Unpaid civil servants rampage in Ramallah

Dozens of protesters went on a rampage inside the chamber of the Palestinian Legislative Council Wednesday, attacking and cursing Hamas legislators. The attack came as sources close to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he was studying an Egyptian proposal to cancel his controversial decision to hold a referendum on a document drafted by some Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. In return, Hamas - according to the proposal - would agree to the establishment of a new government that would be headed by an independent figure. Most of the protesters who attacked the PLC were PA civil servants who have not received salaries for four months. Among them were several activists belonging to Abbas's Fatah party. Chanting anti-Hamas slogans, they stormed the chamber while legislators were discussing the growing tensions between Hamas and Fatah. When some of the Hamas legislators tried to stop them, they were beaten and jostled. Some of the demonstrators hurled files, pens and water bottles at the legislators, while others jumped over tables and seats. "In the name of our martyrs, I beg you to stop," Fatah legislator Saeb Erekat shouted at the crowd. Similar appeals by PLC Speaker Aziz Dweik also went unheeded. A desperate Dweik then decided to suspend the session until the protesters evacuated the chamber. The attack came less than 48 hours after hundreds of Fatah gunmen and PA security officers set fire to several offices belonging to the PLC and the prime minister in Ramallah. Enraged Hamas leaders said the attacks were part of a conspiracy by Abbas and Fatah to bring down the Hamas government. "Fatah leaders are trying to stage a coup against the democratically elected government," Hamas legislator Salah Bardaweel said. "These demonstrations and the attacks on government buildings are all organized by the Fatah leadership." Bardaweel claimed that the attackers, whom he branded "gangsters," were carrying Israeli-supplied weapons. "Why aren't they fighting against the occupation?" he asked. "How come they are allowed to carry weapons when everyone else can't?" Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas government, also condemned the attacks on the PLC and the prime minister's office, accusing the Fatah gunmen and the PA officers of behaving like gangs. The protesters denied that they were acting on behalf of Abbas. "We came here to demand our salaries," said one of them. "If the government does not pay us, we will escalate our protests in the coming days." Khaledah Jarar, a legislator representing the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, expressed support for the demands of the protesters. "These are legitimate protests by the civil servants," she said. "They have the right to demonstrate, but there is a consensus that we should not resort to violence." Fatah spokesman Ahmed Abdel Rahman described the protest as a "revolution by hungry people." He said the protests were directed not only against Hamas, but against Fatah as well. "The Hamas leaders must return to their senses and stop inciting against Fatah," he said, urging Hamas to abandon "conspiracy theories" and find ways to solve the financial crisis. Hours after the raid on the PLC, hundreds of Hamas supporters marched in the city, chanting slogans condemning the attacks and calling for an end to the violence. A general strike was observed in Ramallah on Wednesday to protest against the death of a driver who was shot by PA policemen on Tuesday night. PA security sources said the victim, Husam Abu Atiyeh, 27, of the nearby al-Ama'ari refugee camp, was shot in the head after refusing to stop at a checkpoint. Following the incident, Abu Atiyeh's friends and relatives went on a shooting spree in the streets of Ramallah. They also damaged four fashionable restaurants frequented by senior PA officials and foreigners. Abu Atiyeh was the third Palestinian to be killed by PA policemen in Ramallah in recent weeks. In an attempt to ease tensions between Fatah and Hamas, Egypt has come up with a new initiative calling for the formation of a new government that would be headed by an independent figure. In return, Abbas would cancel the referendum he called for next month over the prisoners' document. Sources in Ramallah said the leading candidate for the premiership was Munib al-Masri, a wealthy businessman from Nablus. In an attempt to appease Hamas, Abbas approved a plan to recruit more than 3,000 Hamas members to various branches of the PA security forces, Khaled Abu Hilal, spokesman for the PA Interior Ministry, announced. He said the Hamas members were all part of the new "backup" security force that was recently established in the Gaza Strip. In Khan Yunis, PA security officers shot and killed Hamas member Salah al-Astal. The incident took place shortly after Hamas gunmen shot and seriously wounded the local commander of the Preventative Security Service. The victim's family later torched the commander's house.