Palestinian Authority Minister for Local Government, Hussein al-A’araj, issued a public apology on Saturday for saying that the protests in Hebron against a new social security law were being led by a Palestinian collaborator with Israel.
“Who’s leading the protests [against the law] in Hebron?” the minister said in a video that has gone viral on Palestinian social media. “A person living in [the nearby settlement of] Kiryat Arba. Do you accept that?”
The minister did not name the man allegedly leading the protests from Kiryat Arba. His remarks, however, drew strong condemnations from many Palestinians, those living in Hebron.
The controversial law, which has triggered mass protests throughout the West Bank, requires employers and their workers to make monthly payments into a government-managed fund, which will later be used to pay pensioners. The protesters fear that the fund will be mismanaged by corrupt officials.
Al-A’araj, who hails from a village near Jenin, is a former PA governor of Hebron. He also previously served as director of the Palestinian Presidency Office.
Suhaib Zahdeh, one of the leaders of the protests against the new social security law in Hebron, strongly condemned the minister’s remarks and called on him to immediately apologize to all the residents of the city.
“We call on President Mahmoud Abbas to fire Hussein al-A’araj and to apologize to the leaders of the protest and all the residents of Hebron,” Zahdeh said in a statement.
Juwaid Abu Sneineh, a political activist from Hebron, also condemned the PA minister for his remarks and called on him to disclose the name of the alleged Israeli “agent” leading the protests in the city.
He accused the minister of “fabricating charges” against the residents of Hebron and said that an apology would not be sufficient. “You don’t like the people of Hebron and they also don’t like you,” he said in a post on Facebook. “On behalf of the people of Hebron, I want to tell you that you are persona non grata. The people who are leading the protests are heads of the big clans in Hebron.”
The heads of several Hebron clans issued statements denouncing the PA minister and calling on Abbas to fire him immediately.
Abbas’s ruling Fatah faction called for holding al-A’araj accountable and demanded that the PA government form a commission of inquiry to investigate his charges. “We have full confidence in Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, and we expect him to fire any official who insults our people,” Fatah said in a statement.
In his apology, al-A’araj said that he was only responding to a specific person who had insulted and threatened the PA government and senior officials over the new law. “I absolutely had no intention to insult any individual in our beloved and precious Hebron District,” he clarified. “If my words were misunderstood, then I apologize to every individual and family. Regrettably, my words were twisted.”
In an attempt to contain the uproar, the PA government announced the formation of a ministerial commission of inquiry to look into the minister’s remarks.