(AP) Palestinians strike to protest rising prices
By DIAA HADID and MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH
RAMALLAH, West Bank
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ Palestinian demonstrators fed up with high prices and unpaid salaries shuttered shops, halted traffic with burning tires and closed schools throughout the West Bank on Monday in the largest show of popular discontent with the governing Palestinian Authority in its 18-year history.
Palestinians say their salaries can't keep up with the rising price of living and blame Prime Minister Salam Fayyad for the economic policies of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, which has partial self-rule over Palestinians in the West Bank. But Fayyad's government is grappling with a sharp budgetary shortfall because the U.S. and Arab countries that sustain it haven't delivered promised aid money. And he hasn't been able to pay full salaries in months.
"Nobody is able to live, except the big officials," said Sami Saleh, a 57-year-old taxi driver, one of hundreds across the West Bank to turn out for the rallies. "We have to pressure this government to change."
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 daubed a donkey yellow and scrawled "taxi" on it.
The strikes touched all large Palestinian urban centers of the West Bank, from Jenin in the north to Hebron in the south. Throughout, public transport drivers blocked roads, youths burned tires and some shops closed their doors.
Some of the protesters demanded the resignation of Fayyad, who is respected internationally for having cleaned up the corrupt practices of previous Palestinian governments and for putting international financial standards in place in the West Bank.
Others also demanded government subsidies for basic goods like food and fuel, a minimum wage, the repeal of a recent round of take hikes and the cancellation of a Palestinian trade agreement with Israel. Monday's protests followed a series of small but growing strikes over the past few weeks.
A Fayyad spokeswoman said the government's hands were tied because of a cash shortfall. "There are no magic solutions," said Nour Oudeh.
The Palestinian Authority has suffered a crippling, months-long cash shortage caused by donors who owe $1.2 billion dollars in pledged money, finance ministry officials said.
The money that the Palestinians say has not been delivered includes $200 million from the U.S. in budget support, held up by Congress to seek more information about the funds. They say the United Arab Emirates cut aid from $174 million in 2009 to $42.5 million since the beginning of 2011 in an attempt to pressure Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to reinstate a disgraced former aide, and Qatar, another rich Arab state, has linked aid to elusive reconciliation between Abbas and the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers.
The annual budget is set at nearly $4 billion, half of that going to pay 154,000 civil servants, said economist Samir Abdullah. Government salaries are the backbone of the Palestinian economy in the West Bank.
Donor dollars are crucial because Palestinians have an economy hampered by Israel's control over the West Bank's borders as well as movement inside the territory. Security checks over exports and imports hamper the ability of Palestinian manufacturers to buy cheaper products elsewhere and raise the price of exports.
What's more, Israel still directly controls some 60 percent of the West Bank, where 340,000 Israeli Jews live in settlements deemed illegitimate by the international community.
Associated Press writers Nasser Shiyoukhi in Hebron, Mohammed Ballas in Jenin, and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed to this report. Follow Hadid on twitter.com/diaahadid