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Protests escalate as Palestinians hit back at economic stagnation

January 24, 2014 at 1:18 am

Days of demonstrations about price increases in the West Bank escalated yesterday, with protesters burning tyres and attempting to storm a government building.

Protests have been taking place for days in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarem and Jericho, although the biggest confrontations were in Hebron, the West Bank’s most volatile city. On Monday, several hundred protesters threw stones and rocks at a police station and municipal offices. Dozens of people – both police officers and protesters – were injured, and teargas was fired. Burning tyres have blocked roads across the West Bank, while a strike by the 24,000 members of the area’s public transport union has brought taxis and buses to a standstill.

There were two main triggers for the protests, both of which spring from the struggling economy. The first is the high cost of living. The cost of basic food has been steadily increasing, and recently, petrol prices went up by 5 per cent, to more than $2 a litre. This followed equivalent increases in Israel, which supplies fuel to the West Bank. The sudden hike illustrates a key problem: an agreement signed in 1994 giving Israel control over Palestine’s external trade means that prices in the West Bank are similar to Israel’s, while wages are around a third.

The second trigger was the announcement by the Palestinian Authority that it is unable to pay salaries owed to its 153,000 employees due to a shortfall in aid donations. Unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza is more than 20 per cent, according to the World Bank, with the figure rising to almost 35 per cent among young people. Israeli restrictions make the growth of the Palestinian private sector (which would reduce the dependence on aid money) nigh on impossible.

Yesterday’s violence in Hebron – targeted, as it was, against a municipal office and a police station – was significant because it was aimed at a symbol of Palestinian self-rule. Generally, Palestinian protests are directed against Israel, which has occupied the West Bank since 1967, retaining full control over 60 per cent of the area and security control even over the areas governed by the Palestinian Authority.

The combination of high unemployment and an increasing cost of living is common to many of the countries in the region which were part of last year’s Arab Spring. Indeed, Palestinian leaders initially supported the unrest as a chance to attract international attention to the ailing economy, restrained by strict Israeli control of the movement of people and goods. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas described it as a “Palestinian Spring”, drawing a comparison to last year’s protests, which saw dictators toppled across the Middle East.

Another reason that he supported the protests at first was factionalism. The main target of anger from the demonstrators was Salam Fayyad, the independent prime minister. A US-trained economist popular in the west, he is disliked by both main Palestinian political factions, Fatah and Hamas, with many believing he has co-operated too closely with Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party. Though credited with improving economic governance in the West Bank, he has been forced to implement austerity measures due to the aid shortfall, which has done nothing to improve his popularity. Protesters in several cities have burnt posters of Fayyad and demanded that he resign. Although those in Abbas’s Fatah faction may have initially encouraged the protests against Fayyad in order to embarrass the president’s main rival, this may be backfiring. Protesters are now attacking corruption and calling for Abbas to resign.

A clear sign of concern that the protests are spinning out of control came today when Fayyad announced a package of emergency economic measures. These include a VAT cut, a cancellation of recent price rises in fuel and cooking gas, a promise to pay half of the salaries due to public employees by Wednesday, and “progressive deductions” from the salaries of senior officials including ministers. He also called on neighbouring Arab states to increase aid to the Palestinian Authority. Whether these measures are enough to stop the unrest remains to be seen.

Middle East analysts have been warning for some time that the total lack of political progress in the conflict and growing frustration could mean that Palestinians could turn on their own security forces. The fact that these forces are seen as helping to protect Israel certainly does not help. Given the circumstances that people endure in the Palestinian Territories, and the total lack of change or resolution on the horizon, frustration and anger are inevitable. Indeed, some have argued that the only reason it took so long for protests to take off was confusion over whom to direct this anger against: the Palestinian leadership that has limited control, or the Israeli occupying force. How the unrest plays out over the next few days and weeks will tell us whether the frustration turns against Israel, as it has in the past, whether it continues to be directed at members of Palestine’s own government, or whether the emergency measures announced today are enough to ease the immediate economic pressure. What these protests have shown, without doubt, is that economic stagnation and political deadlock cannot continue indefinitely without the people beginning to hit back.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.