Gaza (Ekhbaryat Network) – Eighteen percent of Gaza’s 48 MPs practice other professions and earn income in addition to their legislative salaries. This is in direct violation of the law on the rights and duties of members of the legislature as well as the body’s internal regulations, which prohibit parliamentarians from carrying out another profession while in office.
This report is the result of a six-month investigation which found that MPs from both the Change and Reform Bloc (Hamas) and the Fatah Bloc are working in professions such as medicine and university education.
What these MPs earn from illegal employment comes in addition to the US$3,000 salary per month they receive from the West Bank government, for Fatah MPs, and the Gaza government, for Hamas MPs.
The budget approved by Gaza’s government for the year 2013 stands at around $897 million, with a deficit of $654 million, covered by contributions and grants. However, what matters is the duplicate income, which places the offenders in the company of high-income earners in the Gaza Strip, where the majority of the population lives under the poverty line. Yet, from 2006 until mid-2013, the total earned by a single MP as a bonus was $267,000 on average with total bonuses for MPs reaching $35,244,000.
The Palestinian Legislative Council is made up of a total of 132 MPs from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The latter’s share – a total of 48 MPs – are elected through a system of districts and lists. Of these, 27 ran on Hamas’ Change and Reform List, 16 on Fatah’s list, three independents, and one member each from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Free Palestine List.
According to Change and Reform MP Yahia Moussa, the Gaza’s legislature has been holding meetings since 2007 with no less than 20 MPs attending, i.e. three quarters of his bloc’s members and only 18 percent of the total. Moussa maintains that meetings rotate between committees and the council on a weekly basis. During the week, the MPs conduct their normal activities in their offices or on field visits. His bloc meets every two weeks, with full attendance.
Article 7 of Law No.10 on the Duties and Rights of Members of the Palestinian Legislative Council issued in 2004 stipulates: “No member shall take up any employment or consultative work for any party at a fee.”
The Legislative Council’s media department was contacted to solicit an explanation from the acting President Dr. Ahmad Bahr. However, requests were denied under the pretext of time constraints, though the press interview would have taken less than ten minutes.
Instead, Yahia Moussa, Change and Reform MP and head of the Censorship, Human Rights, and Public Freedoms Committee in Gaza was contacted. He explained that Hamas’ parliamentary bloc had agreed that an MP should not take up any paid work, whether employment or consultation, with another party. This decision was publicized. “No matter what the financial amount is, big or small, it is forbidden,” he said.
MPs in the Palestinian legislature receive a monthly stipend of $3,000, at a time when the number of Gazans living under the poverty line has reached 67.1 percent, according to standard-of-living indicators published by the Palestinian Central Bureau for Statistics (PCBS) in 2011. Figures from the following year show that the average salary in Gaza reached 1,866 shekels (around $518) for employees in the public sector and 1,323 ($367) shekels in the private sector. The law also provides MPs with additional entitlements. Article 4 of the Code of Bonuses and Salaries states: “The Council’s President, its members, and their heirs thereafter shall receive an amount equal to 12.5 percent of the monthly salary for every year served, not to exceed 80 percent of the total set for monthly bonuses tied to the schedule of increase in the cost of living. The amount is paid monthly as soon as the position is vacant, and toward this end fractions of a year are calculated as a full year.”
Article 3/11 of 2004, the law on the bonuses and salaries of legislative council members, members of government, and governors stipulates:
“With the exception of the Prime Minister and the Ministers, members of the Council shall receive a monthly bonus of $3,000 or an equal amount in the legally utilized local currency. The bonus shall be calculated from the moment the member takes the oath until the expiration of the term or in vacating the office.”
At the clinic of Dr. Khamees Al Najjar, from Hamas’ Change and Reform List, this investigative journalists documented how the medical doctor earns 30 Shekels per visitation and issues a signed medical prescription on official paper bearing his name, clinic number and home number.
While waiting at the reception, we were preceded by four patients, each spending around 15 minutes with the doctor. Based on this rate of patients, during a two-and-a-half hour shift every day at the clinic, he would see at least 10 cases. Therefore, this doctor – who is in charge of the health dossier and is the rapporteur for the parliamentary committee on education and social issues in parliament – makes a total of around 300 Shekels per day, except Friday. This is around $83 per day or $2,166 (7,800 Shekels) every month.
Four months later in parliament, the investigating reporter asked the MP/doctor what he thought about working outside the legislative framework. “It is prohibited for an MP to do other work,” he replied. “The law forbids employment elsewhere. However, if a university needed a fellow with a rare specialization, he could coordinate with the council to take one or two hours off without pay. But if it was for pay, it would be illegal.”
MP Al-Najjar’s statements contradict reality. Unequivocal evidence showed that he worked in his private clinic, confirmed earlier during the first phone call to set up an appointment at his “clinic.” However, he denies even having a clinic. “But i will not turn away someone who comes to my home. I get paid the 30 Shekels, since many patients come and I don’t take money from them. But they do not come back out of embarrassment. The cost of a check-up is no less than 100 Shekels,” he explained.
As for getting paid for a check up, Najjar declared, “Do you want to deny people my rare specialization (in hematology and internal medicine)? If you don’t receive them, it will hang around your neck.”
However, the investigating reporters discovered more than eight doctors with the same specialization as Dr. al-Najjar working in Gaza.
The reporter visited the clinic of Dr. Faisal Abu Shahla, an MP from Fatah’s Parliamentary Bloc with 16 MPs in Gaza. He is a consultant in internal medicine, kidneys, and blood pressure in al-Saha Square in the center of Gaza City.
It should be noted that this MP is unabashed about breaking legislative council regulations and opening a private clinic in downtown Gaza, indicated by several signs he placed at the building entrance and clinic door.
I visited the doctor, claiming I was ill, and paid 50 Shekels (around $14) for a checkup.
I asked Abu Shahla a question about the legality of practicing his profession during his term as an MP. “The law does not prohibit a doctor from practicing his profession and private business,” he replied. Abu Shahla indicated he was basing this on a legal opinion from the head of the legal department at the legislative council Jamal al-Khatib.”
Speaking to the investigating reporter, al-Khatib corroborated this opinion. “The basic principle is permissiveness,” he explained. “Private work – as long as it does not interfere with the MP’s work in the legislative council – is not the business of the council.” In his legal opinion, no text exists that forces an MP to be a full-timer. “Constitutions of some foreign countries force the MP to be a full-timer and prohibits holding other employments,” Khatib added. “But here, it is prohibited to combine executive and legislative jobs, but not private business. Dr. Faisal has a clinic and he is not breaking the law.”
Khatib saw that the legal text stipulating the ban on MPs from engaging in any other form of paid employment or consultative job for any party, “applies on regular jobs and makes exceptions for some professions,” according to his reading of the Code of Duties and Rights of Members of the Legislative Council. Thus, “professions such as law, medicine, and university teaching are allowed”. However, the exception needs a specific text,” as he claimed.
Yet the second deputy of the president of the legislative council, Dr. Hassan Khreisha, rejected the explanation. He maintained what was stipulated in the internal regulations of the council, which state that “an MP shall not be employed in any other job, in addition to being prohibited from receiving more than one salary.”
As for the legality of MPs working in private establishments, Khreisha replied with a question: “Is he paid money for this? If it were for free, there would be no problem. But if they were getting paid, they are not allowed to do it. The basic principle is that an MP can work in the council or as a minister. What Khatib said has no value.”
Abdul-Sater Qassem, professor of Political Sciences at al-Najah University in the West Bank, categorically rejected combining a legislative role with additional employment. However, he preferred not to discuss the issue outside parliament. “No one has legitimacy in the Palestinian arena today,” he explained. “The law is up for grabs and anyone can explain it as they wish. Those with the will can do whatever they wish. Those who don’t will be trampled under foot.” Qassem called for revoking those MPs legislative salaries, since it is the money of the Palestinian people.
In another violation, it was found that MP Ahmad Abu Halbia from the Change and Reform Bloc, is also a professor in the Department of Hadith at the College of Theology at the Islamic University of Gaza. He also supervises and judges master’s theses in the same college and at other Palestinian and Arab universities. This information is published on the university’s website, with his name and position listed on the department’s website.
According to a source familiar with Dr. Abu Halbia’s activities at the university who requested to remain anonymous, the MP judges Masters and PhD thesis while receiving 70 Jordanian Dinars ($100) for each session.
However, Abu Halbia’s supervision of degrees is not limited to the Islamic University of Gaza. In an interview conducted by the investigative reporter, he admitted to supervising doctoral students in the joint program between the Palestinian al-Aqsa University and Ain Shams University in Egypt, in addition to al-Jinan University in Lebanon. “Things are hunky dory in higher education,” he said. “I focus on teaching and supervising students whose projects are listed for higher education.”
The MP maintains that supervisors at the Islamic University earn a total of JD600 ($900) per thesis, from the time of registration until the defense. The rate at al-Aqsa is only $600. “However, in the Lebanese al-Jinan (where I supervised a PhD student of Hadith in 2012 who defended his text in January 2013), the university paid $500,” he explained. “At Palestinian universities, a juror earns an average of $100 and for the Islamic University, it is JD75 ($107).” The MP recognized that he devotes a lot of time judging and supervising Masters and Doctoral thesis; so how much time does he spend working at the Legislative Council?
When asked this question, Abu Halbia requested that the subject be dropped – for good. He denied getting paid for supervising Doctoral degrees and requested that the audio of the interview be erased, threatening to take action if it were published.
The website for the Office of the Dean of Higher Education at the Islamic University contains several documents that confirm the gainful employment of several MPs, all from Hamas’ Change and Reform Bloc, as members of the teaching staff or as supervisors and jurors for Masters and Doctoral programs.
The first document is entitled “Guide to Higher Education, 4th Edition, 2012.” It contains the name of Hamas bloc MP Abu Halbia, as well as Salem Salameh, Khalil al-Hayya, and Youssef al-Sharafi, all part of the teaching staff for the Masters program in Islamic Hadith. They are hired by the university on an hourly basis on a need basis.
MP Sharafi denied being part of the teaching staff in the Islamic University’s graduate programs. However, he maintained that he had supervised three or four master’s theses. “This is not prohibited at all,” he explained. “In exchange, I taught a whole class for free.”
His explanation for supervising Masters thesis was his connection with science, claiming he only does this right after dawn prayers, when the Legislative Council has not opened yet.
He justified the legality of earning money for judging theses by saying, “The law does not prohibit such activity. The legislature compels you to attend sessions. You are required to attend a minimum. However, my attendance rate is 100 percent during the Council’s sessions.”
The other MPs were also contacted to grant them the right of reply, but to no avail.
The staff listings for Interpretation and Quranic Sciences also contained MPs from the Change and Reform Bloc: Abdul-Rahman al-Jamal and Marwan Abu Ras, who are also hired by the hour as needed.
Despite the documents, MP Abu Ras denied being on the teaching staff of the Islamic University. He admitted to having reviewed some thesis, but maintained he did not receive financial compensation. The investigation could not prove otherwise.
The second document on the website was entitled “Graduate Education Guide 2010-2011” contains a list of Masters degrees completed up to 2011, with some MPs on the jury. The document indicates that MP Dr. Salem Salameh was an external juror for three master’s papers between 2010 and 2011.
MP al-Jamal, on the other hand, was an external member of the jury in September 2006, discussing a master’s degree, and an internal juror in 2007 for two other degrees. In 2011, he was an external juror for three masters thesis, after serving as supervisor and head of the jury for another degree in 2010. Additionally, MP Younis al-Astal supervised and headed the jury for one thesis in 2007.
MP al-Jamal did not answer repeated calls from the investigating reporter. After contacting the Legislative Council directly, we were informed that he was outside the Gaza Strip. Another attempt was made more than a month later to no avail.
Head of the Censorship, Human Rights, and Public Freedoms committee in Gaza, Yahia Moussa explained that “the Change and Reform bloc discussed the issue of work and decided that any hours given to university work, which should not exceed three, shall be volunteer and unpaid work. All other blocs committed their members to volunteer work. This was more than two years ago.”
Although the Legislative Council’s term began in summer 2006, around seven years ago, Moussa believes the first five years were just the launch. Therefore, duplication of employment for some MPs was only discussed two years ago, despite having proof that some of them were already breaking the law, according to Moussa.
Moussa maintained that an MP receiving financial compensation for services is an insult to the Council and puts the MP under suspicion. He thought it was best not to work, or at least not receive money in return. One service that MPs could provide to citizens, if they had the capacity and for which they should not receive compensation, is medical expertise. This implies that Moussa generally concurs that MPs Abu Shahla and al-Najjar are breaking the law, even if he does not say it explicitly.
Article 3 of the law of the Legislative Council, which is the oath taken by MPs before beginning their term says: “I swear by Almighty God to be loyal to the homeland, to protect the rights and interests of people and nation, to respect the basic laws, and perform my duties to the best degree and God is my witness.”
Head of the Palestinian Legislative Council Dr. Aziz Duwaik explains that those who have duplicate jobs are in violation of the internal regulations of the Council. The office of the presidency, represented in this case by Dr. Ahmad Bahr, the deputy president in charge of the council’s affairs in Gaza, has the authority warn the MP or decide on sanctions if the violation continued.
When all attempts to meet Dr. Bahr failed, the investigating reporter requested a clarification from Dr. Yahia Moussa, who said: “The laws and regulations do not include details about sanctions against MPs who work outside the legislative framework. The texts are general and vague,” he maintained.
“When an MP is known to be performing a job, which might hamper, destabilize, or hurt the work of the Council, there are measures the Council could resort to, such as warning the MP or drawing his attention and enquiring about the issue. However, sanctions are not clearly inscribed in the sanctions section, meaning the law does not provide a punishment for this. It is done verbally through contact and review.”
Despite receiving several complaints, the Council has not taken any measures to stop the MPs from continuing their violations. The legislature president’s second deputy Dr. Hassan Khraisha has another opinion about measures that could be imposed on MPs with duplicate employment. “The Constitutional Court sets the penalty,” he said. “Therefore, anyone can complain to the prosecutor, who in turn goes to the Legislative Council asking for the impeachment of the MP. The Council needs a two-thirds majority to sanction and refer the case to the courts to decide on the legality and take necessary measures against the MP, ranging from a suspension to a jail sentence, after losing impunity. In addition, complaints could be made to the Institute on Illegal Profiteering and Fighting Corruption, since the MPs’ actions would be a type of corruption.”
Dr. Azmi al-Shuaibi, Commissioner of the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity (AMAN), who works to promote transparency, accountability, and the values of integrity in Palestinian institutions, as well as a contributor to the Palestinian Basic Law, said: “There is a conflict between an MP’s full-time employment on the Council and the representation of citizens, on the one hand, and work requiring time and generating revenue, since they receive compensation for working full-time. If they want to keep their regular income at the Council after being notified, they should at the very least lose the bonus.”
By practicing other professions during their terms, MPs are opening the door wide for other issues related to their income and their compensation from the government for their membership. The Council is disabled by default, so why should they continue to receive salaries and not perform their role in legislation and control?
According to legal consultant and Director of Research in al-Mezan Center for Human Rights Dr. Adnan Hajjar, “They are required to do their work in return for the huge amounts they take out of the livelihood of citizens. These compensations should be reconsidered.”
This investigation was completed with support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and coached by Professor Abdullah al-Saafin.