The story of the January 1995 strike in a private health clinic in Gaza City was published in only one paper, al-Watan, a new weekly affiliated with Hamas. Neither al-Quds nor al-Nahar, dailies in tune with the Palestinian Authority (PA), reported on the first workers’ strike under Palestinian self-rule.

The clinic’s 167 employees went on strike after their demands for higher salaries, social benefits and the “right to form a workers committee” were rejected. They staged a sit-in and provided only emergency services. Early on, officers of the Palestinian intelligence service came to the clinic, demanded that the strike end and detained three organizers. Rumor has it that the owner, who has a friend in the mukhabarat, called for their help. The strikers immediately contacted the representatives of their union and medical association. Those detained were released after several hours. Union representatives and strike organizers later discussed possible ways to continue the campaign. Some unionists even hoped it would lay the groundwork for a stronger workers’ stance vis-à-vis Gazan employers. After all, the employees — doctors, nurses, lab analysts and administrators — are well educated and some were ex-prisoners. By Gazan standards they represented a large work force. But the union’s involvement in the matter evaporated before anyone noticed.

Another aspect of the confrontation, however, seems to support the owner’s position. The number of registered salaried employees may be larger (by 30) than what the clinic needs. During the last years of the intifada, say some employees, Fatah activists just released from Israeli jails forced themselves on the clinic and its owner, who comes from one of Gaza’s wealthy families. Some were nurses; others got administrative jobs. In those days, people remember, not always with nostalgia, such things could happen. Personal histories of militancy and self-sacrifice had tremendous power of persuasion.

When the PA took over in Gaza, the number of clinic employees was decreased from about 300 to 170 — still too high, contended the owner, to allow for a raise. Monthly salaries are extremely low: $200 generally, and $270 for doctors. Local UN salaries average about $600; their doctors earn around $1,000. An average government salary is around $500. Even this is low considering the high cost of living.

Economic Distress

The strangest thing about this strike is that it took place at all. Considering Gaza’s high unemployment rate (which does not spare university graduates), the limited resources of the Ministry of Health and the few new jobs available in government hospitals, it is surprising that the clinic workers dared to strike. When the Palestinian Ministry of Education listed 400 new jobs in the summer of 1994, 7,000 people applied. UN Relief Works Agency job announcements have had similar proportions of applicants. Asked how he locates new workers, a Palestinian contractor was baffled by the question. New workers in unlimited quantities are at his and his competitors’ disposal, he said. And no, the workers never ask for higher salaries.

According to the calculations of the PA Ministry of Labor, Gaza’s labor force at the end of 1994 numbered 136,290 (of a population of 950,000). Of these, 83,100 were employed in the Gaza Strip and 21,294 had work permits for Israel. Nearly 32,000, most of whom seek work in Israel, were registered as unemployed. Sa‘id Mudallal, director-general of the Labor Ministry, admits that this last figure is deceptively low because many of the unemployed have not registered as such. [1] Mudallal estimates that the actual rate of unemployment is 35 to 45 percent. Other observers, including UNRWA researchers, cite figures of up to 55 percent. [2] One should add to this figure those who have work permits in Israel but often are unable to work there. The February 1995 border closure was the sixth or seventh since the Declaration of Principles was signed, and the fifth since the transfer of authority in May 1994. The closures fit into a broader Israeli pattern of drastically reducing Palestinian employment in Israel, which began in autumn 1990 when massive immigration of Russian Jews coincided, with a wave of individual Palestinian knife attacks against Israeli civilians.

Shortly afterward, during the Gulf war, a tight 40-day curfew was imposed on the Occupied Territories. Israeli authorities then canceled general permits, which Palestinians had held since the early 1970s, and demanded that all workers register in Israeli employment bureaus. This explains the registration of 44,531 Gazans working in Israel in 1991, compared to 20,656 in 1990. In 1992, though, the number dropped to 37,134. [3] Until the war, tens of thousands of Palestinians had been employed illegally by Israelis who thus evaded paying social security and minimum wages. Mudallal argues, though, that the number of Gazans working in Israel — both illegally and legally — never exceeded 45,000, as compared to UNRWA figures of 80,000 before the intifada and 56,000 on the eve of the Gulf war. [4]

Whatever the correct figures, the new Israeli policy resulted in a drastic decrease in Gaza’s gross domestic product. Inspired by a study ordered from Israeli economist Ezra Sadan, Israeli occupation officials promoted alternative “job creation” and investments through the establishment of industrial parks. [5] Following the March 1993 closure, Gaza’s labor force dropped from 1992’s 18 percent of the population to 13 percent. [6] The task of saving Gaza from economic disaster was subsequently entrusted to the Oslo process.

Arafat as Employer

In the early days of April 1994, when the first Palestinian policemen were supposed to arrive and occupy an ex-Israeli police building, a group of Palestinian refugees, mostly from nearby Beach Camp, gathered curiously around Israeli policemen and soldiers preparing to evacuate. Like former workers in Israel, they were waiting for Arafat. “And what do you expect him to achieve?” they were asked. “To convince Rabin to open the borders and let us return to our jobs in Israel,” they replied. [7]

Delayed donations, [8] frequent closures and an unsettled political situation have combined to produce a disappointing number of new jobs in Gaza. The Israeli Civil Administration, formerly the largest employer (7,600) has been replaced by the PA, which now employs an additional 5,000 people. [9] The second largest employer, UNRWA, added 250 teachers to its approximately 5,000 employees to meet the needs of some 6,000 new pupils from outside. New UNRWA construction projects employ another 1,000 short-term workers. According to the PA Ministry of Labor, 600 construction workers were added to the 15,100 workers registered in 1992. Several thousand who lost their jobs in Israel over the last year have been hired locally for short-term construction projects. This low figure challenges the impression, that construction is the only flourishing sector in Gaza: new housing, offices, police stations, roads and 30 schools are being built. It suggests that many people are working part-time. [10] New jobs have been created in some 70 new private projects authorized since May 1994, including tourist and computer agencies, artisan workshops and small plastics factories. They will have added 3,500-4,000 to the labor force over a year’s time, says Mudallal. During the past year, 80,000 Palestinians returned to the Occupied Territories from the diaspora, about a third of them to Gaza. The PA expects 40,000 newcomers annually to both Gaza and the West Bank. [11] Efforts to create more jobs are lagging far behind population growth.

Palestinian security forces, numbering 18,000, have offered so far the largest number of jobs for Gazan youth: civil police, traffic police, national guard, intelligence services, preventive security and Force 17 (Arafat’s “presidential guard”). But 7,000 of these are returnees from the diaspora. The rest are Gazans, the great majority of them Fatah activists. Young militants and ex-prisoners from opposition groups look enviously at their Fatah mates, who have been promised average monthly salaries of $400. Aware of their distress, the leaderships of Hamas and the PFLP finally allowed their activists to join the police forces and the PA administration in general, emphasizing that this does not imply any change in their rejection of the Oslo agreement.

Yet many of those who have found jobs in Gaza, and certainly those who have not, seem to be longing for their former jobs in Israel. As fewer Gazans are allowed to enter Israel, the more, it seems, they forget the physical and emotional strain involved in working there. Some complain that “before peace broke out” the procedures were less harsh and humiliating. In spite of the long hours, low wages, transportation fees and fear of harassment, work in Israel is considered far more worthy than similar or even “more prestigious” work in Gaza. Israeli labor laws, including a minimum wage of $20 a day, apply to Palestinians, who are entitled to more social rights (including pensions) than they have in Gaza. [12] Construction workers in Gaza, for example, receive between $10-23 per day, with no pension, paid leave or sick leave. In Israel, the same job brings $35-40. Gaza’s 15,000 agricultural laborers earn less than $10 a day in Gaza compared with $25-30 in Israel.

The Gazan trade union federation has asked the Palestinian Ministry of Labor to decree a fixed minimum wage of more than $20 a day. Minister of Labor Samir Ghusha is said to have replied that $10 was appropriate, “in order not to shatter the economy.” Neither the Ministry nor the union can do much to compel employers to pay higher wages or improve conditions. A year and a half ago, some unionists, responding to workers’ complaints, tried to improve working conditions in an ice cream factory in Khan Yunis. The owner never bothered to reply or to meet them, and most of the workers were afraid to join the campaign. The unionists cannot recall any serious attempt since then to improve conditions.

So far, Egyptian labor law, with some Israeli modifications, is still in force in the public sector, but it does not apply to private employers. A new labor law has been prepared, but officially only a legislative body — which still does not exist in Gaza — can adopt it. Arafat’s approval should suffice, but he has not yet found time to concern himself with workers’ rights. Since he arrived on July 1, 1994, he has met officially with workers’ representatives only in times of crisis, though the Fatah union leaders do meet with him regularly.

The federation is trying to reach an agreement with employers, but Gazan employers do not have a representative body with which the federation can negotiate. The unions feel that they are debilitated relics of the occupation past, where they served as covers for the political activity of the outlawed PLO factions. “Our only choice,” concludes a disappointed unionist, who prefers his name not to be mentioned, “is to refer to Arafat as the employers’ representative. He is everybody’s guardian; he can make them improve some of the employment conditions. Our demands are modest, but, considering the rate of unemployment and the masses of workers who would be happy with just 15 shekels [$5] a day, it would take us years to achieve anything if we do not go through Arafat.”


The intifada, sparked by Gazan workers from refugee camps in 1987, interwove workers’ anger and frustrations with the national struggle. The targets were the perpetrators of the occupation: soldiers, civil administrators, tax collectors. Economic distress still prevails, but the Oslo agreement has distanced the Israeli targets which most Palestinians still hold responsible. Recent terrorist attacks inside Israel are probably motivated more by ideology than by the frustration of being unemployed, but the overall understanding of such actions by Gazans is certainly nourished by economic distress.

Will this dissatisfaction and unrest be directed to a more accessible target — namely, the Palestinian Authority? The yearning for some normalcy seems so great that people still tend to display patience with their sulta (authority). The main increase in job opportunities is expected to be in the public sector, where the PA can control employees’ conduct and influence their recruitment. Only in mosque sermons do some Islamist activists dare to speak openly about favoritism and nepotism in job allocation.

So many families have reached such a low level of subsistence that the most minimal job assistance — a few days of work each month — suffices to calm the unrest. Satisfying and stimulating work is a luxury entirely beyond consideration. The Oslo process, though, having failed to meet the national (i.e., political) demands of most people, is now mostly equated with promised economic improvement. People in Gaza feel that they should not risk their family’s economic survival with outspoken criticism.

In such an unemployment-stricken society, there is envy of and anger toward the wealthy (usually Gaza’s non-refugees), but no working-class consciousness. The left opposition — the Popular and Democratic Fronts and the People’s Party — have failed so far to address issues that are not “purely national.” Israeli officials are aware of the threat of an economic disaster. In late February 1995, they suggested two remedies, one short-term and one long-term. The first is a monthly payment to the PA equal to the wages earned by workers in Israel in exchange for a permanent closure. The money would be invested in infrastructure construction, and paid by Gazan standards to allow for the employment of more workers. The longer-term remedy is to move ahead with the establishment of industrial parks where Palestinian and Israeli partners, with some American support, would build factories. On February 27, 1995, the Israeli minister of finance and the Palestinian minister of economy agreed to establish four such parks in the strip. The salaries for workers in these industries are likely to be much lower than for Palestinians working in Israel.

Will the PA succeed where the Civil Administration failed, and will Sadan’s vision of a stimulated economy materialize? The Authority does not seem to have many choices. Three years ago, Palestinian economists said that one could not separate Gaza’s economic prospects from a political solution which incorporates Gaza and the West Bank as one political-economic unit. Palestinian investors instinctively rejected the parks solution when it was first proposed, since it was so obviously linked with the occupation authorities. This reasoning is now obsolete.

Israel’s present policy strives at disconnecting Gaza from the West Bank. It has never been more difficult for Gazans to reach West Bank-located national, educational, health and religious institutions, or to visit family and friends. In a private talk with European and American Jews in mid-1993, Shimon Peres repeatedly disclosed his vision: a Palestinian “mini-state” in Gaza and autonomy, connected somehow with Jordan, in the West Bank, where blocks of Jewish settlements coexist with Palestinians who have a parliament for “local” affairs. [13]

During March and April, Palestinian officials, including Arafat, disclosed that Peres had proposed — directly or indirectly — a “state in the Gaza Strip” because the second phase (in the West Bank) is being delayed. So far they have rejected the offer. Neither Palestinian leaders nor Gazan workers seem to have alternatives to industrial parks that tap into a reservoir of cheap labor for industries which fit, first of all, Israeli economic strategies. This solution, while it may alleviate immediate individual material needs, postpones indefinitely any realization of Palestinian political and economic aspirations for a free and independent existence.


[1] Sa‘id Mudallal, interview, January 1995.
[2] The generally low rate of labor force participation owes to the small number of women working outside the home, the youthfulness of the population, and the great number of “discouraged workers” who lost jobs in Israel or are prevented from working there for “security” reasons. See Geir Ovensen, “Responding to Change,” FAFO Report 166 (1994), pp. 17 ff.
[3] Mudallal interview.
[4] According to an UNRWA publication of February 1995, the Gazan labor force was 120,000 in 1991.
[5] “Full-scale infrastructure development is an expensive process that cannot rely on the resources of the Strip or normal aid. Therefore the only way to bring about immediate industrial development is to base it on point by point infrastructure development…. The parks will enjoy infrastructure services…communication lines…electrical [connections); network and water and sewage supplies.” See Sadan, “A Policy for immediate Development in the Gaza Strip,” August 1991, p. 42.
[6] “Responding to Change,” p. 69.
[7] Article 7 of the Cairo Agreement reads: “Both sides will attempt to maintain the normality of movement of labor between them, subject to each side’s right to determine from time to time the extent and conditions of the labor movement into its area. If the normal movement is suspended temporarily by either side, it will give the other side immediate notification.”
[8] Donations were delayed because of inefficiency and politicization of Palestinian economic bodies, World Bank requirements and donors’ afterthoughts. In October 1993, $700 million was pledged for the first year of Palestinian self-rule, though the World Bank thought $420 million would be sufficient. By the end of 1994, only $230 million was transferred to the PA, most of which went for current costs.
[9] Mudallal, interview, February 1995. Under Israeli administration, the low number of employees never met the real needs of the growing population.
[10] Of Gaza’s male labor force aged 20-59, only 28 percent were working full time. See Marianne Heiberg and Geir Ovensen, “Palestinian Society,” FAFO Report 151 (1993).
[11] Al-Quds, February 28, 1995.
[12] Until the May 1994 Cairo agreement, Palestinian workers (and their employers) paid the same social insurance as Israeli workers, but were entitled to just a small portion of benefits — covering, for example, employment injuries and bankruptcy of employers. They were not entitled to unemployment benefits. The Cairo agreement says that the deducted sums will now be transferred to the PA’s budget.
[13] Ha’aretz, November 28, 1994.

How to cite this article:

Amira Hass "Gaza’s Workers and the Palestinian Authority," Middle East Report 194-195 (July/August 1995).

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