Palestinian Cost-of-living Protesters Just Want to See Some Heads Roll

Thousands have taken to the streets of Ramallah to call on PM Fayyad to resign, but everybody admits that even if he stands down things will remain the same.

The social protests in the West Bank yesterday racked up their first achievement: Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced a series of measures aimed at easing his countrymen's economic distress.

A recent increase in the price of fuel will be canceled, he said, while value-added tax will be cut by one percentage point, to 15 percent. In addition, all PA employees will immediately be paid NIS 2,000 of their August salaries, which haven't been paid yet because of the PA's financial crisis, and the PA will try to pay half their salaries next week. Finally, Fayyad said, the PA will work to keep merchants from raising prices, including by imposing price controls on staple products.

These measures appear to have assuaged, at least temporarily, some of the anger in the West Bank - which, unusually, had been directed at the PA, and at Fayyad personally, rather than at Israel. Though demonstrations resumed throughout the West Bank after this announcement, they were much more subdued than they were Monday night, when dozens of demonstrators clashed with PA security forces.

But what these decisions mean is that the PA will now be subsidizing fuel prices. It originally raised these prices because the price of fuel in Israel had gone up, and it will still have to pay its Israeli suppliers the higher price even if it charges consumers less. It will also be subsidizing the cost of various other products bought from Israel, since VAT in Israel was recently raised from 16 to 17 percent.

To pay for all this, Fayyad announced an across-the-board cut in the budgets of all PA ministries except health and welfare.

At a press conference convened after yesterday's PA cabinet meeting, Fayyad stressed that his resignation - which demonstrators have demanded repeatedly - wouldn't solve the problem. The main reason for the PA's financial crisis, he said, is that donor states, and particularly Arab countries, haven't sent the money they promised. Thus, the PA is now negotiating with Israel to get an advance on money Israel owes it, he said, and is also asking donor states for an immediate cash infusion.

But while Palestinians have a right to demonstrate, he added, the PA will not allow rioting or vandalism against PA institutions.

In the wake of yesterday's announcements, Fayyad faces two problems. One is that the new measures may make it even harder for his government to pay its debts to suppliers and its employees' salaries. Thus the PA's deficit, which currently stands at $2.3 billion, is liable to grow even bigger.

His other problem, which may be even more critical, is the double game PA President Mahmoud Abbas is playing with him.

On Saturday, Abbas convened a press conference in Ramallah in which he ostensibly gave Fayyad full backing: Neither Fayyad nor his cabinet were responsible for the recent price hikes, Abbas said, pointing out that he himself gave the orders to the government. But over the past two days, no other senior member of Abbas' Fatah party has come to Fayyad's defense. In fact, many are joining in the attacks against him.

For instance, Tawfik Tirawi, a member of Fatah's central committee, accused Fayyad of responsibility for the current economic crisis even though he knows it isn't true. Azzam al-Ahmad, a close associate of Abbas, declared yesterday that the measures just announced by Fayyad are positive but insufficient. Some of the trade unions behind the recent demonstrations are also controlled by Fatah.

All are seeking to undermine the prestige that Fayyad enjoyed until recently among the Palestinian public. And where is Abbas while all this is happening? Overseas again, this time on a state visit to India.

Yesterday morning, about 1,000 people demonstrated in Ramallah - first opposite the Prime Minister's Office, then opposite parliament, and finally in Manara Square. Over and over, the protesters called for Fayyad's ouster.

Mohammed Thawabteh, 24, came on a bus filled with demonstrators from Beit Fajar organized by the local union. A recent graduate of Bethlehem University, he complained that "some 40,000 students graduated this year, but the PA had only 900 jobs to offer."

Unemployment in the PA is rising, and, unusually, the rate is higher among people with college degrees.

"We want them to fight unemployment and lower the prices of staple goods," Thawabteh told Haaretz. "We want the government to resign, and also Fayyad. We're not against him, but against his policies."

But his policy isn't his, it's Abbas' policy.

"No, it's his. Since he took office, the price of a liter of gas has risen from NIS 5 to NIS 8, so he's responsible. Prices here are crazy."

But that's because prices in Israel are crazy - what do you want from Fayyad? Perhaps it's because he's not from Fatah?

"No, we weren't organized by Fatah. We want the PA to cancel the Paris Protocol" - the economic agreement with Israel.

But what would a new government do? It would continue the same policies. And what if Israel doesn't agree to cancel the Paris agreements?

To that, Thawabteh had no answer. So he summoned Ali Thawabteh, deputy head of the Beit Fajar workers' union.

"We don't want to topple the government, but to lower prices," the unionist said. "In Israel, a worker gets NIS 300-400 per day. Here, it's NIS 50. We don't have proper health insurance. The PA helps with welfare payments to the poor, but it's not enough. Even the price of cigarettes has gone up from NIS 10 to NIS 15 per pack. Chicken and meat prices have risen. It's impossible to buy meat."

Saeb Issawi, a fruit seller from the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, also compared his salary to salaries in Israel: "The average Israeli earns NIS 5,000 a month. Here, it's 2,000. The minute the money enters the bank, it's gone."

In the West Bank, a liter of gas costs NIS 7.98. So why, Issawi demanded, "is the price of a liter of gas in Gaza only NIS 3?"

Because there are tunnels there.


So let's say the government falls. What then?

"Apparently nothing," he admitted. "They'll do exactly the same thing."