After a long, hot summer, tensions inside the Palestinian West Bank are reaching boiling point. Protests over rising living costs began last Wednesday and have escalated day-by-day with burning tyres and road blocks restricting movement on major arterial roads in scenes that some are comparing to the beginning of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987.

On Monday, 24,000 striking public transport workers joined taxi drivers to close down the West Bank’s major towns, cities and refugee camps. Thousands marched in Hebron, the West Bank’s largest city, with some hurling rocks at policeman from the Palestinian Authority, before being dispersed with tear gas. Nablus also witnessed clashes between demonstrators and police.

The Palestinian Authority has condemned any violence as the work of an extremist minority and at a press conference on Saturday, inside Ramallah’s fortified al-Mukata presidential compound, PA President Mahmoud Abbas acknowledged popular discontent. However, he ignored the fact his administration is the target of the protesters’ ire — seeking to shift their focus onto the economic burden of Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian territories.

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So far, the protesters’ main demand is the resignation of Salam Fayyad, Abbas’ unelected prime minister, who oversaw an increase in taxes last month. Fayyad, a faithful neo-conservative economist tasked with developing the Palestinian economy by nurturing a foetal private sector, remains in his job for now. For how long remains to be seen, as Abbas will no doubt begin to feel his man is compromising what little legitimacy he has left, should the protests continue.

By targeting Fayyad, protesters are, by proxy, targeting his political patron Abbas and the effectiveness of his government. In the past 18 months two protests directed against Abbas and the PA have been heavily suppressed by Palestinian police, which could explain the reason that in Ramallah, where the PA’s control is strongest, demonstrators are calling for the ousting of Fayyad, while in Hebron and Nablus the people in the street are reportedly targeting Abbas.

Despite Fayyad’s five years in the prime ministership, which until recently also included the post of finance minister, a donor-reliant civil service remains the biggest employer in the Palestinian territories. Government workers are still awaiting their August salaries. The PA, which is largely funded by the United States and European Union, blames the withholding of monies by the US, whose Congress is punishing the Palestinians for last year’s attempt at gaining recognition of statehood from the United Nations, and from unpaid pledges from some Gulf States.

The PA has scrambled to provide civil servants with cash. On Monday, Fayyad announced that Wednesday would see unpaid workers receive half of their wage — 2000 shekels (the equivalent of $500) — in an attempt to stimulate a degree of economic activity within the West Bank and quell some of the unrest. The direction of protests following the payment remains to be seen. Should the measure be effective and the crowds dissipate, events of the past few days will remain a stark warning for those in the PA hierarchy paying lip service to the Palestinian plight while seemingly enjoying the benefits of political office with little visible work being done to further their cause.

While the mood on the street is one of frustration at the corruption and ineffectiveness of their political leadership, Abbas’ point about Israel’s occupation has credence. Agriculture, the traditional base of economic activity for Palestinian society, has been squeezed by Israel’s occupation. Water scarcity, restrictions on movement and harvesting, the demolition of infrastructure and skewed competition with Israeli products have all combined to place an ever-increasing burden on Palestinian farmers — not to mention Israel’s colonising settlement project, which often sees the seizure of prime agricultural land and violence between communities.

The realpolitik of the Oslo Accords and the so-called “peace process”, signed in the early 1990s to much international fanfare, which established the Palestinian Authority as a temporary administrative body to oversee the negotiation of a final agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, was a masterstroke in furthering the interests of an expansionist Israeli state. Under the accords, the PA is responsible for policing major population centres while Israel maintains a direct military occupation over more than 60% of the West Bank, including the strategically important Jordan Valley. To a large extent the PA has kept its end of the bargain, tackling militancy and largely disarming the Palestinian population.

Economically, Oslo adopted the Paris protocol, which sees Israel collect and distribute taxation monies on behalf of the PA — invariably withholding them when Israel’s political leadership feels business in the territories is not being conducted in their interests. The PA’s leadership is hamstrung over controlling commodity prices, unable to set tariffs on goods lower than those of Israel.

Despite the role of Israel and its occupation in creating the squeeze, Palestinians continue to target their own political leadership. Fayyad’s announcement, on Tuesday, that last month’s tax increases would be abandoned and value-added tax on goods reduced to 15% will certainly not remove discontent while Israel continues to hold the economic, political and military aces.

But why should Israelis care? They remain safe behind the concrete walls and fences encircling the Gaza Strip and the West Bank content to let the Palestinians fight among themselves.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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