The Moribund Economy Brings Palestinians into the Streets

Frustration leads to public protests as the fund-bereft government stops issuing paychecks that keep the Palestinian territories working

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Bernat Armangue / AP

Palestinian demonstrators throw shoes at a picture of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad during a protest against the high cost of living in the West Bank city of Hebron on Sept. 10, 2012

It’s not the formulation Karl Marx had in mind, but there’s no separating the economic from the political in the Palestinian territories just now. The latest revenue shortfall for the Palestinian National Authority (PA) has brought people into the streets, shutting down whole cities in the West Bank to protest new tax hikes, higher gasoline prices and yet another delay in the government paychecks that drive the local economy.

“We’re not going to pay full salaries this month, because we don’t have the money,” PA President Mahmoud Abbas confirmed at a news conference on Saturday, after several days of protests across the West Bank and also in the Gaza Strip. Abbas blamed the budget shortfall on laggard donor nations that either had failed to come through with promised cash — a group said to include several Arab states in the Gulf — or were holding back to punish the Palestinians for renewing their quest for recognition at the U.N., where Abbas will speak later this month. Here the allusion was to Washington, where Congress has withheld $200 million in promised aid so far and threatened to hold back more if the Palestinians continue their diplomatic offensive.

“There are people who want us to kneel down, and we won’t kneel down,” Abbas said. “’Don’t do this, don’t go there.'” The flash of defiance brought a smattering of applause from the audience and a remonstration from the front: “You’re not supposed to applaud at a news conference,” Abbas said.

The jape, and other displays of good humor, did not go over well in the streets, where the protests, though apparently numbering only in the hundreds, nonetheless were called the largest targeting the PA in its 18-year history. On Monday, downtown Ramallah was a ghost town, streets emptied by a transit strike and most stores shuttered. Among the few pedestrians was a middle-aged housewife helping her elderly mother down the sidewalk. “My husband sells coffee and tea in the streets and we are hardly making it in life,” Dalal Salamah Abu Halema, 43, told TIME. “What my husband earns is what we live off. He makes 50 shekels a day [about $12] and works from 3 a.m. till 8 p.m. All our life is azab and only azab,” she said, Arabic for “suffering.”

In Hebron, to the south, protesters chucked rocks at government buildings, including a fire station. In Bethlehem, the rocks were thrown at trucks blocking the street to enforce the transit strike. But in Ramallah’s central square, order was kept: the perhaps 30 demonstrators on hand were watched over by a state security contingent — leather jackets, intent looks — that numbered closer to 50.

“The people are upset about the economic situation because there are no solutions for the political situation,” says Mohammed Mahmoud, 38, who owns a Ramallah clothing store. “Our government failed to achieve anything political, and even feeding the people, they are failing.”

“All kinds of taxes have been imposed,” he says. “The only thing left is to have the PA put taxes on our asses.”

Like others in the square, Mahmoud carried a specific complaint of corruption, naming a government minister he said was drawing more than the $12,000 annual allowance the PA pays for rent. Wafa Hamdan, 55, says her problem is the minister who lives in a house she owns in neighboring al-Bireh. He’s been there 27 years, she says, and claims that makes it his. “He has not paid rent in one year. I don’t want his rent, either. I want him out. He has hurt me enough.”

Some are saying the same about the Palestinian Authority. Established by the Oslo accords as a transition to eventual statehood, its placeholder status has proved unsatisfying to one and all. Today, the PA serves chiefly as an employer, its payroll of 154,000 driving the economy both in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (where Hamas has ruled since 2007, though the PA continues to pay some 70,000 teachers and other civil servants who no longer actually have work).

“The commotion is legitimate,” Abbas said. He flatly refused to sack his Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, the former International Monetary Fund official protesters burned in effigy but whom Western donors regard as indispensable. Instead, Abbas said he was freezing most promotions and hiring, and naming a committee to explore options, including revisiting signed agreements that bind the Palestinian economy to Israel’s (an idea Israeli officials rejected as out of hand).

Meanwhile, Abbas said he would press ahead with the renewed U.N. bid, risking the flow of donor cash in order to gain the standing — technically, “observer state” — that legal experts say will almost surely give Palestine jurisdiction in the international courts that, by all accounts, regard Israel’s settlements as illegal. The idea is to gain some much needed leverage in a realm of politics that certainly exists — Israel’s angry objections testify to that — but a realm not visible at all from the streets where Hamdan, the irritated landlord, says she has seen people fishing stale bread out of dumpsters to make a meal.

“I know the price of going there,” Abbas said of the U.N., “but I know the benefit for our people.”

— With reporting by Rami Nazzal / Ramallah