Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 February 2011
Issue No. 1084
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Palestinians protest against Fayyad's austerity measures

A new special operations unit in the Israeli army, to be led by a general adept at kidnappings and assassinations, is being formed to counter the repercussions of the Arab Spring, writes Saleh Al-Naami

Click to view caption
Palestinian demonstrators take a break after clashes with Israeli soldiers during a protest against the expansion of the nearby Jewish settlement of Halamish in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, near Ramallah

Despite the dramatic signing in Doha of the latest power-sharing accords between Fatah and Hamas, economic woes and worsening living conditions continued to be the main immediate preoccupation for the bulk of Palestinians, hard-hit by hyper-inflation, high consumer prices, rampant joblessness and dwindling incomes.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad admitted this week that the Palestinian Authority (PA) was thoroughly fettered with Israeli restrictions to the point that the PA was unable to function properly and meet its obligations towards its own citizens.

However, Fayyad, who was speaking during a celebration marking the Prophet Mohamed's birthday at An-Najah National University in Nablus, said the Palestinian people would have to maintain their steadfastness and resilience no matter what the Israelis did to thwart the "Palestinian nation enterprise".

Fayyad exhorted the Palestinians to draw lessons from the "tenacity, perseverance and resilience" that the prophet and his companions displayed in the face of suffering, abject poverty and unbearable living conditions.

"We must take inspiration from the Prophet's life in order to overcome this ordeal, this crushing financial crisis that we face. We must also seek social justice and a more equitable distribution of the burdens of the occupation, its oppression, practices and designs."

Fayyad, a secular-minded Western-educated economist, is not particularly known for adopting an Islamic economic agenda. However, his growing references to social justice and societal solidarity seem to reflect the depth of the economic predicament facing the PA.

What's more, many Palestinian intellectuals and public opinion leaders are worried that the economic burden might be taking priority over the national burden, namely efforts to liberate Palestinians from the clutches of the sinister Israeli occupation.

This week, a West Bank newspaper featured a cartoon caricaturing the Palestinians raising the following slogan: "We are marching to the banks, borrowers in the millions." The line is a distortion of a famous slogan by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat: "To Jerusalem, we are marching, martyrs in the millions."

The cartoon's message is far from being far-fetched or even unrealistic. According to reliable sources within the banking industry in the West Bank, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Palestinian wage earners -- especially government employees -- are indebted to banks for hundreds of millions of dollars, or more, in unpaid loans.

The sources pointed out that numerous Palestinians received loans, allowing the banks to slash a large chunk of a client's salary at the end of each month, causing a serious strain to the budgets of many Palestinian families.

In many instances, debtors have been evicted from their rented homes, sold their furniture, or even been sent to jail for failing to meet their obligations. There have also been a small number of cases where people facing a desperate financial situation tried to commit suicide.

Social scientists and economic experts are worried that the current socio-economic crisis could get out of control and lead to upheaval, even a revolution, this time not against Israel, but against the PA.

In fact, the early portents of this upheaval or revolution were seen this week as thousands of ordinary Palestinians took part in marches in a number of major West Bank towns. The marchers demanded the resignation of the Fayyad government due to its unpopular economic and social policies.

According to various sources, rallies were organised this week near simultaneously in Nablus, Hebron and Ramallah where protesters chanted slogans against the Ramallah government. Some protesters described the Fayyad government as a mere "tax collector" and "sub-contractor" working for Israel.

Again, the PA correctly blames Israel for controlling all the organs through which the Palestinian economy breathes, including border crossings, import-export processes, and frequent Israeli incursions and raids into the heart of Palestinian population centres. These arrangements, which allow Israel to hold the entire Palestinian economy by the throat, are sanctioned by the Paris Economic Protocol reached between Israel and the PA in 2004.

Critics of the status quo argue that the mere survival of the PA must not be at the expense of the Palestinian people's aspirations for freedom and liberty, including a semblance of economic independence. They argue that if need be the PA should think seriously of dissolving itself in order to rid itself of subservience to -- and unending blackmail by -- Israel.

Fayyad has proposed a series of steps he hopes will help him sell his austerity measures to an increasingly sceptical public. These include holding "caucuses" and "community meetings" all over the occupied territories in order to enable ordinary people to voice their views to the government, and vice versa. In all likelihood, the government will be bombarded with scathing criticisms and grievances from people attending these meetings.

Further, the possible departure of Fayyad as a result of the Doha meeting between Fatah and Hamas could further complicate the situation, and even make it incendiary. PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who will assume the premiership in Ramallah, will be under immense pressure to meet the immediate needs of an impatient populace. This could force Abbas into conceding to the Israelis and budging, more than before, to "proposals in the form of dictates" from the Americans and Europeans on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In turn, this could lead to an incendiary situation in the occupied territories, as a majority of Palestinians reject any notion of compromising their basic rights -- including the right to have a viable state on 100 per cent of the territories occupied in 1967 -- even under pressure of poverty.

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