A Palestinian holding up a pita bread during a protest against the high cost of living
A Palestinian holding up a pita bread during a protest against the high cost of living in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Photo by Reuters
Text size

Economic protests in the West Bank are gaining steam: Thousands of people demonstrated throughout the territory on Wednesday to protest the high cost of living, and especially the recent increase in fuel prices.

The increase in the cost of fuel stems from the recent hike of fuel prices in Israel, where the Palestinian Authority buys its fuel.

Demonstrators denounced Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, even burning copies of his picture, and demanded that the government step down. They also urged the PA to cancel the 1994 Paris Protocol, which created a customs union with Israel.

Bus, truck and taxi drivers went on strike for one hour as part of the protests, effectively shutting down the West Bank's public transportation system.

One 30-year-old man tried to set himself and his 6-year-old daughter on fire in Ramallah's Manara Square, but was stopped by fellow demonstrators who jumped on him after he doused himself and the girl with fuel to keep him from lighting it.

Hasan Qahwaji's attempt to set himself on fire was the third such attempt in the territories of the last week. On Monday, Ehab Abu Nada, 18, of the al-Shati refugee camp near Gaza City died of his injuries after having set himself on fire a few days earlier to protest his family's economic distress. On Tuesday, Khaled Abu Rabee, a 42-year-old father of 10 from the al-Fawwar refugee camp near Hebron, tried to set himself ablaze in front of Hebron's city hall to protest his economic troubles, but an alert security guard outside the building managed to stop him before he actually lit the fuel.

Qahwaji claimed that he had asked the PA to help him finance medical treatment for his daughter, but that it had refused. PA President Mahmoud Abbas' office denied this, saying that not only did the PA offer financial help, but so did the king of Jordan. It said the PA also arranged the necessary permits for Qahwaji and his daughter to leave the Gaza Strip, where they live, and come to the West Bank for treatment.

Earlier this week, the PA tried to appease demonstrators by saying it was considering buying fuel from Arab states instead of Israel. But it signed a new agreement with Israeli fuel suppliers just a few months ago that obligates it to buy Israeli fuel for at least the next two years.

The West Bank's economy has slowed noticeably this year. Growth so far this year has been about five percent, much lower than in 2008-2010. The unemployment rate is 18 percent, and most of the unemployed are university graduates who haven't been able to find suitable work.

Moreover, the situation is expected to worsen in the coming months, due to the PA's severe fiscal crisis. Because of this crisis - which stems largely from a decline in international donations, particularly from Arab states - the PA is having trouble paying both its workers and its suppliers. It therefore plans to seek additional aid at a conference of donor states later this month.