x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Salam Fayyad catches Palestinians' flak as West Bank protests continue

Suspicions are growing that the Palestinian Authority prime minister is victim of scheming by political opponents.

RAMALLAH // As large protests sweep the West Bank for a second week, no official has faced as much criticism over the ailing economy as Salam Fayyad.

Palestinian demonstrators have burnt effigies of the Palestinian Authority (PA) prime minister in previous rallies and yesterday rallied outside his office and called for his resignation. Video from Monday also showed protesters throwing their shoes at a poster of Mr Fayyad.

While frustration over his five-year tenure has come to a head, the anger directed at Mr Fayyad has stirred suspicions of scheming by political opponents. None of them has been under as much scrutiny as Mr Fayyad, and observers suspect rivals of using the premier as a lighting rod to draw anger over broader failings by the PA.

"It seems a lot of this sloganeering emerged from the vested interests from within the PA, like the security services," said Sam Bahour, a Palestinian businessman and activist who lives in Ramallah.

Rather than following the normal procedure of breaking up demonstrations, PA security personnel have let those denouncing Mr Fayyad continue, something Mr Bahour called "odd".

He, fellow activists and observers have not questioned the legitimacy of Palestinian grievances against Mr Fayyad's economic stewardship: prices have increased dramatically under his watch and payment of salaries to the PA's 150,000 employees has been delayed multiple times because of a budgetary crisis.

Moreover, an end to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories seems nowhere in sight.

That has helped fuel the protests, which included attacks on a police station, fire vehicles and other symbols of PA power in Hebron on Monday.

Whether initiated by Mr Fayyad's rivals or not, the demonstrations appear to be gaining momentum.

But scores of Palestinian activists express concern that the powerful Fatah faction, which runs the West Bank and PA, is trying to deflect criticism towards Mr Fayyad, a respected economist who has worked for the International Monetary Fund.

Some Fatah officials have recently spoken out against Mr Fayyad, a political independent who is unpopular within Fatah. On Sunday, Tawfiq Tirawi, a former intelligence head and Fatah leader, criticised the premier's handling of the rallies and the protesters' grievances.

Halla Shoaibi, 26, an activist from Ramallah, said the protests were distracting Palestinians from the bigger problems they face: Israel's 45-year military occupation of the Palestinian territories and the PA's perceived cooperation with it.

"Fatah's youth supporters have clearly been going after Fayyad and not Abu Mazen," she said, using the nickname of the PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, who also heads Fatah.

"It's OK to talk down Fayyad because he's part of the problem, but he's not the whole problem. The issue is, the whole system needs to change."

Ms Shoaibi said the required changes included ending PA agreements that gave Israel significant control over the Palestinian economy. She and fellow activists yesterday evening staged their own rally outside Mr Abbas's presidential compound in Ramallah.

Mr Fayyad announced yesterday that the PA would take a number of steps to address the financial concerns of Palestinians, including paying August's salaries today.

He also seemed to ask for patience during a news conference at his office, telling reporters that "we're doing the best we can, and we have been all along". The problems stem in large part from a shortfall in promised international donor aid, which constitutes the bulk of PA revenue.

But even if such measures placate the public, he may face a potentially bigger challenge from Mr Abbas, who some believe allowed demonstrators to publicly denounce his premier, thus strengthening his position.

While Mr Abbas appointed Mr Fayyad to his position, the pair are widely believed to have a difficult relationship and have been known to disagree with each other in public. Mr Fayyad's power over PA finances and ties with the United States in particular have given him substantial political sway.

"They don't get along," said Diana Buttu, the former adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organisation's negotiating team and a critic of the Palestinian leadership.

That friction appeared to come to the fore shortly after the protests erupted.

Last Wednesday, Mr Abbas appeared to take a swipe at his prime minister's polices during an Arab League meeting in Cairo, announcing that the "Palestinian Spring" had begun. The protests were "right and fair", he said.

A day later, Mr Fayyad shot back during an interview with local media, saying the Palestinians "will not reproduce the Arab Spring".

This reaffirmed suspicions that either Fatah, Mr Abbas, or both, did not try to stop the demonstrations, Ms Buttu said. The PA has done this for decades, including blocking Palestinian demonstrations against Israel's three-week attack on the Gaza Strip that began in December 2008.

"Either way, there's no way I can be convinced that this didn't have a touch of Fatah backing initially because, all of sudden, we're allowed to go out in the street — and not only that, but burn someone's face or an effigy?" she said.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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