He is probably not very well known outside the territories of the state of Palestine, but if you ask almost any Palestinian, they would most likely know who Bassam Zakarneh is.
Technically, he is a member of the Revolutionary Council in Fatah. But ask any Fatah activist and they will say that he is much more powerful than most members of the central committee — the highest body in this liberation movement.
Zakarneh’s strength, of course, is not directly from Fatah, although he is also well-liked by Fatah, especially at the grassroots level.
The head of the public workers union in Palestine wields amazing powers to stop the workings of any and all public institutions run by the Palestinian government.
Zakarneh’s pet issue is transparency in the Palestinian government. He is heard and seen daily on various media outlets hammering away at the lack of transparency from the Palestinian minister of finance or the prime minister in regards to the government’s financial status. The question of transparency for Zakarneh is connected to the cash flow of the Palestinian government and the priorities that the government gives to issues other than the salaries of employees.
By attaching himself to the demands of his union members, Zakarneh has garnered so much strength and power that with his call for a work stoppage or strike he can paralyze the specific department or the entire governmental structure.
Schools and universities, which constitute one of the biggest single sectors, are among the leading groups that are used by Zakarneh to protest.
The Zakarneh style has landed him in trouble not only with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, but also with the PLO’s Secretary-General Yaser Abed Rabo. During his time as general manager of Palestine Radio and TV, Rabo ordered the blacklisting of Zakarneh from any appearance on national TV because he had insulted certain Palestinian leaders. That didn’t stop Zakarneh from continuing his campaign using other media, as well as social media (his union has over 21,000 likes on Facebook). Eventually, Zakarneh won and Rabo was eased out of his leadership position in Palestine TV.
A similar situation has occurred regarding the resigned Minister of Finance, Nabil Qassis. When Qassis resigned, Fayyad immediately accepted his resignation while President Mahmoud Abbas did not, and has been working behind the scenes to bring Qassis back. Zakarneh and his union members hailed Qassis for his integrity and professionalism and sided with the President on this dispute. News from Ramallah this week says that Qassis has been convinced to return and will be allowed to work more independently than before.
Naturally, the issue of salaries touches the lives of so many people and Zakarneh has succeeded brilliantly in leveraging the financial issue that affects tens of thousands of Palestinians to his credit. This week the Palestinian Authority announced that all back salaries will be paid in the coming days.
This breakthrough is no doubt credit to the threats of mass strikes that Zakarneh issues a few days ago. Others say that the release of the salaries might be due in part to the upcoming visit of US President Barack Obama and the desire of the Palestinian government not to have a tense public at this sensitive time.
Whatever the reasons, Zakarneh can show his union members success in fighting for their rights and obtaining the basics that any employee wants from his union — namely to be sure that they are paid regularly and without interruption. For that, Zakarneh is clearly one of the most powerful men in Palestine.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. He tweets from @daoudkuttab.