‘limin al-Muwahhad fi al-Dhiffah al-Gharbiyyah: Al-Waqi‘, wa al-Dinamiyyat, wa Afaq al-Mustaqbal (The Unified Teachers’ Action in the West Bank: Current Situation, Dynamics, and Prospects), Refereed Academic Studies (3) (Beirut: Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 2017).
 Why are teachers on strike? And where is their union? Site of Metras, 27/2/2023, https://metras.co
 President ‘Abbas retracts decisions by law that the Bar Association objected to, National Press Agency (Naba), 10/8/2022, https://npa.ps/post/19293
 ‘Abbas issues a decree forming a Supreme Judicial Council headed by him, Shehab News Agency, 28/10/2022, https://shehabnews.com/p/109931
 Interview with Shawki Sobha, President of the Medical Association, “Shid Hailak Ya Watan” program, Wattan News Agency, YouTube, 20/7/2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qK6-KyWJ_k0
 The “coup” almost succeeded.. What happened with the doctors?, Metras, 8/11/2022.
 Interview with Yazan Jabr, head of the Engineers Association branch in Nablus, “Shid Hailak Ya Watan” program, Wattan News Agency, YouTube, 22/2/2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZFzl6Di6l0
 Shooting targets the car of engineer Yazan Jabr, member of the Engineers Association, site of Engineers Association, Jerusalem Center, 7/3/2023, https://www.paleng.org/?p=160675
 The Engineers Association’s statement denouncing the shooting of Yazan Jabr’s car, site of Engineers Association, Jerusalem Center, 7/3/2023, https://www.paleng.org/?p=160672
 The Engineers Association statement dated 9/3/2023 regarding reaching an agreement with the government, site of Engineers Association, Jerusalem Center, 9/3/2023, https://www.paleng.org/?p=160709
 Saidam refers the head of the teachers’ movement to early retirement – the spokesperson for the ministry, “I have no knowledge of the matter,” site of Wattan News Agency, 5/3/2018, see: https://www.wattan.net/ar/news/243187.html
 For the announcement of civil institutions specialized in educational affairs, see: A press statement issued by the Initiative to End the Teachers’ Crisis, the website of the Independent Commission for Human Rights – the Board of Grievances, at: https://www.ichr.ps/statements/7229.html
 The education strike in the West Bank enters its second month: escalating measures by the Medical Association, Arab 48, 7/3/2023, see: https://www.arab48.com; and: The Palestinian government signs agreements to end disputes with the unions… The Teachers’ Movement: Our Strike Continues, Arab 48, 9/3/2023.
 For the Unified Teachers’ Movement publication, see: The Palestinian government signs agreements to end disputes with unions… The teachers’ movement: Our strike continues, Arab 48 website, 9/3/2023, see: https://www.arab48.com
The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on 29/3/2023
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