The unity agreement that brought together the Fatah and Hamas Palestinian factions is, according to the New York Times, already paying dividends for the Palestinian people. According to the feature on the efforts to implement the accord, newspapers from the West Bank and Jerusalem are now on sale in Gaza and those from the Hamas-ruled enclave are now available on newsstands in the area run by the Palestinian Authority. That’s good news for consumers of the propaganda published by the two main Palestinian factions’ media operations.
Meanwhile, the Times is far more interested in the brewing controversy over what to do about the murders committed by the two factions against each other. A Palestinian commission is trying to get the families of the members of Fatah slaughtered by Hamas in its 2007 coup to accept monetary compensation rather than press their case and insist that the murderers be given the death penalty. The same is true of those families of Hamas members killed by Fatah. The pressure for the families to accept “social reconciliation” is yielding mixed results as many residents of both the West Bank and Gaza weaned on a culture of violence directed mainly against Israelis and Jews are focused on revenge and not much interested in the concept of forgiveness, even when applied to fellow Palestinians.
This dynamic will play a large role in whether this scheme will work in the long run. But of far greater interest to the rest of the world are two other questions that will impact both the chances of peace with Israel and the willingness of the international community to subsidize the PA: integration of the “security” forces employed by Fatah and Hamas and how to pay for all of the Palestinians in both factions that are being supported via no-work and no-show government jobs.
While reform of the PA’s spending policies is key to any hope of building an economy for the Palestinians, the more immediate question is what to do about the glut of government workers in Gaza. For the last seven years 70,000 Fatah employees have been collecting their paychecks without having to show up for work in Gaza since the Hamas coup. Meanwhile, 40,000 Hamas supporters are also getting government paychecks for doing or not doing the same jobs. Since the economy of both the West Bank and Gaza is largely fueled by the paychecks that come from this patronage scheme, turning off the spigot for either of these groups would create a crisis that could lead to violence.
The fact that Hamas made do with only 40,000 government employees where Fatah had 70,000 is not so much a tribute to the efficiency of the Islamists as it is one to the vast scale of the patronage system that was put in place by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’s predecessor Yasir Arafat. Suffice it to say that Hamas is no more likely to get a good day’s work from many of its 40,000 workers than Fatah was from most of its 70,000. But unless the PA can find a way to keep all 110,000 on the government payroll, there will be major trouble in the Strip, of which the suffering of the families of these “workers” will be just the tip of the iceberg.
But as much as this problem makes the struggles of American state governments with an expensive municipal bureaucracy look like child’s play, it must be recognized that such corrupt practices are the foundation of the Palestinian economy. Government corruption and regulations aimed at filling the pockets of PA leaders make normal economic development virtually impossible. The attempt of former PA prime minister Salam Fayyad to implement reform was a flop because both Palestinian parties opposed it. The only thing keeping the West Bank fiscally afloat is the money donated by the EU and the U.S. in order to pay an even larger number of PA patronage employees, few of whom are asked to lift a finger in exchange for the money.Jonathan S. Tobin