Thousands of young Palestinians out on the streets – chanting slogans, throwing
rocks, burning tires. Working class drivers striking to protest against the
price of gas, middle- class merchants shuttering their shops to avoid damages
and the moneyed classes chattering nervously about whether this is really as
momentous as it looks.
The images are reminiscent of the first intifada
almost 25 years ago, except that the fire this time is largely focused not on
Israel but on the Palestinian leadership.
Yet Palestinian society is far
more complex than it was a quarter of a century ago, and not everybody has the
same reading on what the protests erupting across the West Bank really mean.
Some hail the unrest as the belated birth of the Palestinian Spring, taking its
cues from start of the upheaval that began in a small Tunisian city two years
ago this December.
There too, in Sidi Bouzid, the protests initially
seemed to be of a localized, economic nature, and some dismissed it as little
more than a bread riot that would blow over. The revolution’s patron saint,
Mohamed Bouazizi, was a struggling street vendor who, fed up with trying to
survive and outraged over the confiscation of his wares, set himself on fire –
and helped fan the fires of frustration throughout the Middle East.
man who sold produce from a cart could start a revolution, what about a taxi
driver who, once he pays NIS 8.25 for a liter of gas, hardly has enough
take-home pay to put food on the table? Or a merchant whose profits are being
eaten up by the value-added tax being tied to Israel’s, which just went up to 17
percent? Or the nearly 40% of Palestinians who are dependent on publicsector
jobs, where salaries have been delayed because the Palestinian Authority simply
doesn’t have enough to make payroll? Salaries not paid in July and August have
made people doubt that things will get any better in September.
“It is a
very deep crisis because 180,000 people are public sector employees. You
multiply that by five, and realize that at least one million depend on those
salaries,” explains Samir Barghouti, a Ramallah economist who runs the Arab
Center for Agricultural Development.
In the past, he noted, whenever the
PA’s balance sheet went into the red, it could depend on donor nations,
particularly wealthier Arab countries, to help it out. As a byproduct of the
Arab Spring, he says, most of the leading Arab countries are far less focused on
“Other donor countries, particularly the Arab
countries, are busy with the Arab Spring, and the international priority is to
finish with Syria, so they don’t care so much about what is going on in
Palestine,” he says.
“Also, some of them are not satisfied with
[Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas, and they think maybe it is not the time
to be going again to the UN and to challenge the US,” he adds, in reference to
Abbas’s plans to submit a new bid on September 27 for the UN to recognize a
Indeed, the crisis is neither exclusively political
nor economic, but has elements of both feeding on each other. For example, says
Barghouti, some of the Palestinian politicians who were already unhappy with PA
Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are using the crisis as an opportunity to pin
problems on him.
“There are some people within Fatah who do not want
Salam Fayyad in office anymore, and they are saying it publicly. They believe it
is an opportunity to achieve what they want, and they’re finding a way to use
the economic crisis to get it,” he says.
Some of the factors leading to
the crisis are clearly beyond the Palestinian leadership’s control, such as
soaring gas prices and global economic forces.
But what is specific to
the Palestinian predicament, and which stands at the heart of the current
frustration, is the Paris Protocol, the framework that established economic
relations between Israel and the PA in 1994.
To the average young
protester burning up a copy of the protocol, it is largely a symbol of Israeli
control over the Palestinian economy. But even to more nuanced minds, including
several Palestinian economists interviewed for this article, the Paris Protocol
is dragging the PA economy down in a palpable way.
“The articles are a
disaster for Palestinians, but during the last 15 years we did not ask to review
or change it, and that shows we don’t have the right management for a crisis
such as this,” says Talaat Alawi, editorin- chief of the Al Safeer economic
newspaper in Ramallah.
“We as consumers are paying almost the same VAT as
an Israeli living in Tel Aviv or Haifa, while the per capita income in Israel is
almost $30,000, whereas in the Palestinian Authority it’s about $2,000. It is a
fixed tax, in which poor and rich pay the same rate, so it’s an unfair tax, an
so much more burdensome for Palestinians.”
He says that an appropriate
tax for the Palestinian economy would be 9%, but the PA has no right to make
Fayyad’s announcement Tuesday that he would reduce it from
15.5% to 15% was insignificant, Alawi says.
“The most important issue,
and this is a very negative point that sheds some light on how we see the
Palestinian government, is that the Paris Protocol should have been a temporary
protocol, from 1994-1999, and yet our government has been upholding every
protocol in there,” Alawi adds.
Trying to ride the wave of wrath, Abbas
has asked Israel to revise the protocols. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon
on Monday answered him with a resounding no.
“There is no room to fix it
when there is no progress in the political channel, and the Palestinians have
huge debts to Israel for transferring gas and electricity, for example,” Ayalon
Refusing to reopen the accords, however, could put Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu in an extremely difficult position. He has said repeatedly in
the last few years that while he is not rushing into an agreement with the
Palestinians that will involve further territorial compromises, he is making
significant moves to boost the economy in the West Bank and improve the lives of
Meanwhile, some analysts say it is an exaggeration to
call the current crisis the latest chapter of the Arab Spring.
Jamil Rabah, the codirector of Near East Consulting in Ramallah, it will not
lead to the ouster of a president, as it did in Tunisia and Egypt, nor is it
about getting out from under the thumb of a murderous regime, as in Syria. Rabah
says it is more like Israel’s economic protest during the summer of 2011, in
which tent cities sprung up around the nation.
“I keep going around to
check how serious this is, and I don’t think it is as big as it’s been hyped to
be,” Rabah says.
“I don’t think it’s a Palestinian Spring. Yes, people
are tired economically, but it is not translated to unrest against the PA as a
It is true people are unhappy with what’s going
on, but it’s largely the lack of economic support from Arab regimes and the
controls on us by Israel that puts the PA in a difficult situation.”
the crisis drives home, he says, is not just the taxation issues vis-à-vis
Israel, but that the PA has failed to reduce its dependency on foreign aid and
still is not effective in collecting taxes, except from the largest
“People want services, but who’s to pay for them? The PA is
afraid to go and collect taxes because they don’t want to burden people. They do
collect taxes in the West Bank, but not in manner which is strongly enforceable,
they don’t want to be perceived as an additional burden,” he
Barghouti agrees. More then we are 35% of the PA budget comes from
international donors, a situation that simply isn’t sustainable, he
“The problem is that the Salaam government and the PA never came
up with a plan to reduce dependency on international support,” he says. “They’ve
had enough time, almost 20 years to do that, and they haven’t.”