Middle East

Fayyad under fire as Palestinian protests fill streets

A Palestinian protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask gestures as he stands near a burning effigy of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad during a demonstration against the high cost of living. (REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma)

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories: Soaring prices have sparked an unprecedented wave of social protest across the West Bank, with angry demonstrators demanding that Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad step down.

In scenes reminiscent of the Arab Spring protests which swept the Middle East, protesters have taken to the streets in their thousands to demand lower prices, with their anger focused on Fayyad and his government.

"The demands of the popular movement are justified," Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas acknowledged on Wednesday night during a speech to the Arab League in Cairo.

"The Palestinian Spring has started and we agree with what the people are saying and what they want," he said.

The protesters' demands to reduce the costs of basic goods and for the full payment of their salaries every month are "right and fair," said Abbas who heads the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.

"We are striving to do everything in our power to lower prices," he vowed.

This week, thousands of Palestinians across the West Bank took to the streets to protest against the soaring cost of living after recent hikes in the price of fuel and basic foodstuffs.

Public transportation ground to a halt across the territories on Wednesday in a brief 15-minute protest, and again on Thursday morning for a longer stint.

On Tuesday, hundreds of people demonstrated in the southern city of Hebron, burning an effigy of Fayyad and an Israeli flag, an AFP correspondent said.

On the same day, protesters in Ramallah blocked traffic, chanting "Fayyad get out!" in an echo of slogans heard during last year's Arab Spring uprisings which overthrew strongmen in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

But the premier, whose term in office was renewed by Abbas in May, on Thursday vowed he would not step down.

"I don't need any advice about stepping down, I'm on a mission, I'm not just doing a job," he told the private Palestinian radio station Rai FM.

"If a situation arises and I know I am not able to handle it -- for objective reasons and not over complaints -- I want to assure everyone that I will not be an obstacle and will not stay (in office) a day longer."

Public anger directed at Fayyad and his government has grown, with Facebook flooded with angry comments about him and particularly about the rising cost of fuel which recently hit 8.50 shekels ($2.11/1.67 euros) per litre.

-- Little room for manoeuvre -- But Fayyad admitted his government had no way of taking decisive action that would silence his critics.

Earlier this week, the rising cost of living was a key issue at the weekly cabinet meeting chaired by Fayyad that focused on "the rise in world prices and its effect on the local market and living conditions, as well as the means to deal ... with such conditions," a statement said.

The ministerial economic committee was instructed to examine all possible options and measures necessary to address the price rises.

Officials say the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority is living through its worst-ever crisis since it was formed in 1994 as a result of continued Israeli restrictions and declining international aid, especially from Arab countries.

But analysts say the government has very little room for manoeuvre as a result of its severe budget crisis and its commitments under a 1994 agreement on economic ties with Israel, which bars the PA from lowering petrol prices more than 15 percent below that effective in the Jewish state.

"People have started to feel like they are paying for the upkeep of the Palestinian Authority, although that doesn't necessarily mean it is moving toward an independent Palestinian state," said political scientist Khalil Shahine who sees the public discontent persisting.

In September 2011, following a historic bid to seek full state membership for Palestine at the United Nations, Abbas said he wanted to amend the 1994 Paris Protocol which he described as "unfair."

"It contains restrictions that affect the Palestinian economy and hinder its development. The Paris agreement does not allow Palestinians to promote their economy," he charged.

"It is now up to the Fayyad government to convince the street that it is going to improve the economic situation, but the trust between the government and the people has begun to crumble," said Nasser Abdelkarim, an economic analyst.

"Over the past four years, the government has focused on the payment of salaries and an obsession with financial self-sufficiency," he said.

"But its policy has not taken into account the essential social dimension which is crucial for winning the trust of the street," he said.





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