Ramallah (Al Risala Net) – In 2008, and only a few days after delivering her baby, Mrs. T.M., a teacher residing in the West Bank, received a letter of dismissal instead of congratulations. The letter, signed by Lamis Al Alami, the Minister of Education under the Fayyad government, read, “Upon the directives of the relevant authorities, it has been decided to relieve you of your post”.
T.M. says that her discharge came after a security check conducted by both the General Intelligence Department and the Preventive Security Force in the West Bank linked her to the Hamas movement, a claim T.M. has denied. The letter turned her maternity leave into permanent dismissal.
This investigative journalist has a copy of the dismissal letter which confirms the decision was taken based on a security check – termed “security safety”. The check carried out by the two security agencies even though the law does not ‘allow’ them to interfere in public sector appointments.
An in-depth look into allegations of links between this woman and the Hamas movement has revealed to this journalist that one of her relatives was a member of the Hamas movement and had been martyred during the Second Intifada, almost five years before the administrative and political ‘split’ between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
“I used to reside outside the Palestinian territories. My relative was martyred before I ever came to the West Bank, which was after my marriage,” said T.M. “I had never met him but when I followed this up with the security apparatus to understand why I had lost my job, I was told that my relative’s membership in Hamas was the main reason”.
According to documents obtained by the author of this report and information collected from legal centres looking after this case, T.M. was sacked while she was on maternity leave. She is one of around 1500 employees who were let go or denied a job at the Ministry of Education in the West Bank – together with hundreds of others in different ministries and governmental organisations – because of ‘security’ recommendations issued by both Central Intelligence and the Preventive Security Force in the West Bank.
The majority of these employees were appointed after Hamas won the legislative elections at the beginning of 2006. However, as a result of the political and administrative split between the West Bank (under the control of Fatah) and the Gaza strip (under the control of Hamas), the Ministry of Education in the West Bank dismissed hundreds of them. The dismissals were based on ‘security’ decisions that were backed by the political authorities, specifically by the Council of Ministers which was then – and remains to this day – headed by Dr. Salam Fayyad. Relevantdecisions had been issued in this regard.
Official data would seem to indicate that the Ministry of Education is one of the Palestinian National Authority’s largest institutions, with over 66,000 employees between teachers and administrators and a yearly budget exceeding 2 billion shekels (600 million US dollars).
This investigative report includes detailed financial calculations which indicate that if the authorities in the West Bank were to decide to reinstate the teachers, their compensation would amount to more than $63 million. This sum would be borne by the Palestinian National Authority, the entire budget of which does not exceed 3.7 billion dollars and the deficit of which is over 1 billion dollars.
At its core, this investigation is about information regarding -and evidence of- the interference of government officials and the security apparatus, directly or indirectly, in the appointment of employees at the Ministry of Education and in their dismissal, using secretive decisions that have no legal backing. In fact, they go further than that, interfering in the judicial process and delaying court rulings on complaints filed by teachers who were dismissed from the Ministry of Education over the course of four years based on the findings of security checks.
Articles numbers 18 and 24 of the amended Civil Service Law number 4 of 1998 restrict the appointment of staff to those who meet the following requirements: that they be Palestinian or Arab, of age, free of disease and mental or physical impairment that may prevent them from carrying out the job to which they are appointed (based on a decision issued by a specialised doctor), not convicted by a specialised Palestinian court of a crime or a misdemeanour touching on honour or integrity (unless such a verdict is overturned), thus enjoying full civic rights. The law does not require that applicants for public sector jobs pass security checks.
Although the law does not require such “security safety” checks, they were in use when the late President Yasser Arafat was in office and continue to be in use now under the current President Mahmoud Abbas, with ‘extraordinary’ decisions made by the chief of the Authority to use security as an excuse to control employment in its institutions and agencies.
After Hamas won legislative elections and formed the government, the then Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh issued decision number 10/5/8 on 02/05/2006 rescinding the “security safety” condition and reverted to the Civil Service Law on all appointments to public sector jobs, as provided in articles 18, 24, and annulling all other decisions that contradict its stipulations. The decision has thus since been withdrawn but the Fatah-led government headed by Salam Fayyad reinstated the decision in 2007 immediately afterthe ‘split’, as this investigation reveals.
Our attempts to contact the security agencies to enquire about the security check and the reasons behind T.M.’s dismissal were met with refusal, citing a decision banning their staff from discussing this issue with the press. However, we found a statement published on the Together (Maan) News Agency’s website in October 2010 by the spokesman for Palestinian Security, Adnan Al-Damiri, stating: “the Palestinian Authority and its security agencies do not deal with citizens on the basis of their political affiliation, referring to the Law that does not penalize people for their political background”.
On the other hand, a statement made by another security official contradicts Al-Damiri’s statement in essence. When asked about indictments based on political affiliation and about the security checks in an interview conducted by presenter Souhaib Daghlas of Al Watan TV with a Central Intelligence nt officer in late April 2011, the officer said, “A security check is conducted for the purposes of employment; a necessity in the current situation, forced upon us after the coup d’état”, in reference to Hamas’s military overtake of the Gaza Strip.
After some research, the author of this investigation found that the decisions to dismiss all those employees were taken in accordance with the provisions of a letter (reference 1/amw/2115 dated 09/09/2007) signed by Mr. Sa’adi Al Karenz, the Director of Prime Minister Fayyad’s office. The letter was issued at the 18th session of the Council of Ministers in Ramallah which was headed by Mr. Salam Fayyad on 03/09/2007. It states, “Security checks will be considered integral to the appointment process and the General Employment Bureau (GEB) will be charged with the task of processing these checks with the relevant security authorities seeing as the GEB is responsible for appointing staff to public sector posts”.
However, as we sifted through the records of the above meeting of the Council of Ministers in Ramallah, we were not able to find any reference to an official statement (or its text) to this effect signed by Salam Fayyad. In effect, the decision never existed and no record of it appears in the archives of the Council of Ministers.
Ghandi Al Rub’i, an expert in Palestinian administrative law and one of the most prominent defence attorneys representing the dismissed teachers, sees this as “a clear violation of the basic principles of the law and more specifically the law of the Council of Ministers, which stipulates that it is illegal for the Council to take secretive decisions that will not be made public. It also constitutes a transgression by the security agencies against the laws that govern their own work as these restrict their authority and limit it to judicial seizure and enforcement. The dismissals clearly show the inability of these parties to commit to and abide by the law, with the Council of Ministers issuing a letter that was not legally processed to completion, and the GEB and security agencies having implemented decisions without deference to the law, in a situation where none of those parties are qualified to make legal decisions in any case.”
What adds to the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of the letter of the Council of Ministers – regarding the implementation of the “security safety” checks – is the report of The Independent Commission for Human Rights’ which stated that “the Higher Court of Justice – represented at the time by its Chief, Judge Issa Abu Sharar, who had earlier served as Chief of the Judicial Council, had sent an official letter to the Prime Ministry requesting a copy of the letter. The Secretary General of the Council of Ministers at the time, Mr. Sa’di Al-Karenz, had written back officially to the Court stating, “We deeply regret to inform you that we are unable to provide the distinguished Higher Court of Justice with a copy of the minutes of the meeting in question, due to the confidentiality of the proceedings and discussions at the Council’s meetings and in accordance with its bylaws”.
The above legal report, which was published in 2010, comments on the Prime Ministry’sresponse to say: “This kind of response indicates that the Executive Branch is unwilling to cooperate with the Judiciary in the pursuit of justice, where the court’s aim was to look at the text of the Council’s decision making “security safety” checks a condition for appointment; a decision pursuant to which hundreds of employees were fired. The court also sees that this constitutes an infringement of the amended Primary Law of 2003, article number 2/30 of which bans the inclusion of any stipulation in any law that serves to make administrative decisions or actions immune from judicial oversight. In addition, the refusal of the Council of Ministers to publish the decision on ‘security safety’ in itself infringes on the people’s right of ‘Access to Information’”.
The Secretary General of the Council of Ministers in Ramallah, Mr. Salah Alayan, comments on the 2008 refusal of the Secretariat of the Council of Ministers to provide the minutes of the meeting at the court’s request by saying, “The Prime Minister must personally approve the release of minutes of meetings to any party, whether that be the ministers themselves, parliamentarians or judges. I am certain that Fayyad never refused such a request or broke the law. There is no explanation for the Council’s Secretariat’s refusal to release the minutes of the meeting at that time, especially considering how long ago this took place”.
When we subsequently reviewed all the documents and correspondence issued by the Ministry of Education regarding the dismissal of those employees, it was apparent that the official letters signed by the Minister of Education in Ramallah, Lamis Al Alami, cited the recommendation of two security agencies in specific, the Preventive Security Force and CentralIntelligence, against an appointment. This is very clear in the instance of two official letters dating back to 22/07/2011.
Law number 11 of 2007 and law number 17 of 2005 governing the Central Intelligence and Preventive Security Force limit the mandate of the two security apparatuses – in accordance with articles numbers 6,7,8,9 and 12 – to safeguarding Palestinian internal security and enforcement, with a commitment to the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the law and without violating those rights. Nowhere in the laws governing both security agencies did we find anything that gives them the authority to interfere in the appointment of employees to any ministry, whether to recommend or disapprove of such appointments.
Al Alami’s answer as to why she signed the illegal dismissal papers based on official letters sent by the GEB – which in turn refers to the recommendations of the security apparatuses – was the following, “The Ministry received official letters from the GEB indicating that it would be possible to employ or sack an employee on the basis of a security recommendation, which led the Ministry to take decisions to employ and dismiss staff as recommended by official letters and in compliance with the Council of Ministers’ decision on ‘security safety’ issued in 2007”. However, the Minister admitted that she “finally noticed – once the Higher Court of Justice ruled in favor of a group of discharged teachers – that the GEB has no right to interfere in the appointment or dismissal of staff, authority to which lies with the concerned Minister alone”. This ‘late’ discovery did not, however, lead her to rescind any of the dismissal decisions she herself had signed.
In response to Al-Alami’s answer, the former Head of the Higher Judicial Council, Judge Issa Abu Sharar comments, “It is disastrous that the Ministers were willing to implement the GEB’s decisions based on the recommendations of the security agencies as in the case of the dismissed teachers, but it is an even worse calamity that the Ministers do not know what lies within their jurisdiction. This clearly shows that the authority the GEB wielded over the appointment and dismissal of employees fell beyond its legal framework and timeframe, violating the authority and jurisdiction granted in the Primary Law to the ministries and ministers”.
J.W. was one of the teachers who were included in those security sweeps and were subsequently dismissed for what he calls the “injustice of security checks and accusations of political affiliation”, adding that he and others were pressured by the security apparatuses to cooperate with their agencies in exchange for their reinstatement to their positions; a demand that he rejected because of what he called the impossibility of combining ‘education’ with ‘security work’.
The four difficult years that followed his dismissal, during which J.W., like other teachers who were sacked for the same reason, had to work as a salesman, construction worker or in jobs that did not reward his hard-earned degree – just to put food on the table – were cause enough for them to take the matter to court.
At that stage, the teachers were separated into three groups; the first group, numbering between 600 to 800 employees, filed cases through Human Rights organisations and centres; the second group, consisting of more than 200 employees, filed lawsuits through private lawyers and the third group of teachers refrained from filing either because they thought it would be useless in view of the political dimension of the issue or because they could not afford the legal fees and expenses which amounted to almost 200 US dollars per person.
An examination of this report, by this investigative journalist, revealed that of the hundreds of cases filed with the courts between 2008 and 2012, the judiciary ruled on only 14 cases and asked they be reinstated. The process was delayed for a month and a half and the teacher in question only went back to his/her job after immense pressure was exerted on the Council of Ministers. This included sit-ins and hunger strikes outside the Council’s gates. Such was the now famous demonstration led by Ahmad Wahdan, the teacher who demonstrated at the gates of the Prime Ministry demanding that the decision to reinstate him be implemented.
These demonstrations began after the teachers received notification that their reinstatement would be delayed. The decision by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, issued on 24/08/2012, which stands behind the delay, reads: “the suspension of all promotions and appointments until further notice”. According to Mr. Salah Alayan’s statement, the President of the Authority is the main reason behind the delay. This is also supported by Lamis Al-Alami who made the same statement to the press shortly after Abbas’ decision was announced.
“The reinstatement of employees will take around two to three years and their return to their jobs will not be quick, because of the Authority’s difficult financial situation and the President’s decision, but also because the Higher Court of Justice has not yet delivered to the Ministry the decision to reinstate the teachers, which we need in order to process anything related to them”. The author of the report, however, met with legal experts who confirmed that the Court’s decision overturned their dismissal, meaning that they were technically never fired and must therefore be reinstated immediately. The court’s decision in fact makes it as though they were not dismissed in the first place and there is nothing to process.
The dismissed teachers kept up the pressure and with support from civil society organisations which joined the cause, the Minister changed her statement, announcing: “In compliance with the decision of the Higher Court of Justice, we will reinstate all those who were laid-off at the first opportunity and as quickly as possible”. A number of teachers were reinstated under the pressure but hundreds more wait to be included in the decision.
Commenting on the four-year delay in ruling on the ‘Dismissed Teachers’ case, Ibrahim Al Barghouti, a legal expert and the Director of the Palestinian Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Lawyers (Musawah) says, “There is absolutely no legal excuse for the delay in ruling on the case. In fact, the four-year delay is tantamount to denial of justice; a violation of one of the most important principles of the law that states that citizens have the right to resort to the judiciary as fast as possible: Justice delayed is justice denied”.
As indicated by article number 106 of the amended Primary Law which deals with the implementation of the decisions of the courts, “Judicial decisions must be executed. The refusal to execute them or the active disruption of their execution is a crime punishable by incarceration or dismissal (if the accused is a civil servant or in charge of public services). Those in whose favor the ruling is made have the right to file a lawsuit directly to a specialized court, and are guaranteed full compensation by the National Authority”.
A high-ranking source in the judiciary – who wishes to remain anonymous – confirmed that the delay in settling these cases is due to the pressures exerted on the judiciary by different parties, some of them political and some linked to the security bodies. Further pressure came from within the judiciary itself, as the former Head of the Higher Judicial Council, Mr. Issa Abu Sharar acknowledges. He says that he personally fought off many attempts to pressure him and other members of the judiciary during his term as Head of the Council – until 2009. He stated that at the time there were special relationships, between a number of judges, some politicians as well as officers in the security apparatuses, a situation he could neither end nor reject”. He describes them in general as being personal contacts and private relationships.
Another high-ranking source within the Palestinian Authority, who also asked to remain unnamed, said: “Yet another reason for the delayed rulings was the pressures caused by the Split”. When asked what he meant by the ‘pressures of the split’, who was inflicting them and wielding authority above the law, he said he preferred not to respond “in view of its high sensitivity” and as he said. His silence was in itself an answer.
Polls were carried out by the Higher Judicial Council, under the supervision of USAID on the integrity of the Judiciary in 2009, the year that witnessed one of the biggest waves of group dismissals. In the poll, 49% of the respondents acknowledged having been pressured by higher-ranking members of the Judicial Council whereas 36% acknowledged that it was politicians who pressured them. The inquiry revealed that 62% of lawyers believe that the judiciary is pressured by politicians and security officers.
A survey published in 2012 by the Musawah Center, one of the centers concerned with the independence of the Judiciary, showed that 54% of surveyed judges confirmed the interference of government and security apparatuses in their work. It also showed that 86% of the judges respond to those pressures.
The authors of this investigation ran a survey of their own on the independence of the Judiciary that covered 150 citizens from the north, center and south of the West Bank. 63% of those surveyed were of the conviction that the judiciary is indeed “held hostage to the executive branch, whether that be its agencies or its officials or security officers, with judges and the Council coming under pressure”. Moreover, 77% of respondents confirmed that pressures by politicians and security apparatuses actually divert justice from its rightful path, distorting the facts and manipulating them in favor of the powerful and influential on those two sides.
A simple mathematical equation that takes the number of discharged employees, with records showing that they number around 1500, and multiplies it by four which is the average family size, means that around 8000 people were deprived of rights which are guaranteed to them by law for the duration of their employment in the different governmental agencies of the Palestinian Authority, in addition to related perks and benefits such as insurance and health care.
A teacher’s average salary is 2500 shekels ($600 dollars) which means that the Treasury of the Palestinian Authority will have to pay damages of over 250 million shekels ($63 million dollars) to these teachers for unjust dismissal once the case is resolved in the favor of the teachers. This would be in conformity with the Palestinian Civil Service Law and in accordance with the text of article number 32 of the amended law. Of this amount, 150 million shekels ($38 million dollars) would be due to them for the period of forced unemployment while 99 million shekels ($25 million dollars) constitute compensations for damages. This comes to an average of 165 thousand shekels ($42 thousand dollars) for every discharged teacher, in addition to a million shekels ($250,000) to cover the legal expenses of processing the lawsuits.
A big number of those involved in the case have not moved on. They are still marking time after being part of one of the most high-profile cases; one that affected the lives of more than 8000 people in a very direct way.
Ibrahim Al Barghouti, legal expert and Head of “Musawah” Center, comments by saying that “Following up on this case is the Palestinian President’s responsibility because it has been legally established that the decisions to dismiss these employees violate the law and are classified as a grave professional error”.
Ghandi Al Rub’i, a legal expert, adds that the President is called upon to “take legal responsibility for the dictates of the law, in compliance with the text of the amended law and articles 74,75 and 76, which mandate that he hold people accountable and intervene in any decision that the executive branch of government or its members take that may cause harm or damage; holding them accountable for negligence, individually and collectively, both in their personal and ex-officio capacities. In addition, the Palestinian Authority is obligated to comply with the court’s ruling in favor of the teachers as quickly as possible, to reinstate and compensate them in full for their unjust dismissal”.
This investigation was carried out with the support of ARIJ and under the supervision of coaches Abdullah Al Sa’afeen and Imad Rawashdeh.