Palestinian PM responds to unrest with economic program

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the key target of nine days of socio-economic protests throughout the West Bank, responded on Tuesday to some of the demands that have been prominent during the course of demonstrations that have become increasingly violent in recent days. Calls were heard for Fayyad’s resignation while his effigies burned in the streets. On Tuesday, protests continued as hundreds of government workers demonstrated in front of the prime minister’s office in Ramallah. At the same time, PA security officials fear Hamas is using the unrest to weaken Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Fayyad told reporters at his Ramallah office following a cabinet meeting devoted to the spreading unrest that the cabinet decided government workers would receive half of their still-unpaid August salaries by September 12th, with a minimum of NIS2,000 (about $505), and will set the goal of paying the other half within two weeks.

Ministers were also told to reduce their budgets and expenses, with the exception of the health, education and social affairs ministries. The decision included targeting the salaries and expense accounts of PA ministers and senior officials for deductions of 10%. The value-added tax, now 15.5%, will be reduced to 15% at the start of October. The price of diesel fuel, cooking gas and kerosene will revert to August prices as of September 12.

Immediate reaction to the Fayyad measures was mixed, some supporting the first tangible action while arguing the plan failed to go far enough. Hasan Khureisha, a former Palestinian Legislative Council member, said in an interview with Palestinian television that “it is a step on the right direction. The most important measure is the reduction of the senior officials’ high salaries, which I wished to be deducted to 30-40%, and not only 10%, because their salaries are very high.”        

Palestinian businessman Bassem Khoury criticized Fayyad, arguing that the prime minister should have taken the measures before the mass protests began.

Ibrahim Awadallah, who heads the bus syndicate, told The Media Line that Fayyad’s measures, which are “not enough at all,” were intended to derail the protest movement. He vowed to continue the demonstrations until a greater response from the government is forthcoming. According to Awadallah, Palestinian citizens “are demanding more than Fayyad has offered and expect to see fruitful results from Fayyad’s measures. What he brought us [so far] does not reach the minimum expected.”

Awadallah declared Monday’s transit strike that saw 10,500 taxis and 1,000 buses come to a standstill a success because the people conveyed to the government that “we are ready for more escalated protests.” He cites the demands as “the reduction of fuel prices, lowering of the VAT and insurance fees.” Awadallah claims there is no money left for bus owners after spending 85% of income on fuel, the other 15% is not enough to cover the cost of insurance, taxes, development and maintenance.”

Awadallah insisted to The Media Line that the strike is strictly over financial, not political, issues. “For the first time in our history we hear that some Palestinians tried to burn themselves in West Bank cities last week, which is a sign of how much the economic situation has become unbearable.”

One slogan that appeared at rallies was, “Only in Palestine: the expense of living in Paris with the salaries of Somalia.”

Ghassan Khassib, a 38-year old taxi driver from Al-Bireh, told The Media Line that he was surprised by the success of the public transportation strike. “It was 99.9% successful,” he said. “It reminded me of the first Intifada, but it was better organized.”

A senior Palestinian Authority security official who spoke to The Media Line on the condition of anonymity said he has been unable to sleep because of the impact of the financial crisis on his personnel, and calls from West Bank residents asking that their property be protected from demonstrators protesting Fayyad economic policies.

Perhaps more ominously, another official who asked that his name be withheld for reasons of his safety, said Hamas loyalists were seen addressing crowds at rallies while Hebron Fatah leader Kifah Oweiwi told The Media Line that Hamas members were among the throng that attacked a police station where 35 officers were injured by rock-throwing.