Sun, Sep 09, 2012 - Page 14 News List

Palestinian PM under fire as thousands protest soaring prices

By Hossam Ezzedine  /  AFP, 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 that swept the Middle East, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to demand lower prices, with their anger focused on Fayyad and his government.

“The demands of the popular movement are justified,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said 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 said.

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 Agence France-Presse 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.

However, Fayyad, 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,” he said.

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 (US$2.11) a liter.

However, 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.

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

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