Palestinians Wonder Why Some Seem More Equal Than Others
Last week's clash with teachers hints at civil-rights problems in Arafat's new society.
RAMALLAH, WEST BANK
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat stood before the crowd and shouted about violations and economic desperation. Yet this was not another condemnation of Israeli policies, but a tirade against Palestinian schoolteachers who had been striking for higher wages.
"He shouted at us, 'We're penniless! We have no money!' " recalls Mohammed Jabary, one of the striking teachers who met with Mr. Arafat last week. "And one of the teachers said, 'President Arafat, this is not right. You have thousands of mobile phones, new cars, thousands of directors in your ministries.' "
An angry Arafat, according to numerous interviews with teachers, began asking his guards in the room to state their salaries in an attempt to prove widespread frugality. "You, donkey, how much do you make?" he said to the policemen. And when the hour-long diatribe did not persuade the teachers to give up their demands to have their salaries doubled from the current average of about $400 a month, about 30 of the strike leaders from around the West Bank were arrested and jailed for several days.
The latest episode in Arafat's domestic troubles illustrates increasing discontent - not just with the state of the peace process, but also with corruption, mismanagement, and the underpinnings of a police state taking root in the Palestinian Authority (PA). Whether Arafat ends up leading some sort of independent province at peace with Israel or an array of autonomous regions perpetually at odds with it, dealing with internal pressures to run a responsible democracy could eventually prove an even bigger challenge.
Labor relations is shaping up as one of many fields where Palestinians think Arafat needs some remedial work. While trying to force teachers to abandon the strike before the arrests, Arafat's armed security officers surrounded a Ramallah school where teachers were meeting and declared no one could leave until they agreed to go back to work without any of their demands being met. They were also told that the other teachers throughout the West Bank had already agreed to call off the strike, which was not true.
But the teachers' saga is not the only one in the past two weeks that has human rights activists and average Palestinians upset about the nature of the Arafat's regime. Last week, off-duty Palestinian policeman used their PA-issued automatic weapons to ambush a passing car, spraying it with gunfire and killing one passenger. The police, it turned out, were trying to carry out a personal vendetta and shot the wrong people.
Palestinians do not exclusively blame Arafat for the poor state of the economy, which has since 1993 suffered an 18 percent decline in incomes. They know it is partly the result of Israel's sharp decrease in the number of workers it allows in from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But there is a growing resentment of how Arafat spends the PA's money, and of the perception - if not the reality - that a few top-ranking officials and plugged-in businessmen, some of whom live conspicuously well, seem to be getting richer while most Palestinians can hardly make enough to support their families.
Meanwhile, with millions of dollars coming in from donor countries, Arafat has refused to provide figures for the PA's annual budget to the Palestinian legislative council, and none of the spending has to be approved by his ministerial cabinet. There are no figures available for determining, for example, how much is being spent on education versus security. And vast amounts of money are nearly impossible to account for.
"In this country, only the president has the right to know everything," says Shawqi Issa, the executive director of the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, based in Jerusalem.
For teachers and parents depending on the public schools, there is a sense not only of bloated salaries in Arafat's plentiful ministries - including a Ministry of Flour - but that too much is being spent on the legions of police, security, and combat forces under the president's helm.
It is not that the average policeman gets paid much more than the average public school teacher. But with some 50,000 armed officers and secret police, the PA now has about one officer for every 45 people. Most teachers have more students than that in one of their classes.
Part of the problem is that there are no clear laws about rights in general. The 88-member legislature has been trying to pass the "Basic Law," which would outline the separation between executive and legislative powers. So far, Arafat has prevented it from being passed because it would curb his power.
In the meantime, there are differing opinions about such matters as whether strikes are even allowed.
"There's a law that says they cannot strike, but it also says that they can negotiate," says Hanan Ashrawi, minister of higher education. "The teachers had promised to stop the strike during negotiations, and then they didn't, and that's what provoked [the arrests]," she says.
Some Palestinians outside government were quicker to condemn the teachers' imprisonment and insist on their legal right to strike.
"This is against all international law and it's a dangerous move by the Authority," Mr. Issa says. "The move to arrest the teachers was something unbelievable. It's not only this, but all practices of the Authority concerning human rights are not going in the right direction. They don't respect courts or legal procedures. And everyone has a feeling that the Authority is spending money on things we don't need."