PA minister faces probe for claiming social protests are being led by settler

PM Hamdallah orders investigation after former Abbas chief of staff tries to blame Israel for Hebron demonstrations against a new PA social security institution

Adam Rasgon is a former Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

PA Local Governance Minister Hussein al-Araj (Screenshot:An-Najah Broadcasting Channel)
PA Local Governance Minister Hussein al-Araj (Screenshot:An-Najah Broadcasting Channel)

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah has ordered an investigation into a bizarre statement made by a high-ranking Palestinian official who seemed to paint popular protests against a new government social security scheme as Israeli-led, a spokesman for the premier said Sunday.

PA Local Governance Minister Hussein al-Araj said last week that demonstrations in Hebron against a new PA social security institution were being led by someone who lives in a West Bank settlement.

The comment drew condemnation from Palestinian officials and a local Fatah branch, and Hamdallah on Saturday ordered an investigation into Araj’s statement.

“The prime minister decided to immediately establish a ministerial investigative committee to examine these statements and the responses to them,” said Hamdallah spokesman Yousef Mahmoud. “The government will send its recommendations to President Mahmoud Abbas.”

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah during a joint news conference with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, May 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Palestinians in the private sector have taken to the streets over the last several months against a new social security institution being created by the PA and impending tax hikes to fund it.

Demonstrators have said they do not trust the PA-created institution to handle their money.

A PA law that established the social security institution requires some Palestinians in the private sector to already make payments to it and others to do so in the coming months. In return, the law says the body will provide them with pensions and some insurance benefits.

Palestinians protest against a newly-established Palestinian social security institution on December 12, 2018 in Ramallah, West Bank. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Some of the largest protests against the social security body have taken place in Hebron, the most populace city in the West Bank. Demonstrations have also taken place in Ramallah and elsewhere.

Araj, PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s former chief of staff, had alleged that the person leading the protests in Hebron lives in the adjacent Kiryat Arba settlement.

Araj, who made the claim while giving a speech to dozens of people at an event in the West Bank, did not identify the name of the person he claimed was leading the protests or clarify if he or she was Palestinian or Israeli.

A picture taken from the West Bank city of Hebron on June 25, 2017 shows a view of the Kiryat Arba settlement on the outskirts of the city. (AFP Photo/Hazem Bader)

The comment, however, infuriated Palestinians in Hebron who understood them as an attempt to cast the protests against the Palestinian social security institution as Israeli astroturf, Mahzouz Shlalda, a Hebron-based activist, said in a phone call.

“He essentially wanted to say the people of Hebron had fallen prey to an Israeli project,” he said.”What he said was disparaging and belittling.”

After a video clip of his comment surfaced on Twitter and Facebook on Friday, a number Palestinian officials slammed Araj’s comment.

“We reject anyone insulting Hebron and its people,” Hebron Mayor Tayseer Abu Sneinah said in a statement.

Fatah’s Hebron branch also lashed out at the Araj’s remark in a statement, calling it “unacceptable,” and urging Hamdallah to fire the PA minister.

Palestinians seen in the market in the old city of Hebron, West Bank on July 9, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Sunday, Araj, who also previously served as the PA’s governor of Hebron, said he was only referring to “a specific person” who insulted and threatened the PA government, and not the people of Hebron, adding that—if his words were understood otherwise—he apologizes. He did not name the person.

On Monday, Ahmad Shami, another PA government spokesman, told the Times of Israel the investigative committee would look into Araj’s comment once Hamdallah returns from Beirut, where he was visiting for an Arab League meeting.

He said it was still unclear when exactly the committee would announce its findings.

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