West Bank protests at living costs turn violent

 

Days of demonstrations against the high cost of living turned violent in Hebron yesterday as protesters smashed windows and attempted to storm a government building.

The 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 £400 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 Mideast war and wields overall control of the area.

Most of the rage has been directed toward Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a US-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 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 US and Arab countries that sustain it haven't delivered promised aid money.

Finance Ministry officials say donors owe $1.2 billion (£750m) 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 President Mahmoud 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.

The Palestinian Authority was formed in 1994 under what was supposed to be an interim arrangement with Israel while a final peace accord was negotiated. But negotiations have repeatedly faltered, and two decades later, peace remains elusive.

The demonstrations have underscored the limits of Palestinian self-rule.

The Palestinian Authority governs the daily affairs of most Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. But some 60 percent of the West Bank remains under full Israeli control. Even those areas governed by the Palestinians are subject to Israeli security control.

Donor dollars are crucial because Palestinians have an economy hampered by Israel's control over the West Bank's borders as well as limited movement inside the territory. Security checks over exports and imports hamper the ability of Palestinian manufacturers to buy cheaper products elsewhere and raise the price of exports.

An easing of some restrictions in recent years pushed economic growth toward double digit figures. But international economists say the upturn cannot be sustained unless Israel releases the Palestinian economy from its shackles.

Israel hasn't done so, citing security concerns, and the growth has been tapering off.

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."

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."

AP

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