RAMALLAH — On a sunny, cold morning in mid-December, more than a thousand Palestinians left their workplaces and gathered in a small square adjacent to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s office in the West Bank.
The group, largely clad in formal attire, started chanting against the newly established Palestinian Social Security Institution and impending tax hikes required to fund it, as members of the PA security forces stood nearby, blocking the road leading to Hamdallah’s office in central Ramallah.
“The people want the fall of the Social Security Institution,” the demonstrators shouted in unison, while also calling for the ouster of Hamdallah and PA Labor Minister Mamoun Abu Shahala.
For some 15 years, the PA has attempted to establish a social security institution to provide pensions and a variety of insurance benefits to Palestinians in the private sector.
In 2003, the Ramallah-based body passed a law to establish such an institution, but following international criticisms about its sustainability, the PA canceled it.
The PA subsequently sought the assistance of the International Labor Organization, foreign governments and other international bodies to write a new law. After years of consultations, PA President Mahmoud Abbas signed a new law in late 2016, mandating the establishment of the Palestinian Social Security Institution.
In the past couple of months, the PA has attempted to implement the law by registering Palestinians in the private sector with the Palestinian Social Security Institution. However, facing near-weekly protests, Ramallah’s efforts have hit road bumps.
“Everyone here wants a social security system, but with rampant corruption in our government we cannot trust an institution created by it,” 30-year-old Nidal Quran, a teacher, said on the sidelines of the protest in Ramallah. “What if the government one day takes our money we give to the institution to deal with what it says is a financial crisis?”
An overwhelming majority of Palestinians view PA institutions as corrupt, according to polls conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR).
The protests against the social security institution have taken place in Ramallah, Hebron, Nablus and other parts of the West Bank, with several Palestinians demonstrating for the first time in their lives.
At the demonstrations, most protesters have worn blue surgical gloves and some have waved blue flags.
“The gloves don’t relate to any specific profession or idea,” Quran said. “They are meant to unify all of us in our struggle…They serve a similar purpose as the yellow vests in France.”
In recent protests against the cost of living in France, thousands of demonstrators have donned yellow vests.
Many protesters have also expressed concerns about paying additional taxes.
“I hardly have enough money to make it through each month,” Nader Qusa, a 42-year-old businessman, said on the margins of the protest in Ramallah. “I already cannot afford all of my expenses. The last thing I want to do is give away more of my salary.”
The law signed by Abbas requires Palestinians in the private sector to make monthly payments to the social security institution; business owners are mandated to pay 10.9% of the first NIS 14,500 ($4,000) of their salaries to the body and employees are obliged to contribute 7.2%.
In return, the law mandates the Palestinian Social Security Institution to deliver pensions to Palestinians in the private sector who have made a minimum of 180 payments to the body and have reached the age of 60. It also requires the institution to pay for workplace injury insurance and maternity benefits.
Moreover, the law says that at a later stage, the social security institution will provide health, unemployment and other insurance benefits.
PA officials have pushed back against the criticism by protesters.
“There are a lot of rumors and misinformation going around about the Social Security Institution,” Abu Shahala, the PA labor minister who also is the institution’s chairman of the board of directors, told The Times of Israel in phone call in early January. “Just as the government cannot access anyone’s personal bank account, it will not be able to get into any of the social security institution’s accounts. The truth is the people who say they are worried about their funds disappearing have nothing to fear.”
Abu Shahala also argued that Palestinians in the private sector need the social security institution to protect them when they become older or cannot work.
“[Neither] the [PA] Social Affairs Ministry nor charitable groups can provide the protection that the Social Security Institution will grant our people,” he said, referring to the PA ministry in charge of social welfare. “We need to make sure everyone in our society, including the poor, will have funds to live on when they become older, become injured, go on maternity leave or in other circumstances.”
Abbas has taken note of the protests in his recent speeches and said the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership would welcome amendments to the law that created the Palestinian Social Security Institution.
“We made a law called the social security law. It has one hundred errors,” Abbas told a meeting of Fatah officials on December 9. “How can can the law be corrected? Through discussion, dialogue, and sharing observations. And then making amendments from A to Z. There is no law that has been handed down to humanity that is holy. You can change any law.”
Abu Shahala said he and other officials and civil society groups have already discussed a number of amendments which will be made to the law in the near future. For example, he said the PA would soon change it to allow widows who work in the private sector to receive the pensions of their deceased husbands.
Jaafar Sadaka, a Palestinian journalist who covers economics, however, said making amendments to the law may not quell the Palestinian protests.
“Amendments can help strengthen the law, but it may not be enough for the public,” Sadaka said. “Too many people lack confidence in it.”
A recent Palestinian public opinion poll showed that a majority of the Palestinian public does not support implementing the law.
The poll conducted by the PCPSR in December 2018 found 51% of Palestinians oppose implementing the law; 9% support implementing the law after it is revised; 13% back its immediate implementation; and 27% do not have an opinion.
The PA has said that owners and employees of businesses with 200 or more workers will be required to sign up with the Social Security Institution as of January 15. Meanwhile, it has said smaller businesses will be obliged to register with the Social Security Institution as of later dates.
The law also applies to Palestinians working in the private sector in the Gaza Strip and Israel.
Sedaka said that businesses headquartered in the West Bank likely will register their employees in Gaza with the Social Security Institution. However, other Palestinians in the coastal enclave, he said probably will evade signing up with the social security body as long as Hamas controls the territory.
The Hamas terror group has stated that it strongly opposes the Social Security Institution and maintains its establishment violates quasi-constitutional Palestinian laws.
Abu Shahala said he had received verbal promises from Israeli Welfare Minister Haim Katz that the Israeli government would start sending part of the salaries of Palestinian laborers in Israel to the Social Security Institution.
According Abu Shahala, PA and Israeli government lawyers were negotiating, as of early January, how to transfer their funds to the Social Security Institution.
The Israeli Welfare Ministry did not respond to a request for comment about Abu Shahala’s statement.
Back at the protest, some demonstrators attempted to push their way past the members of the PA security forces towards Hamdallah’s office.
Using a megaphone, a protest leader standing on top of a truck yelled at the demonstrators to leave the security alone.
“We will win this fight, but we must be disciplined and peaceful,” he cried.
Seconds later, the protesters pushing up against the members of the PA security forces retreated and started chanting for the fall of the Social Security Institution again.