Palestinian Civil Servants in West Bank Ready for Strike

PA employees protest new gov't measure to combat water, electricity bill dodging, demand wage hike.

Palestinian Authority public sector employees in the West Bank are expected to open a two-day strike on Wednesday, in protest of employment conditions.

Aside from a salary increase, the employees are demanding that PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's government rescind a decision providing basic government services (such as identity cards) only to citizens who can show proof of having paid their water and electricity bills, and municipal tax.

PA employees want a comprehensive wage raise to tackle the increasing cost of living. Travel expenses in the West Bank have also risen sharply, due to the recent proliferation of Israel Defense Forces roadblocks. The roadblocks have led to greater use of taxicabs than before, and have also resulted in a rise in petrol costs.

A Nablus teacher who earns NIS 2000 a month said her travel expenses budget - which stands at NIS 140 - has not been raised since 1999, though in practice she spends roughly NIS 300 per month on travel.

The current protest was triggered mostly by a new government decision to cover the staggering deficit of the water and electricity suppliers.

Over the past seven years, and especially in the 2006-7 fiscal year, when salaries were irregularly paid due to external blockades, many Palestinians have failed to pay their bills and suppliers are currently short of some $500 million.

Ramallah has decided to take action, and Salam Fayyad - who serves as both finance minister and prime minister - has declared war on what he calls "the culture of bill dodging."

To this end, people will be required to show proof of payment before receiving governmental services, and outstanding debts will be deducted from civil servants' salaries.

Palestinian trade unions called the move an illegal measure which fails to address the financial plight of a large proportion of the public and does not allow gradual payment.

The teachers' union said that a number of requests to meet Fayyad have been ignored.

All state schools teachers went on strike on Monday, following a teachers' union order, and they intend to resume their protest next week. Health services employees have also said they will strike.

Fayyad, for his part, said earlier this week that since government funds are channeled to cover the deficit, the cabinet entitled to take alternative measures when needed.

Fayyad also said he is amazed at the public uproar, and that the government has asked the water and electricity suppliers to make allowances for their debtors' financial status.