Mass strike and protests spread across West Bank

September 10, 2012
Sarah Benton

This posting has 4 items:
1) Khalid Amayreh Is it the Palestinian spring?; plus more photos
2) Tariq Kayal, AFP Angry protests, transport strike grip West Bank;
3) Reuters West Bank city hit by violent price protests;
4) Karl Vick, Time The Moribund Economy Brings Palestinians into the Streets;

Ramallah September 10, 2012, Palestinians stand near burning tyres during a protest against high living costs. Photo Reuters/Mohamad Torokman

Is it the Palestinian spring?

By Khalid Amayreh , Palestinian Information Center
September 09, 2012

Thousands of Palestinians have been taking to the streets in major west bank towns to protest the worst economic crisis to hit the occupied territories since the start of the Israeli occupation in 1967.

Protesters called for the resignation of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, holding him responsible for mounting economic deprivation, rising cost of living and rampant poverty.

The protesters accused the Fayyad government of being at Israel’s beck and call.

It is widely expected that street protests will continue to take place in the days and weeks to come as the cost of living has reached unprecedented levels, forcing many Palestinians to make painful austerity measures and income adjustments.

The PA government in Ramallah, which is unable to pay salaries to some 160,000 civil servants, says it has no miracle solution for the problem, which it blamed on “international factors.”

In a series of press and televised interviews, Fayyad admitted that there was a “real problem,” saying Palestinians needed to be patient.

“There are those who think that a government decision or measure would solve these problems. But this type of thinking is naïve to say the least.

“Some people think that if we revoke the Paris economic protocol it would free us from subservience to Israel. This thinking is even more naïve, since Israel is in tight control of the border crossings and can blockade us completely. In the final analysis, we are under the Israeli military occupation.”

Fayad did say he was willing to resign “if such a step would help solve the problem.”

However, Fayyad’s explanations are unlikely to convince a large number of Palestinians to give Ramallah the benefit of the doubt.

In the final analysis, Fayad is implementing the policies of Mahmoud Abbas, the Chairman of the PLO and President of the PA.

So far, protestors have refrained from targeting the PA itself and its chairman, Abbas. But this could change in the coming few days as signs suggest a wider and probably more violent social explosion could take place.

Some observers argue that the attacks on Fayyad are considered vicarious attacks on Abbas and that the PA leader is no way enjoying exalted status.

The PA has enlisted its many spokespersons to defend its stance. The PA Minister of Wakf and Islamic Affair instructed Jumaa (Friday) speakers across the West Bank to give sermons defending the Fayadh government, blaming the crisis on external factors.

However, very few imams heeded the instructions as ordinary worshipers were in no mood to listen to government propaganda.

Visibly frustrated, the Wakf Minister, Muhammed Habbash, blamed Hamas and several Arab states for the social-economic crisis. However, he dutifully avoided any allusion to the widespread corruption and mismanagement permeating through the PA institutions.

Nor did he sufficiently mention the real underlying cause of the problem, namely the fact that the PA is a superficial and artificial entity functioning under and answerable to the Israeli occupation.

Indeed, most PA officials and spokespersons have been carefully avoiding this root cause in their numerous press conferences and interviews pertaining to the crisis.

“I noticed this. They are simply too embarrassed to highlight this factor although everyone with minimal knowledge of Palestinian affairs realized that it is impossible to build a prosperous and sustained economy under a sinister foreign military occupation,” said Ahmed Sharabati, an Islamist media activist in Hebron.

“How can an entity whose electricity comes from Israel, whose water comes from Israel, whose money comes from the donor countries and the very oxygen it breathes comes from the enemy, how could such an entity stand on its feet?”

Another PA operative, the Governor of Hebron Kamel Hmeid, urged social solidarity to fight the “ghoul of poverty.” The PA, under Israeli and American pressure, had waged a relentless war on Islamist charitable institutions and Zakat committees, accusing these bodies of serving Hamas’s interests.

Traditionally, Islamic charities bore a significant burden in combating poverty among Palestinians, inviting the wrath of the Israeli intelligence and security apparatus, which couldn’t understand why the Palestinian society didn’t collapse under Israel’s harsh measures, including starving the masses in order to make them surrender to the will of the occupier.

Soon after charitable institutions were handed over to Fatah loyalists under American and Israeli insistence, most of these institutions went bankrupt due to two main reasons, financial mismanagement and refusal of donors, especially from Saudi Arabia and Arab Gulf states, to support the charities, mainly for mistrusting the new Fatah-dominated boards managing them.

There is no doubt that the current crisis could have serious negative consequences on the overall Palestinian cause as it could weaken the Palestinians’ ability to further withstand the Israeli occupation.

In the final analysis, hunger is the ultimate humilator, especially in the Palestinian context where a callous military occupier (Israel) is lying in wait for any sign that would make the Zionists move to their next step in their evil design to liquidate the Palestinian problem.

The current protests in occupied Palestine are unlikely to produce far-reaching consequences in terms of liberating the Palestinians from Zionist bullying.

After all, occupied Palestine is not Egypt or Tunisia since the final say belongs to Israel, not to the Palestinian masses, at least under the current circumstances. Hence, it would be misleading and naïve to expect the recurrence of the Arab Spring in occupied Palestine.

Indeed, despite its ills, defects and many blemishes, the PA is not the problem, but a reflection of the problem. The real problem is the Israeli occupation. In the final analysis, the PA is a slave to the Zionist master and is only carrying out its policies and instructions.

And even if the current wave of protests succeeded in overthrowing the Fayyad government, the same type of crises would still reproduce themselves thanks to the enduring factor of the Israeli occupation.

The PA is worried that the escalation of protest could undermine the stature and even survival of the PA and the PLO. The PA was always presented and portrayed as penultimate step before the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

However, many Palestinians have come to view the PA as a real obstacle impeding the creation of a viable and territorially contiguous state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Last week, a number of PLO officials warned that the two-state solution strategy was virtually dead. But the current PLO leadership, e.g. President Abbas and the coteries around him, seem to adamantly cling to the moribund peace process which is going nowhere except to the dustbin of history.

On the other hand, the PA is bidding on a speedy international intervention to bail it out and come to the rescue. Unfortunately, the PA seems correct in adopting this mode of thinking. In the final analysis, the survival of the PA is an American, European and above all Israeli interest. Hence, one could safely state that the American-dominated international community will not allow the current crisis in the occupied territories to go out of control.

Could it be that maintaining the PA is the most effective method of corroding and liquidating the Palestinian cause?

Photos of the protests   Click this link  for more photos of the protests

A Palestinian boy holds a poster replacing the eagle in the symbol of the Palestinian Authority with a chicken during a protest in the West Bank city of Bethlehem against the rising cost of living, September 10, 2012 . Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler for the AIC.

Nablus protest, PIC– Hundreds of citizens participated on Sunday afternoon in a rally in Nablus city calling for overthrowing the government of Salam Fayyad and revoking the Oslo and Paris conventions.

The protestors denounced the economic policy pursued by Fayyad which led to unbearable price hikes in the West Bank.

They chanted slogans demanding Fayyad to step down and the Palestinian authority to rescind its Oslo agreement with the Israeli occupation regime and its Paris economic agreement.

They considered these agreements and the US-backed government in Ramallah responsible for the deteriorating economic situation in the West Bank.

Angry protests, transport strike grip West Bank

By Tariq Kayal, AFP
September 10, 2012

HEBRON, Palestinian Territories — Some 2,000 Palestinians angry at the rising cost of living flooded the streets of Hebron on Monday, as a general strike halted public transport across the West Bank.

Clouds of black smoke poured into the air across the Israeli-occupied territory as furious demonstrators set light to tyres, kicking off a second week of protests against the spiralling cost of living, high petrol prices and unemployment.

In the southern city of Hebron, demonstrators took to the streets in the early morning, blocking main roads with boulders and burning tyres, which later degenerated into mass stone throwing at cars and the municipal building, an AFP correspondent reported.

They also hurled stones at Palestinian police and Israeli troops in the area.

“We demand that president (Mahmud) Abbas and prime minister (Salam) Fayyad resign and all of the Palestinian Authority because they have been unable to carry out their political and economic duties,” said 28-year-old Hebron resident Khaled Idriss told AFP.

Another man had come to protest with his donkey — the only form of affordable transport following the petrol price hikes.

“I didn’t come alone, I came with my donkey to show I am protesting against the rise in (petrol) prices,” said 32-year-old Fawaz al-Ragabi.

Public transport was at a complete halt throughout the West Bank as union bosses called a mass strike over the rising cost of petrol which has risen from six to eight shekels per litre in the past two months (from $1.50 to $2.00/1.18 to 1.57 euros).

With no buses, minibuses or taxis in operation, the streets were empty, and private cars were also barred from entering towns and cities by makeshift roadblocks.

At the Qalandia crossing between Ramallah and Jerusalem, small groups of bus and taxi drivers were on the lookout for any strike breakers.

“People need to appreciate what we are doing and they should support us because you shouldn’t be paying seven shekels ($1.8/1.4 euros) to get here from Ramallah,” one driver told AFP, without giving his name, saying the current price of 3.5 shekels was set to double.

So far, the police have looked on passively as thousands of demonstrators have protested over the past week, with spokesman Adnan Damiri saying they were not planning to intervene unless things got out of hand.

“We completely understand these protests, the president and the leadership’s instructions were clear and affirmed the peaceful nature of these protests,” he told AFP.

“We are not interested in clashing with the people because we don’t want to complicate things, but at the same time we are seeking to maintain the peace.”

However the protests triggered sharp criticism of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority from the rival Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip, with spokesman Fawzi Barhum saying they were a “natural reaction” to its “political and economic failure”.

“Abu Mazen (Abbas) has to respond quickly to the fair demands of the protesters and make them a priority, because responding to their daily needs is an act of nationalism,” he told AFP.

Much of the public anger over the cost of living has been directed at prime minister Salam Fayyad and his government, with many protesters calling for his resignation.

On Sunday, Fayyad and a group of ministers met with business and union leaders, the private sector and civil society groups to find ways of reducing prices and regulating salaries.

The recommendations are to be put to the cabinet on Tuesday.

The Palestinian Authority has also said it is seeking talks with Israel on amending the Paris Protocol, a key accord which has a direct impact on local taxes and fuel prices.

But an Israeli official said on Monday that the Palestinians were “not serious” about changing the accord and only looking to shift the blame for their economic problems onto Israel.

West Bank city hit by violent price protests

By Darren Whiteside and Noah Browning, Reuters UK
September 10, 2012

HEBRON, West Bank – Palestinian youths attacked a local police station and other government buildings in Hebron on Monday as protests against the rising cost of living in the occupied West Bank turned increasingly violent.

Several thousand people hurled stones at the Palestinian police station in the city after earlier clashes targeted municipal offices and fire trucks, witnesses said. Riot police fired tear gas to try to chase away the crowds. Several people were wounded, hospital officials said.

Stone throwing was also reported in Bethlehem and Nablus, while demonstrators set tyres alight on main roads into another major West Bank city — the administrative capital, Ramallah.

Small-scale protests sprung up last week following a five percent hike in fuel costs, but Monday’s violence suggested the spontaneous movement could spiral out of control, posing a major problem for the Western-backed Palestinian Authority (PA).

It is also likely cause alarm in Israel, where security chiefs have long warned of the risk of unrest at a time of growing economic hardship coupled with total paralysis in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Hebron Governor Kamel Hmeid told Palestine radio that “a lawless minority” were to blame for the clashes in the city, which has often been the scene of angry confrontations between Israeli settlers and Palestinian inhabitants.

Poor planning, tight Israeli controls and global economic worries have caused a marked slowdown in the Palestinian economy, with growth rates falling by half from the 9 percent increase in 2010.

The PA, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, has taken on increasing debt to plug its budget holes, but economists say the situation is unsustainable.

Arab Spring
Public transport workers staged a strike across the small territory on Monday to demand a cut in fuel costs, preventing many people from getting to their work, while a number of schools reported low attendance.

Taxi drivers blocked a road in front of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s Ramallah office, while dozens of youths urged him to “leave, leave,” echoing a slogan made popular in the Arab Spring uprisings that have unseated several Middle East governments.

“We’ll do anything, throw rocks, to get rid of the Fayyad government. They call it sabotage, but we’ll do whatever we need to get rid of him,” said 17-year-old Yizan Ruaismi.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas initially welcomed the protests, equating them with the Arab Spring but pinning the blame firmly on Israel for the economic turbulence.

However, public anger has so far been directed solely at his own administration, led by Fayyad, rather than at Israel.

When the Arab Spring first rippled across the Middle East last year, the Palestinian Territories remained quiet, with locals saying there was no appetite for fresh confrontation after decades of mainly fruitless rebellion against Israel.

But tensions have risen over the summer months, with Palestinians angry at continued deep schisms within their own political class, and frustrated at the growing cost of living.

Underlining the problems facing the cash-strapped PA, Finance Minister Nabil Kassis said on Monday that civil servants earning over 2,000 shekels ($502) a month would only receive part of their August pay because of on-going financial woes.

The PA’s budget problems, caused in part by a fall in aid donations, especially from Gulf states, has delayed salary payments for 153,000 civil servants several times already in 2012, with no solution in sight. ($1 = 3.979 shekels)

The Moribund Economy Brings Palestinians into the Streets

Frustration leads to public protests as the funds-bereft government stops issuing the paychecks that keep the Palestinian territories working

By Karl Vick, Time magazine
September 10, 2012

It’s not the formulation Karl Marx had in mind, but there’s no separating the economic from the political in the Palestinian territories just now. The latest revenue shortfall for the Palestinian National Authority has brought people into the streets, shutting down whole cities in the West Bank to protest new tax hikes, higher gasoline prices and yet another delay in the government paychecks that drive the local economy.

“We’re not going to pay full salaries this month, because we don’t have the money,” PA president Mahmoud Abbas confirmed at a news conference Saturday, after several days of protests across the West Bank, and also in the Gaza Strip. Abbas blamed the budget shortfall on laggard donor nations who either had failed to come through with promised cash – a group said to include several Arab states in the Gulf — or were holding back to punish the Palestinians for renewing their quest for recognition at the United Nations, where Abbas will speak later this month. Here the allusion was to Washington, where Congress has withheld $200 million in promised aid so far, and threatened to hold back more if the Palestinians continue their diplomatic offensive.

“There are people who want us to kneel down, and we won’t kneel down,” Abbas said: “’Don’t do this, don’t go there.’ “ The flash of defiance brought a smattering of applause from the audience, and a remonstration from the front: “You’re not supposed to applaud at a news conference,” Abbas said.

The jape, and other displays of good humor, did not go over well in the street, where the protests, though apparently numbering only in the hundreds, nonetheless were called the largest targeting the PA in its 18 year history. On Monday, downtown Ramallah was a ghost town, streets emptied by a transit strike and most stores shuttered. Among the few pedestrians was a middle-aged housewife helping her elderly mother down the sidewalk. “My husband sells coffee and tea in the streets and we are hardly making it in life,” Dalal Salamah Abu Halema, 43, told TIME. “What my husband earns is what we live off. He makes 50 shekels a day (about $12) and works from 3 a.m. till 8 p.m. All our life is azab and only azab,” she says, Arabic for “suffering.”

In Hebron, to the south, protesters chucked rocks at government buildings, including a fire station. In Bethlehem, the rocks were thrown at trucks blocking the street to enforce the transit strike. But in Ramallah’s central square, order was kept: The perhaps 30 demonstrators on hand were watched over by a state security contingent – leather jackets, intent looks — that numbered closer to 50.

“The people are upset about the economic situation because there are no solutions for the political situation,” says Mohammed Mahmoud, 38, who owns a Ramallah clothing store. “Our government failed to achieve anything political, and even feeding the people, they are failing.”

“All kinds of taxes have been imposed,” he says. “The only thing left is to have the PA put taxes on our asses.”

Like others in the square, Mahmoud carried a specific complaint of corruption, naming a government minister he said was drawing more than the $12,000 annual allowance the PA pays for rent. Wafa Hamdan, 55, says her problem is the minister who lives in a house she owns in neighboring al-Bireh. He’s been there 27 years, she says, and claims that makes it his. “He has not paid rent in one year. I don’t want his rent, either. I want him out. He has hurt me enough.”

Some are saying the same about the Palestinian Authority. Established by the Oslo Accords as a transition to eventual statehood, its placeholder status has proved unsatisfying to one and all. Today, the PA serves chiefly as an employer, its payroll of 154,000 driving the economy both on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip (where Hamas has ruled since 2007 but the PA continues to pay some 70,000 teachers and other civil servants who no longer actually have work).

“The commotion is legitimate,” Abbas says. He flat refused to sack his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, the former World Bank official protesters burned in effigy but whom Western donors regard as indispensable. Instead, Abbas said he was freezing most promotions and hiring, and naming a committee to explore options, including revisiting signed agreements that bind the Palestinian economy to Israel’s (an idea Israeli officials rejected out of hand).

Meanwhile, Abbas says he will press ahead with the renewed UN bid, risking the flow of donor cash in order to gain the standing – technically, “observer state” – that legal experts say will almost surely give Palestine jurisdiction in the international courts that, by all accounts, regard Israel’s settlements as illegal. The idea is to gain some much-needed leverage in a realm of politics that certainly exists – Israel’s angry objections testify to that – but a realm not visible at all from the streets where Hamdan, the irritated landlord, says she has seen people fishing stale bread out of dumpsters to make a meal.

“I know the price of going there,” Abbas says of the UN, “but I know the benefit for our people.”

Rami Nazzal contributed reporting from Ramallah

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