The Palestinian Authority (PA) is facing the severest political and economic crisis since its establishment following the Oslo Accords in 1993 as tens of thousands of Palestinians have been taking to the streets, protesting the high costs of living and demanding the downfall of the Ramallah regime.
In Hebron, the largest district in the West Bank, as many as 40,000 protesters demonstrated Monday against the government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad along with PA President Mahmoud Abbas. “Fayyad: leave, leave, leave. The people wants you no more!” and “The people want to topple the president!” were chanted recurrently.
Some protesters hurled stones at the municipal building, smashing glass. Others attacked a police station on the main Ein Sara Street, prompting the police to fire tear gas at the crowd. No serious injuries were reported.
Police Chief Ramadan Awadh called the protesters “renegades and infiltrators”. “For God’s sake. Who benefits from these acts of sabotage and vandalism?” he asked.
Ramadan, like other PA officials, said the masses had a right to demonstrate and protest the economic crisis. However, he warned that Palestinian security forces would use an iron fist approach against those who resorted to violence.
In Nablus, in the northern West Bank, violent protests took place in the city centre, also on Monday, evolving into a confrontation with the police. Gunfire was not used, but as many as 20 people suffered light to moderate injuries from stones hurled by both protesters and the police.
In several other localities, an “Intifada-like atmosphere” was discernible as local youths burned tires, blocked streets and hurled stones at passing cars. Sporadic strikes were also observed, including one by the drivers of yellow taxi cars, protesting phenomenally high fuel prices, which observers contend may be among the world’s highest.
Protesters, who are not affiliated with a single political faction, are vowing to keep up the pressure until their demands are met. Their demands include the sacking of the Fayyad government and the annulment of the 1994 Paris Economic Protocol, which critics say put the entire Palestinian economy at Israel’s mercy.
Protesters also demand an “immediate answer” to their crippling financial problems. They complain that no matter how hard they try to “tighten their belts” to make ends meet, they fail to make a decent living due to unprecedented high prices, rampant inflation, high costs of living, and the dwindling real value of their originally meagre salaries.
Most Palestinian civil servants receive monthly salaries ranging from 2500-3000 Israeli Shekels, or roughly $650-750. The sum might look perfectly acceptable for citizens of many Third World — including Arab — countries. However, when set against obscenely high consumer goods and services prices in the occupied territories, the real scope of the crisis becomes apparent.
For example, the price of a 13-kilogramme Butane cooking gas cylinder is nearly $20 while the price of a litre of unleaded gasoline surpasses the $2 limit. The prices of food commodities have also skyrocketed in recent months, with a kilo of lamb reaching $19, and a kilo of ground beef passing $15.
This in addition to phenomenally high prices of water, electricity and especially college education, with numerous Palestinian families forced to choose between putting food on the table and sending their children to university.
The PA hopes that the current crises will prompt donor countries to come to the rescue.
Fayyad has called repeatedly for help, rightly blaming the economic and financial problems of Palestinians on the continuance of the Israeli occupation. “We sometimes tend to forget that our Palestinian Authority is under Israeli occupation. Some people think that we are free to do what we want. They should know that Israel controls everything,” he said.
However, Fayyad’s explanations have failed to sufficiently satisfy an increasingly restive Palestinian public, let alone sceptics who had never been comfortable with his “Western policies”. In his numerous interviews, Fayyad said he would resign if his resignation would help solve the problem. He scoffed at those demanding the cancellation or renegotiation of the Paris Economic Protocol, arguing that the protocol served Palestinian interests.
With public distrust of his policies mounting, Fayyad still retains two bargaining chips: first, he can argue he is but a technocrat carrying out the policies and instructions of the PA and that he never initiated policies or took measures against the wishes of the political leadership, namely President Abbas. In his speech in Ramallah earlier this week, Abbas reasserted his support and backing of Fayyad, saying that the premier was an integral part of the PA and was implementing its policies.
The second and probably more significant bargaining card lies in the fact that Fayyad is backed by donor countries upon whose handouts the very survival of the PA depends. It is widely believed that donor countries view the continued presence of Fayyad at the helm of government in Ramallah is a guarantee against mushrooming corruption within the PA.
Indeed, a rash decision by Abbas to fire Fayyad could have serious ramifications in terms of continued American and EU aid to the Ramallah regime. Abbas is not in a position to challenge, or even seriously oppose, the dictates and instructions of donor countries. Hence, any decision to sack Fayyad wouldn’t be easily taken, to say the least.
In his Ramallah speech, Abbas blamed Arab states and the international community for letting the stalled peace process “reach this point”. He angrily blamed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, without naming him, for saying that Egypt was “standing at the same distance from Hamas and Fatah”.
Some of Abbas’s harshest words were reserved for Hamas, barely stopping short of blaming all PA ills and troubles on the Islamist movement. He said Hamas had two choices: either allow elections to take place under current circumstances, or forget about reconciliation with Fatah. Hamas is worried that the PA and Israel would falsify any elections and is demanding guarantees that would ensure transparency.
Drawing a bleak picture of the political situation and Israeli intransigence, Abbas said he might resort to making decisions that never normally come to mind. Some observers suggest that Abbas might be alluding to the possibility of dissolving the PA regime. However, Abbas has in the past made numerous threats to resign and dismantle the PA, none of which came to anything.
Abbas flew to India on a scheduled visit, protests spread all over the West Bank, with protesters demanding “tangible answers” not “jokes”. Abbas’s speech was pitted with light moments that many Palestinians interpreted as failure on the part of Abbas to appreciate the severity and gravity of the current crisis.
* Khalid Amayreh a journalist based in the Occupied Palestinian town of Dura. He obtained his MA in journalism from the University of Southern Illinois in 1983.