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Palestinians Begin to Direct Blame Inward

Discontent with the Hamas-led government festers among its many long-unpaid workers.

September 02, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Abdelmohsen Radwan has gone unpaid for the last six months of work. His list of who is at fault grows with each new household debt, and Palestinian officials rank high.

Radwan, a legal advisor in the Palestinian Authority Economy Ministry, blames the international community for cutting aid. He holds the Hamas-led government responsible for not paying tens of thousands of civil servants since February. And he is disappointed in President Mahmoud Abbas for not figuring a way out of the mess.

"They are all responsible in the end," said Radwan, 54, as he sweated in the midday heat along with hundreds of other government workers who gathered outside Abbas' office this week to demand their pay.

The growing public disenchantment over unpaid wages has triggered threats of a walkout by most of the 165,000 public employees. The protest began early today when more than 30,000 public school teachers sat out, disrupting the first day of classes. Many other public employees joined in, and thousands more were scheduled to strike on Sunday.

Many unpaid employees already no longer go to their jobs because they cannot afford to commute by bus or taxi. Others continue showing up at ministries that have no money or supplies to carry out their projects.

Even in advance of the threatened strike, the Palestinian government had sunk into near-paralysis.

"The government before Hamas' victory functioned well in one respect -- paying the salaries. Now that is gone, too," said Samir Awad, chairman of the political science department at Birzeit University near Ramallah. "Signs of life are difficult to find, even if one tries."

Government salaries sustain nearly a third of the population, and most schools and hospitals are staffed with civil servants. So the lack of paychecks has a spillover effect into most aspects of daily life.

The United States and European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group. The group's charter calls for the destruction of Israel, and it refuses to renounce violence or to honor Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

After Hamas won a majority in parliamentary elections in January, the U.S. and Europe halted direct aid to the Palestinian Authority. In addition, Israel has withheld about $50 million monthly in customs and tax revenues that it collects on behalf of the Palestinian government under a long-standing economic agreement.

This summer, Israel stepped up the pressure, arresting more than two dozen Hamas lawmakers and Cabinet members in the West Bank, including parliament Speaker Aziz Dweik, Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer and Finance Minister Omar Abdel Razek.

Israel began the arrests after Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip entered Israel through a cross-border tunnel June 25 and captured an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

Israeli and U.S. officials have said they hoped the cutoff of money and other moves would eventually cause the Palestinian public to turn against Hamas. That may now be happening.

Palestinians are becoming impatient. Polls have shown a drop in support for the Hamas-led government, and many disappointed Palestinians who initially blamed the United States and Israel for the funding cutoff are directing their anger at their own elected leadership.

"Until recently, the public was not blaming the government at all," said analyst Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian planning minister. "I think there is some change toward blaming collectively the government, the presidency and the donors. The public places all these groups in one basket."

A gathering sense of desperation has led some Palestinians to question the need for the Palestinian Authority, which was created in 1994 as a product of the Oslo interim peace accords with Israel.

Some have suggested a wider international role in directly managing Palestinian affairs.

"People are starting to think that, 'What's the use of this Authority? It's nothing,' " said Ramez Muhtadi, an aide to the Palestinian parliament whose work producing publications in English has come to a halt because of the lack of money. "This feeling is getting stronger by the increase of pressure on the government."

A few sporadic payments to workers of about $350 from Abbas' office have done little to ease the damage, Muhtadi said. "It's like a sedative," he said.

Getting rid of the Palestinian Authority appears unlikely at this point, because doing so could be read as an admission that Palestinians have failed to govern themselves and aren't ready for an independent state.

For now, calls are growing for Hamas to form a unified government with Abbas, of the once-dominant Fatah movement. Abbas returned to Gaza this week to resume talks with Hamas and other parties.

Hamas has so far been unwilling to give up the prime minister's spot held by Ismail Haniyeh, and it remains unclear whether Abbas could persuade the group to temper its stance toward Israel sufficiently to meet Western demands for a resumption of aid.

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