Occupation to Occupy: Palestinians turn anger inward


Palestinians shout slogans during a protest against the high cost of living on Sept. 10, 2012 in the West Bank city of Hebron.


Hazem Bader

RAMALLAH — A year ago, a flag-festooned Ramallah awaited the UN General Assembly meeting amid hopes that Palestine would be recognized as a sovereign observer nation, a status also held by the Vatican.

But today, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas again prepares to address the grand annual meeting, everyone here seems to have forgotten all about those heady days.

"What a complete waste of resources that was!" exclaimed an exasperated Asem Khalil, the dean of the Faculty of Law at Bir Zeit University. "Another way Abbas tried to distract his people from any real issues of peoplehood."

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Among ordinary residents here, anger over the Israeli occupation and dreams of independence have since given way to frustration with the Palestinian leadership itself. A peaceful, Occupy-style movement has emerged in recent months to call for higher wages, lower fuel costs and greater economic opportunity.

The protests in opposition to what many perceive to be the neoliberal economic policies of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a former World Bank official, took a humorous turn when he reposted on his own Facebook page a song of protest against him, "Get a Grip, Fayyad"

Some liked it, thinking the famously square prime minister was displaying signs of incipient hipness. Other commentators assumed he reposted it out of cluelessness.

On bustling Ramallah streets it was difficult to find anyone who disagreed with the few hundred protesters that have been leading the West Bank social-justice movement, but equally difficult to find anyone particularly exercised.

Awar Thaher Nabtus, a police officer stationed near the central Manara Square, said he approved of the movement "so long as there will be no violence."

Haddeel Abed Fkais, a 22-year-old student at El Quds University agreed "completely with what they are demanding." But she was too busy with her studies to join in.

Next to hand-lettered signs calling for "No To Hunger/Yes to Peace Process," Mus'ab Bir Zeit, a genial 18-year-old, said, "The problem is that the government is not listening to the people. We want freedom and justice. We need better salaries and lower prices."

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Husam Zomlot, the executive deputy commissioner for the Fateh Commission for International Relations, said he didn’t think this was the beginning of a “Palestinian Spring.”

“We're seeing a small, little reflection of Palestinian's frustration with inflation and cost of living rises. Many feel the situation is unbearable,” he said.

Ramallah, with its urban cafes and glittering nightlife, where construction is rampant, "is a bubble," said Zomlot, who was educated in Britain and the United States.

"The Palestinian Authority employs thousands, there are hundreds of international NGOs — all their employees have high levels of disposable income," he added. And the building boom, he said, "is based on credit, in the neoliberal style."

"The deficit is structural. Just payroll and debt expenditures come to $200 million a month, whereas income is $150 million."

Responsibility for this predicament, he said, rests with the Israeli occupation.

"The Palestinian Authority is capable of generating triple this amount if it weren't for Israeli restrictions [on water and land], trade issues, tariff issues and protection issues."

The World Bank seems to agree.

In a report issued last week, the World Bank projected a $1.5 billion deficit in the Palestinian budget for 2012, with donor funds covering only $1.14 billion of the loss.

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A separate report, by the International Monetary Fund, found that, "Looking ahead, with persisting restrictions, financing difficulties with aid shortfalls, and stalemate in the peace process, there is a high risk of a continued economic slowdown, a rise in unemployment, and social upheaval."

"I am concerned, simply because when people take to the streets, you worry. What is the agenda? What is their mood?" Zomlot asked.

"You worry about small little disconnected things that might be hurtful. But I don't worry that this will turn into nationwide unrest. Palestinian society at large knows that when the Spring arises, it will be against occupation, not the Palestinian Authority. That is what endangers their lives."

Israel has also quietly expressed concern. Israel has undertaken certain small measures to help stabilize the Palestinian economy, such as timely tax payments and an increased number of work permits for Palestinians.

Others have been anticipating widespread protests for a while.

"It's a question of time," said Khalil, the law school dean. "We've been expecting that, one day, increasing prices and greater and greater dependency on loans would come to the fore. People are living a life beyond their means. Palestinian élites are buying houses and cars beyond their capacities. It can't just go on."

Prime Minister Fayyad, Khalil said, "is the scapegoat for that which makes us unhappy," whereas the Israeli occupation "has unfortunately become more and more marginalized" among social activists.