Friday, October 30, 2020

Protests Across the West Bank: Palestinians decry rising costs of living

By James Knoop - September 07, 2012
Section: [Main News] [Life under Occupation]
Tags: [Ramallah] [protests]

The Palestinian economic situation has reached a fever pitch as daily demonstrations have erupted on the streets of several West Bank cities, including Ramallah, Hebron, Nablus and Jenin in protest of the high cost of living.

The protests involve groups of a couple hundred young men blocking off the streets of downtown areas while peacefully demonstrating and chanting slogans.

Demonstrators in Hebron burned an effigy of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and called for his resignation. Protestors in Nablus torched tires on the street, temporarily blocking the road to the National Hospital.

At a protest in Ramallah, a man tried to light himself and his six year old daughter on fire because he could not afford to pay for her cancer treatment. Spectators were able to stop the man before he could go through with it.

President Mahmoud Abbas said on Wednesday that the “Palestinian Spring has begun.” But it remains unclear how far the daily demonstrations will spread. Public transportation vehicles shut down for a few hours on Wednesday and Thursday in a show of support, yet most sectors of the economy are operating as before.

The demonstration comes after years of high unemployment, combined with the rise of food and fuel costs. Protestors are criticizing the government for its failure to subsidize basic products and curb price increases.

The Palestine Authority, which governs the West Bank, ran a budget deficit to the tune of $1.1 billion in the year 2011. Aid money coming into the country has lessened, and the government is now having trouble paying August salaries to its civil servants.

The Paris Protocol

At the heart of Palestinian complaints lies the Paris Economic Agreement, part of the 1994 Oslo Accords, which governs the economic relations between Israel and Palestine. Demonstrators on the street are demanding it be renegotiated.

On the surface, the agreement is supposed to represent a fair economic playing field for Israel and the Palestinians, promising no extra import and export taxes, equal access to Israeli ports, and no outside interference in the Palestinian right to determine its own economic future. In the print however, the agreement contains several important exceptions for certain types of goods and trading practices.

Palestinians claim that the Paris Economic Agreement allows Israel to maintain exclusive rights over Palestinian fuel imports, when they could import cheaper fuel from friendly neighbour countries at a much cheaper price.

Currently, Palestinians pay over 8 shekels ($2.00 U.S) per liter of gas at the pump, on par with or greater than European and North American prices, as well as Israel. Contrast this with the average GDP per person which stands at a mere $2800 per year, a fraction of the earnings in developed countries.

Palestinians also claim that the agreement allows Israel to collects taxes on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and can withhold the revenue at will, using it to put pressure on the Palestinians for political gains. Furthermore, Israel controls Palestinian international trade through air and sea ports.

Somewhat puzzling, economic data from the West Bank and Gaza has been touted by the International Monetary Fund and other economic agencies as quite strong in recent years. The IMF estimated Palestinian real GDP growth at 9 percent in 2010, 8 percent in the West Bank. These optimistic forecasts have lead to a reduction in international aid donations and the undertaking of difficult fiscal reform measures.

Palestinians claim that the Paris Economic Agreement allows Israel to maintain exclusive rights over Palestinian fuel imports

Many have argued these numbers don’t demonstrate what it really happening. A 2010 study by the World Food Program for example states that 22 percent of people in the West Bank and 52 percent in the Gaza Strip are food insecure, while just 41 percent and 19 percent are food secure, respectively.

Also, Palestinian unemployment rates are also through the roof. Unemployment in the West Bank sits at 25%, up from 23.6% from the year before. While in Gaza, the unemployment rate is 42.5%, one of the highest rates in the world, according to an 2010 UNRWA report.

The contrast between those who say the economy is doing well and those who are suffering at the hands of it is stark.

How serious is it?

In evidence of just how serious the economic situation has become and how desperate the plight of some Palestinians really is, there have been three incidences of self-immolation in the last week alone – though just one was able to go through with it.

Last week an 18 year old boy from the Gaza Strip, Ehab Abu Nada, 18, set himself on fire inside the main gate of Shifa Hospital, apparently after having an argument with his father who urged him to find work to help feed his family. He died from his injuries Sunday evening, September 2.

In the West Bank, Khaled Abu Rabee’, 42, also set himself on fire outside the director’s office in Dura municipality, outside of Hebron, but was prevented from setting the petrol alight by a security guard. Abu Rabee’, from al-Fawwar refugee camp, was reportedly struggling to make enough money to support two wives and feed his ten children.

There was also the incident in Ramallah at Manara square that occurred Wednesday.

The man, Hasan Qahwaji, is in his 30s and originally from Gaza. Locals said he tried to set fire to himself and his 6-year-old daughter who suffers from cancer because he can’t afford to pay for her treatment. Yet according to Maan News Agency, Qahwaji has been reportedly receiving financial aid from the Palestinian Authority’s Presidential office as well as other sources.

All three incidences recall the Tunisian fruit seller, Mohammad Bouazizi who set himself on fire in December 2010, sparking the uprising that precipitated the Arab Spring.

For Palestinians, the protests remain confined simply to a few thousand protestors chanting slogans and demonstrating in the main streets and squares of the largest cities in the West Bank. The cases of fire suicide have not yet precipitated a wider uprising.

In a region where harsh realities and repression are the norm one has to wonder what it will take before things start to spiral out of control.

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