Friday, June 01, 2007
Report from Unison delegation to Palestine and Israel, 2005
1. UNISON has clear policy on Palestine and the Middle East Peace Process as set out in several National Delegate Conference motions over the past few years. UNISON has also had strong bilateral relations with both the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions and the Histadrut but had not sent a delegation to the region for some time.
2. The aim of the delegation was twofold;
* to acquaint UNISON with the most recent developments in both the Palestinian Authority and Israel
* to make recommendations for future bilateral capacity building projects with both the PGFTU and Histadrut and for joint projects between UNISON, the PGFTU and Histadrut that would help advance civil society dialogue and advance the peace process.
The political context
3. The delegation visit took place at a time of potentially significant developments in the political life of both the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
Yasser Arafat died in November 2004, almost exactly a year before the visit. Mahmoud Abbas was elected President of the Palestinian Authority in January 2005 and elections for the Palestinian Legislative Assembly – the first in 10 years - are planned for January 2006, although there was much speculation as to whether these would be allowed to take place by the Israeli authorities given the likely participation by Hamas.
4. The delegation also took place a week before the primaries for the leadership of the Israeli Labour Party, which were eventually won by the chair of the Histadrut Trade Union organisation, Amir Peretz. His election and the subsequent decision by Labour to withdraw from the Israeli government prompted Ariel Sharon to quit the Likud Party and to call new elections for the Knesset.
The continued occupation of the West Bank
5. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in August and September 2005 with the forcible removal of Israeli settlers. However, the settler movement continues to establish new outposts in the West Bank and there is continued new construction in established settlements such as Ariel and Ma’ale Adummim. Most controversially Israel continues to build the ‘Separation Barrier’, ostensibly to secure the border between Israel and the West Bank but in the process further annexing land around Israeli settlements and isolating key Palestinian towns and villages from each other and from water supplies and agricultural land.
6. Travel between key Palestinian towns is made difficult by a combination of the ‘Separation Barrier’, regular checkpoints and ‘flying checkpoints’, and restrictions on military/settler roads and roads restricted to the different populations. The delegation witnessed at first hand how the ‘Wall’ also divides established Palestinian communities such as Ramallah and Ar-Ram. In this case the barrier/wall plays no security role for Israel as it does not separate areas of Palestinian population from Israel. Instead it is clearly part of the deliberate annexation of the greater East Jerusalem area by Israel. It is a tool of subjugation, humiliation and economic blockade.
7. Travel in and out of Nablus is controlled by two Israeli checkpoints, severely curtailing the freedom of movement for workers, students and even hospital patients who need to travel to Nablus on a daily basis. Palestinian representatives frequently talked about the ‘cantonisation’ of the West Bank by a combination of checkpoints, Israeli settlements and roads solely for the use of settlers.
8. Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are classed as Israeli residents by the Israeli authorities and carry Israeli ID cards. They are currently able to travel to the West Bank, however, we were informed that they were likely to lose this right in early 2006 cutting them off from their jobs, family and friends.
9. The nature of the occupation can best be illustrated by figures given to us by the Governor of Nablus for the period 2002-5
• there had been 256 days of Israeli imposed curfew on the town
• 225 buildings had been completely destroyed by the IDF and 6500 partially destroyed
• the local council was spending $224,000 a year re-housing people whose homes had been destroyed
• there have been 211 raids by the IDF on schools in Nablus. 57 students and 10 teachers had been killed whilst 475 students and 14 teachers had been injured. A further 332 students has been arrested during these raids.
• ambulances trying to pass checkpoints had been refused permission 79 times. Ambulances had been kept waiting for between 20-40 minutes at checkpoints on 266 occasions. As a consequence 7 patents had died
• revenue to the local authority from sales in Nablus market had fallen from $1.2m in 2001 to $118,439 in 2004 – a decrease of 87%
• 30% of factories had closed. A further 15% were working at below 50% capacity.
The economic and social context
10. The second Intifada has had major consequences for both the Palestinian and Israeli economies. Israel underwent significant economic growth in the late 1990s. However, the Israeli economy went into recession in 2001 and 2002 and has only just begun to grow again, although at a slower rate than in the 1990s. As a consequence per capita GDP fell from $18,000 in 2000 to $17,000 in 2004. It is estimated that up to 20% of the population lives at or below the poverty line. Until he resigned as Finance Minister over the withdrawal from Gaza, Benjamin Netanyahu pursued harsh neo-liberal policies seeking to privatise key areas of the Israeli public services and to end the national collective agreements that cover most sectors of the economy. Interestingly, Amir Peretz has decided to make the link between the occupation of the West Bank and social and economic questions a key issue for the Israeli Labour Party at the forthcoming elections.
11. As a consequence of the Intifada Israel closed its borders to Palestinians working in Israel, seriously exacerbating the level of unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza. Up to 100,000 Palestinians working legally in Israel lost their jobs as did up to perhaps 200,000 more illegal workers whilst a further 60,000 lost their jobs in the West Bank as a result of a subsequent fall in demand and economic downturn. Unemployment runs at 65%. The Palestinian Authority estimates that 75% of the population live under the poverty line (calculated at $2 per person per day). UNWRA estimate that 1.7 million people are in receipt of food aid in the West Bank and Gaza and that 30% of Palestinian children under 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition and 21% from acute malnutrition.
12. Perhaps one of the starkest contrasts experienced during the visit was between the conditions at an UNRWA clinic in the Balata refugee camp and the Sheba Hospital at Tel Hashomer, just outside Tel Aviv. The Sheba Hospital is the largest in Israel and is a world pioneer in the fields of paediatrics and the rehabilitation of patients suffering from psychiatric, neurological, paraplegic and geriatric related problems. A state hospital, it appeared to be incredibly well resourced with funding coming not only from the state but from charitable foundations in Israel and from the wider Jewish Diaspora. Interestingly, a third of the children in the paediatrics department come from the West Bank and Gaza and 50% of child oncology patients are Palestinian. In contrast, the UNRWA clinic appeared under-resourced and over-stretched, although we were informed that UNRWA clinics are better resourced than clinics in the Palestinian state sector. At Balata the doctors see up to 130 patients a day, mainly treating diseases resulting from the poor conditions in the refugee camp such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and anaemia.
Trade union issues
Palestine and the Occupied Territories
13. The PGFTU claims to have 290,000 members in 20 affiliated unions in the West Bank and Gaza, although this figure is probably somewhat lower given the high level of Palestinian unemployment. The PGFTU’s finances have been hit both by unemployment in the Occupied Territories and by the ending of Palestinian employment in Israel and the subsequent drying-up and freezing of remittances from the Histadrut under the 1995 agreement between the two federations. As unemployment and poverty have increased the PGFTU has increasingly taken on the role of welfare distribution. It has negotiated reduced health insurance rates for unemployed workers with the Health Ministry and was the channel for the distribution of a $100 payment by the Palestinian Authority to 500,000 unemployed workers. It has also distributed 400,000 food parcels donated by the Saudi government. This has led some to criticise the PGFTU as being too close to the Palestinian Authority.
14. However, the PGFTU does have political differences with the Palestinian Authority over industrial relations issues. Although the PGFTU has welcomed the adoption of a new Palestinian Labour Code (workers in the West Bank were previously subject to the Jordanian Labour Code whilst those in Gaza came under the Egyptian code) it has been critical of the failure to set up specific Labour Courts to settle matters – industrial relations issues are still resolved through the civil court system and are subject to major delays. The PGFTU has also been campaigning for the implementation of the new law on Social Security Insurance which has been adopted by the PLA but has not yet come into force. The PGFTU is also extremely critical of the draft Trade Union Law which would allow the Palestinian Authorities to interfere directly in internal trade union affairs.
15. The Histadrut underwent a major process of change in the mid 1990s, divesting itself of many of the companies run by the organisation and losing responsibility for running Israel’s health insurance system. These changes led to a significant fall in membership (from 1.5 million to approximately 700,000 today) and the organisation is still facing financial difficulties. Nevertheless, under the leadership of Amir Peretz, Histadrut has concentrated on developing its primary role as a trade union and has focussed on core issues such as pay and conditions, pensions and methods of public service delivery. It has also highlighted the social and economic consequences of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
16. UCAPSE, the Union of Clerical Administrative and Public Service Employees and the largest Histadrut affiliate, reported that many Israeli local authorities are facing financial problems and as a consequence local government workers have seen delays in the payment of salaries and dismissals. They are also having to deal with privatisation. In fact they were in dispute over the privatisation of the second largest bank, Bank Leumi, during the delegation’s visit. As a union their strategy was not to oppose privatisation but to maintain the national collective bargaining arrangements and therefore their members’ terms and conditions after privatisation.
17. The Union of Government Employees had recently been out on strike for over 100 days against changes to a national collective agreement following privatisation. They had managed to win the fight despite the fact that Histadrut does not have a strike fund with which to pay striking workers. However, the government was now resorting to the increased use of employing workers on temporary contracts to avoid them fully benefiting from the collective agreement.
18. Following the Oslo Accords in 1993 the Histadrut and the PGFTU signed a co-operation agreement in 1995. This included the provision for the remittance of membership fees paid by Palestinian workers employed in Israel from the Histadrut to the PGFTU. There is a question of outstanding remittances from the Histadrut to the PGFTU, although this currently being mediated through the ICFTU. Since the second Intifada contacts between the two organisations have become harder, mainly due to travel restrictions.
19. There is a question concerning the rights Palestinian workers in East Jerusalem to join a trade union of their choice. East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel in 1967, although this has not been recognised by the International Community. Palestinian residents are therefore classed as Israeli citizens and the Israeli authorities do not recognise the right of the PGFTU to recruit and represent them. If they want to join a trade union they are required to join the Histadrut. The PGFTU offices in East Jerusalem have been subject to regular harassment by the Israeli authorities. The PGFTU also argues that these workers should be subject to the newly adopted Palestinian Labour Code, not the Israeli Labour Code.
Recommendations for future action
20. There was a clear wish from both the PGFTU and Histadrut for UNISON to facilitate meetings between the two organisations outside Israel and Palestine. There are precedents for this: the TUC, through Amicus, has hosted such a meeting and the French CGT has held a couple of such meetings, one for the public service unions in Lyon and a youth camp. The International Committee should agree to the idea in principle. However, a lot more work needs to be done to determine:
* the clear aims and objectives of such an activity.
* should UNISON work with the PGFTU and Histadrut or solely with their respective public service unions, including government workers.
* the possibility of working with different actors within the Palestinian and Israeli unions: the leaderships, women, young people. On this point there was an interesting contrast between the high level of representation of women and young people within the PGFTU compared to Histadrut.
* whether there is a need to bring in outside experts in conflict resolution
* the possibilities for external funding for what is potentially a major project .
21. UCAPSE requested support for a series of seminars it is proposing to organise which would involve Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian trade unionists.
22. UCAPSE also proposed twinning between local government branches in Israel and the UK.
22. There was a request from the PGFTU in East Jerusalem to support a project on the legal situation and the relevant legal codes of Palestinian workers in East Jerusalem and the right for the PGFTU to recruit and represent them. However, the problem is essentially a political one relating to the illegal Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem and it is unlikely that such a study would resolve the issue.
23. An Najah University in Nablus, the largest university in the West Bank, is keen to strengthen its international links. There is also a possibility for co-operation on the education and training of nurses. UNISON higher education branches could be encouraged to take this up.
24. Na’Amat, the women’s organisation of the Histadrut, is seeking to promote family-friendly employment legislation, especially in relation to flexible working and child-care provision. UNISON should provide information about successful local agreements that we have negotiated in this area.
UNISON Delegation to Palestine and Israel
29 October – 4 November 2005