HEBRON, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian demonstrators fed up with high prices and unpaid salaries shuttered shops, halted traffic with burning tires and clashed with riot police in demonstrations across the West Bank on Monday— the largest show of popular discontent with the Palestinian Authority in its 18-year existence.
The violence showed that the unrest, initially supported by Palestinian leaders in hopes of drawing international attention to the struggling economy, risks backfiring and morphing into a broader movement against the government.
“Nobody is able to live, except the big officials,” said Sami Saleh, a 57-year-old taxi driver who supports his family of eight on a $700 monthly salary. “We have to pressure this government to change,” he said.
As he spoke, youths hollered and cheered as they set tires alight behind him, sending plumes of black smoke into the air and blocking the main road from the West Bank city of Ramallah to the nearby city of Jerusalem. Nearby, striking taxi and bus drivers scribbled the word “taxi” on a donkey in yellow paint.
The most heated clashes occurred in Hebron, where hundreds of protesters smashed the windows of a municipality building with rocks. The crowd tried to storm the building but was thwarted by riot police who fired tear gas and beat back some of the demonstrators. Later, protesters tried to attack the police station, prompting a pitched rock-hurling battle between police and demonstrators.
There were no injuries. But the violence was significant because it targeted a symbol of Palestinian self-rule. Usually, Palestinians reserve their anger for Israel, which captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and wields overall control of the area.
Most of the rage has been directed toward Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a U.S.-educated economist who oversees the government’s finances. But at least part of the anger appeared engineered by Fayyad’s powerful rivals in the Fatah movement led by President Abbas.
The unrest was reminiscent of the mass demonstrations of the Arab Spring that topped aging dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and sparked civil war in Syria. While there is no sign that the protests are approaching that level, they nonetheless are the largest show of popular discontent with the governing Palestinian Authority in its 18-year history.
In Hebron, about 50 men hurled shoes at a large poster of Fayyad that had the words “Depart, Fayyad” scrawled underneath. Hurling shoes is a deeply insulting move in the Arab world. They then tore down the poster, stepped on it and burned it.
Fayyad says the troubles are beyond his control. The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank, is grappling with a sharp budgetary shortfall because the U.S. and Arab countries that sustain it haven’t delivered promised aid money.
Finance Ministry officials say donors owe $1.2 billion in pledged money, more than a quarter of the government’s annual budget. The authority, by far the largest employer in the West Bank, hasn’t been able to pay full salaries in months.
“There are no magic solutions,” said Nour Oudeh, a spokeswoman for Fayyad.
The troubles have been compounded by the global phenomenon of rising fuel and food prices.
“It’s just not possible anymore with the rising prices. Salaries don’t cover a month,” said Osama al-Azzeh, a 21-year-old university student in Bethlehem. He said his older brother supports him, their stepmother and four young sisters on $540 a month working as an electrical salesman.
Fayyad, a political independent, is respected internationally for cleaning up the corrupt practices of previous Palestinian governments and for putting international financial standards in place in the West Bank.
But his efforts over the years have antagonized many in President Mahmoud Abbas’ dominant Fatah movement. Fatah activists were the driving force behind the early protests last week, in part to embarrass Fayyad, Abbas’ most formidable rival.
Abbas himself has expressed sympathy with the protesters, but made clear that he would not tolerate violence. Monday’s events suggested that the frustration may run deeper than thought.