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12
Apr
2017

Rising Tensions in Gaza after PA Cuts Salaries


The State Department published a travel warning on April 11 that called on all U.S. citizens to evacuate Gaza immediately, and to be careful in the West Bank and in Israel. It put special emphasis on the volatile situation in Gaza.

In Gaza, there are old tensions that are under control, especially between Hamas and ISIS. Hamas does not hesitate to employ force against ISIS, while at the same time maintaining a level of cooperation in Sinai.

New developments that may trigger deterioration and that may be the reason behind the travel warning involve the on-going protest demonstrations by PA employees whose salaries have been reduced by 30% after a decision by PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s government in Ramallah. These are the employees that served the Palestinian Authority before Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, who were ordered to stay home by the PA in order not to recognize the Hamas regime as legal. So, they were getting salaries while staying home.

The reason why Ramallah continued to pay them was to employ them in street demonstrations until Hamas falls. This did not happen because of Hamas’ notorious excess use of force to crush any demonstrations, as it proved recently in crushing the demonstrations protesting the lack of reliable electricity.

According to Fatah sources in Ramallah, when President Abbas decided to take this step, he had in mind to stir the emotions of Gazans against Hamas and in a way revive the recent electricity-shortage protests that were directed against Hamas. Senior Fatah officials in Ramallah who are of Gaza origin, such as Rawhi Fatuh, warned Abbas against taking this line of action, but were ignored. And indeed, when the PA employees in Gaza gathered for the angry protest, they did not direct their blame at Hamas but at Rami Hamdallah, the PA prime minister, whose government decreed the 1/3 salary reduction, calling for him to “go” in slogans copied from Egypt’s Tahrir Square demonstrations against Egyptian President Mubarak.

At this stage, they did not formally direct blame at Abbas because they did not want to risk the rest of their salaries, but already this demand began to appear as well.

The sign says: Mr. President, don’t deprive me of my kindergarten
and my (child) allowance.

The Palestinian budget is indeed in chronic deficit, which during President Obama’s time was covered by emergency handouts including on Obama’s last day in office, but the Trump presidency has changed the U.S. attitude dramatically. The British Brexit and the PA’s quarrel with London about the Balfour Declaration caused a reduction in the transfer of British funds as well.

The British are major stakeholders in the training and support of the PA security forces and the decrease in British interest in Palestinian affairs caused Abbas to ask Pakistan to step in and perhaps replace the British in this realm.

Secretary of State John Kerry, during his last visit to the Middle East, asked Saudi Arabia to fulfill its commitment to the PA budget, but Abbas’ visit to Beirut killed any possibility of Saudi Arabia considering the resumption of the steady payments of the past.

So while no one can argue that austerity measures are needed, why only in Gaza? Why not also in the West Bank? The demonstrators and the PLO organizations in Gaza that sympathized with them slammed Ramallah for deepening the separation between Gaza and Ramallah.

In the past when salaries were not paid on time in the West Bank, and the head of the government employees union, Bassam Zakarneh, demanded that Abbas balance PA expenditures by cutting his travel budget, he was immediately sent to jail for sabotaging the statehood project.

I visited Ramallah at that time and senior PA officials told me that Zakarneh represented the opposition to Ramallah’s rule in the city of Jenin. Jenin was and still is considered as closer to Mohamed Dahlan than Mahmoud Abbas. I saw Zakarneh in the office of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s office; Fayyad was another Dahlan ally who was deposed as prime minster by the pro-Abbas Fatah movement.

The PA’s policy was to allow this kind of protest to be carried out far from Ramallah – like the teachers’ protests in Nablus. When the teachers tried to enter Ramallah, PA security forces blocked them on the roads. The reason is clear – to avoid creating the effect of Tahrir Square in Ramallah.

After a few days without any reaction from the West Bank, as an apparent sign that the West Bankers actually did not care about Gaza, NGOs in Ramallah planned to organize a large demonstration, but PA security forces intervened immediately and threatened the organizers, who agreed to conduct a limited demonstration in front of Hamdallah office. We can see the leader of the NGO community, Mustafa Barghouti, in the front line of this demonstration.  

The NGOs also understand the PA’s budgetary constraints, but they demanded not to cut the salaries and not to single out Gaza. They called to reduce security expenses and to abolish security coordination with the IDF.

There is a conspiracy theory circulating now in Ramallah among the NGO community that the singling out of Gaza employee was a result of the recent Arab League meeting in Jordan. According to this theory, the Arab states are pressuring Abbas to yield to Israeli demands to accept “provisional borders,” and the final separation from Gaza is only the first step.

This theory corresponds with an earlier declaration by Hamas of establishing “a committee to manage Gaza affairs” which is, in practical terms, a government of Hamas, far from the “unity government” led by Hamdallah.

The bottom line: both Ramallah and Gaza are practicing a policy of deepening the separation, with each side organizing its rule within its borders.

Facing its budgetary problems, the PA is obliged to make cuts. They did it first in Gaza with the hope that the waves of anger would swallow Hamas, but their anger was directed toward Ramallah.

About Pinhas Inbari

Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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