As Palestinian protests turn violent, PA leaders seek economic solutions

Violent West Bank demonstrations over unpaid salaries & high prices are largest show of popular discontent with PA in 18 years • Unrest reminiscent of Arab Spring protests as Protesters attack police station and burn tires.

The Associated Press and Israel Hayom Staff


Palestinian ministers were meeting on Tuesday to discuss ways of easing economic hardships that have provoked growing protests across the West Bank, challenging the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.

Palestinian protests over the high cost of living turned violent in Hebron on Monday. – Photo: AP

Palestinian demonstrators fed up with high prices and unpaid salaries shuttered shops, halted traffic with burning tires and clashed with riot police in demonstrations across the West Bank on Monday in the largest show of popular discontent with the Palestinian Authority in its 18-year existence.

“If the government doesn’t come out with serious, concrete solutions, the protests will go on and become bigger,” said Wasel Abu Yousef, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee.

Government employees, many of whom will receive only part of their August salaries because of the cash crisis, staged a partial strike on Tuesday and promised to picket the cabinet meeting in the de facto capital of Ramallah.

Monday’s violence showed that the unrest, initially supported by Palestinian leaders in hopes of drawing international attention to the struggling economy, risks backfiring and morphing into a broader movement against the government.

“Nobody is able to live, except the big officials,” said Sami Saleh, a 57-year-old taxi driver who supports his family of eight on a $700 monthly salary. “We have to pressure this government to change,” he said.

As he spoke, youths hollered and cheered as they set tires alight behind him, sending plumes of black smoke into the air and blocking the main road from the West Bank city of Ramallah to the nearby city of Jerusalem. Nearby, striking taxi and bus drivers scribbled the word “taxi” on a donkey in yellow paint.

The most heated clashes occurred in Hebron, where hundreds of protesters smashed the windows of a municipality building with rocks. The crowd tried to storm the building but was thwarted by riot police who fired tear gas and beat back some of the demonstrators. Later, protesters tried to attack the police station, prompting a pitched rock-hurling battle between police and demonstrators.

There were no injuries, but the violence was significant because it targeted a symbol of Palestinian self-rule. Usually, Palestinians reserve their anger for Israel, which captured the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War and wields overall control of the area.

Most of the rage has been directed toward Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a U.S.-educated economist who oversees the government’s finances. But at least part of the anger appeared engineered by Fayyad’s powerful rivals in the Fatah movement, led by President Mahmoud Abbas.

The unrest was reminiscent of the mass demonstrations of the Arab Spring that topped aging dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and sparked civil war in Syria. While there is no sign that the protests are approaching that level, they nonetheless are the largest show of popular discontent with the governing Palestinian Authority in its 18-year history.

In Hebron, about 50 men hurled shoes at a large poster of Fayyad that had the words “Depart, Fayyad” scrawled underneath. Hurling shoes is a deeply insulting move in the Arab world. They then tore down the poster, stepped on it and burned it.

Fayyad says the troubles are beyond his control. The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank, is grappling with a sharp budgetary shortfall because the U.S. and Arab countries that sustain it haven’t delivered promised aid money.

Finance Ministry officials say donors owe $1.2 billion in pledged money, more than a quarter of the government’s annual budget. The authority, by far the largest employer in the West Bank, hasn’t been able to pay full salaries in months.

“There are no magic solutions,” said Nour Oudeh, a spokeswoman for Fayyad.

The troubles have been compounded by the global phenomenon of rising fuel and food prices.

“It’s just not possible anymore with the rising prices. Salaries don’t cover a month,” said Osama al-Azzeh, a 21-year-old university student in Bethlehem. He said his older brother supports him, their stepmother and four young sisters on $540 a month working as an electrical salesman.

Fayyad, a political independent, is respected internationally for cleaning up the corrupt practices of previous Palestinian governments and for putting international financial standards in place in the West Bank.

But his efforts over the years have antagonized many in Abbas’ dominant Fatah movement. Fatah activists were the driving force behind the early protests last week, in part to embarrass Fayyad, Abbas’ most formidable rival.

Abbas himself has expressed sympathy with the protesters, but made clear that he would not tolerate violence. Monday’s events suggested that the frustration may run deeper than thought.

Israeli officials have kept their distance from the latest Palestinian unrest. The Israeli military said the demonstrations were “internal Palestinian events,” but said it was prepared “for any eventuality.”

Some Israeli security officials are concerned that the protests might spill into Jewish communities in the West Bank. GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon predicted that the protests may escalate and manifest into an Arab Spring in the Palestinian Authority, Army Radio reported on Tuesday.

Davidi Perl, head of the Gush Etzion Regional Authority, who was present at Alon’s situation assessment meeting, told Army Radio, “The general spoke of the threats surrounding us, from Iran via Syria, Egypt and of course the threat coming from the Palestinians. This is a storm stemming from the economic situation … the rage could be directed at Israel as well, not just at the Palestinian Authority.”

Palestinian protesters have demanded government subsidies for basic goods like food and fuel, a minimum wage, the repeal of a recent round of tax hikes and the cancellation of a Palestinian trade agreement with Israel.

But economist Samir Abdullah, a former cabinet minister, said it would be difficult to cancel the economic agreement because the Palestinians badly need tax revenues from the agreement.

Compounding the government’s problems, the Islamic group Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since ousting Abbas’ forces there in 2007. The Palestinians hope to establish a state in both territories but have repeatedly failed to reconcile.

While Hamas officials gloated over Fayyad’s misery, they recently announced their own package of reforms to help unemployed Gazans find work. Last week in Gaza, a young man committed suicide by setting himself on fire, despairing over his unemployment and poverty.

“Life for people is extremely difficult,” said Samia al-Botmeh, a development specialist at the Birzeit University in the West Bank. “I think people could have tolerated that if there was a political opening, if there was some hope. The fact that the two are totally hopeless makes it very frustrating for people.”

Though the day’s protests, which were also reported in Hebron and Jenin, appeared spontaneous and disorganized, there were concerns that the movement is gaining steam. On Tuesday, students from colleges and high schools were planning to participate in a one-day strike in support of the transportation workers.

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