Ramallah, occupied West Bank – Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders are in the process of amending a controversial social security act after mass public mobilisation against what analysts have called increasingly authoritarian measures taken by the governing body.
The act, which defines benefits for retirement, maternity, work accidents and other areas, was single-handedly signed into law by PA President Mahmoud Abbas in March, despite protests from multiple sectors of society. Demonstrators say the new law violates basic workers’ rights, complaining that it was passed without a national discussion. One recent protest brought an estimated 10,000 people to the streets of Ramallah.
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“This process is not how the law should come. We need a real discussion,” parliamentarian Khalida Jarrar told Al Jazeera, calling the move by Abbas illegal. While the president can enact laws without a Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) vote in “cases of necessity”, according to Article 43 of Palestinian Basic Law, Jarrar said the article has been misused time and again to pass “unnecessary laws” that serve the interests of businessmen or Abbas’ Fatah party, rather than the broader public.
The genesis of the social security law dates back to 2012, when a committee of representatives from government, labour, the private sector and civil society was struck to discuss and draft the legislation with the assistance of the International Labour Organization.
“There is no law in Palestine that has taken all of these years to make. It took so long because of cooperation and dialogue,” maintained Palestine Liberation Organisation executive member Ahmad Majdalani, who headed the committee.
But Nidal al-Azza, a Palestinian lawyer and director of the BADIL human rights centre, told Al Jazeera that average Palestinians were “cut out” of the drafting process, arguing that the committee was not truly representative of the general public.
Azza catalogued a host of criticisms of the law, including that it abandoned rights for disabled workers, included a minimum wage and retirement benefits that would force workers and retirees into poverty, and denied death benefits to dependents of female workers, among other issues.
PA leadership has responded to the backlash by forming a ministerial committee that has since met with NGOs, trade unions and rights organisations to discuss amendments to the law, although there is no set timeline for a final decision.
Jamal Dajani, a spokesman for Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, said people might have “overreacted” to the new legislation.
“From the get-go, [Hamdallah] stated on more than one occasion that he was open to all suggestions, and this is something that can, just like any other law, be a work in progress,” Dajani told Al Jazeera.
The PLC has not convened since a violent fallout between Hamas and political rival Fatah led them to rule separately in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank, after Hamas won national elections in 2006. The Coalition for Accountability and Integrity said in a 2015 report that a defunct PLC eliminated official accountability, “providing a favourable environment for corruption”.
Critics say the social security act was passed under pressure, and for the wrong reasons.
“It was clear that the PA accelerated [passing the law] because they wanted to get the cash,” Azza said, pointing to the Paris Protocol, which stipulates that social security fees collected by Israel for West Bank Palestinians working in Israel could not be transferred until the PA established a social security system and institution for managing the funds, which is set out in the new law.
When I say 'passive', it's not that people don't want to do something - it's that they can't.
Palestinian social analyst Firas Jaber estimated that between $6bn and $18bn could be transferred annually under the law. Jaber and other critics have said that some members of the drafting committee had links to banks that could reap the benefits by holding these funds.
Majdalani denied any such motivations.
“We don’t have any special interests … There was a misleading campaign against this law, especially by some of the parties who think they won’t benefit from it, and owners of large companies,” Majdalani said, calling the campaign politically motivated. He says that some large companies oppose the law because it requires them to contribute social security funds on behalf of their employees.
Suspicions of corruption have led some critics to fear that the social security fees will be mishandled. As it stands, the law would establish an independent body to manage the funds, which Azza said would exempt the PA from responsibility.
Government intervention would be permitted if funds were “misused”, Majdalani said, noting that the independent body would create a “business investment plan to specify where to invest the money”.
The campaign against the legislation, Jaber said, was not only about undoing an unjust law, but also about reversing the image of a “passive” Palestinian public.
“When I say ‘passive’, it’s not that people don’t want to do something – it’s that they can’t,” Jaber said, citing the unbalanced PA power structure - and foreign governments that financially sustain it - as the root of public inaction, noting there is no room in this structure for substantive public input.
Legal scholar Emilio Dabed, who teaches at Columbia Law School, said that the current structure enables the PA’s executive to “govern alone in an empty space”, adding that “no Palestinian leader has ever had the powers concentrated today in Abbas’ hands”.
Room for political dissidence has also been silenced amid increased crackdowns by PA security forces. Prisoners’ rights group Addameer said that political detentions have reached a level not seen since the Fatah-Hamas fallout 10 years ago.
Jaber lauded the unprecedented willingness of Palestinians from across the social stratum to mobilise against the social security act, despite all odds.
“Before, they would say, ‘OK, it’s fine, let [the PA] do whatever they want,'” Jaber said. “But they decided, for one of the first times, to change that.”