Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad attempted to contain mounting domestic pressure in the West Bank on Tuesday by announcing a series of limited austerity measures. But the public protests across the West Bank that turned violent on Monday are no longer directed at Fayyad alone and may have already spun out of control, Palestinian observers say.
“The people demand an end to Oslo,” hundreds of demonstrators in Ramallah shouted Tuesday afternoon, some holding signs reading, “No to the agreements of shame” — a reference to the Paris Protocol of 1994, which binds the Palestinian economy to Israel’s and which many Palestinians regard as the source of their economic woes.
In the West Bank city of Tulkarm, a press camera captured another demonstrator’s sign that read, “The price hike is the final nail in the government’s coffin.”
In Nablus, protesters on Saturday shouted “Get out, Abbas” and “We don’t trust you, President, may God curse you.”
“I fear this may be the start of something big, even a third Intifada,” Nashat Aqtash, a communications professor at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, told The Times of Israel. “Fayyad’s announcements are too little, too late.”
On Monday, demonstrations turned violent in Nablus, as hundreds of young men pummeled police with stones; the police retaliated by firing in the air. In Hebron, demonstrators stormed a police station; in return, they were hit with tear gas. They then tossed shoes — an act of humiliation — at a poster of Fayyad. Nine policemen were reported injured across the West Bank.
‘This is a very dangerous moment for the Palestinian Authority,’ says Hillel Frisch. ‘It would not be dangerous for Hamas, which has the means to repress such protests, but it is for the PA, which is tremendously weak and cannot sustain prolonged violence’
Criticism of Fayyad’s economic concessions were almost unanimous on Tuesday, with members of Fatah — the party of PA President Mahmoud Abbas — dubbing them “insufficient.”
“The measures are important and help ease the burden on Palestinian citizens, but we need more such measures,” Ahmad Assaf, a spokesman for Fatah, told The Times of Israel, adding that his party did not discuss the removal of the Palestinian prime minister and finance minister, who is politically unaffiliated. “Fayyad is not responsible for the global rise in commodity prices,” Assaf said.
“The ultimate solution is removing the occupation,” Assaf said. “It controls the land crossings, the ports, and our natural resources. There can be no economic independence without political independence.”
Aqtash of Bir Zeit University said he never thought the West Bank would erupt in such violence before Gaza, which is much poorer and less dependent on external financing.
“We were expecting Gaza to explode in the face of Hamas. Instead, the West Bank has exploded in the face of Fatah,” he said.
But Hillel Frisch, an expert on Palestinian politics at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, said it made perfect sense for West Bank Palestinians to demonstrate now. Public anger usually erupts after years of prosperity followed by a sharp recession, as is the case in the West Bank, he said.
“This is a very dangerous moment for the Palestinian Authority,” he told The Times of Israel. “It would not be dangerous for Hamas, which has the means to repress such protests, but it is for the PA, which is tremendously weak and cannot sustain prolonged violence.”
‘We were expecting Gaza to explode in the face of Hamas. Instead, the West Bank has exploded in the face of Fatah,’ said Bir Zeit professor Nashat Aqtash
Israel, for its part, has done its best to help keep the PA afloat. In April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the governor of the Bank of Israel Stanley Fischer appealed to the international Monetary Fund (IMF) on behalf of the PA for a bridge loan of $100 million to prevent it from collapsing. The IMF rejected the request, Israeli daily Haaretz reported.
This week, Netanyahu reportedly turned to the US and the EU requesting urgent financial aid for the PA. Frisch of BESA said that Israel had both security and economic reasons for fearing the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
“At $3.4 billion a year, the PA is Israel’s second largest export market, and is especially crucial for non-high tech goods,” he said.
Aqtash said that, if the PA falls, the only possible alternative is Hamas. “Since 2006, I have said that Hamas is on its way to the West Bank.”