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Clashes, stone-throwing break out in West Bank price protests

Sept. 10, 2012 5:05 A.M. (Updated: Sept. 12, 2012 9:34 A.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Protests against rising living costs in the West Bank continued on Monday, with stone throwing and clashes breaking out in West Bank cities.

Several thousand people hurled stones at a police station in Hebron after earlier clashes targeted municipal offices and fire trucks, witnesses said. Riot police fired tear gas to try to chase away the crowds. Dozens of police officers and protesters were injured, a Ma'an correspondent said.

In Bethlehem, clashes broke out when striking taxi drivers refused to let traffic pass through Bab al-Zaqaq crossroads and another roundabout near Karkafeh street, with dozens of people throwing rocks at protesting trucks in a bid to get them to clear the streets.

Protesters marched from Duheishe refugee camp to President Mahmoud Abbas' headquarters in Bethlehem, denouncing the president, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, price rises and the Paris Protocol, an economic agreement with Israel.

Protest organizers created a human chain between security forces and demonstrators to prevent clashes.

Nearby in Beit Jala, protest leaders urged youth not to destroy or break property as demonstrators chanted calls for Fayyad to resign.

"We're tired of hearing about reform ... a council after another ... a minister after another ... and corruption hasn't gone away," one poster read.

In Ramallah, protesters burned tires and rubbish bins and blocked off several main streets. Other protesters burned electricity columns and tires in front of Bir Zeit town and al-Jalazun refugee camp.

Taxi drivers blocked the street in front of Fayyad's office in the West Bank administrative capital, while dozens of youths urged him to "leave, leave," echoing a slogan made popular in the Arab Spring.

"We'll do anything, throw rocks, to get rid of the Fayyad government. They call it sabotage, but we'll do whatever we need to get rid of him," said 17-year-old Yizan Ruaismi.

In Balata refugee camp east of Nablus, dozens of young men blocked traffic in Al-Quds Street with burning tires, forcing private cars onto bypass roads.

In Jenin, traffic was blocked, affecting commercial and economic trade in the city. Taxi union director in Jenin Abu al-Wafa told Ma'an that 700 cars and 120 buses had gone on strike.

Tulkarem and Jericho were also affected by protests and strike action, with hundreds of people demonstrating against fuel prices.

Palestinian Authority spokeswoman Nour Odeh told Ma'an that "the government is there to protect the people's right to protest, and also to protect their lives and property."

However, the PA "needs to make sure that those who violate the law are held accountable," she added.

A public transport strike paralyzed Palestinian cities, towns and refugee camps across the West Bank on Monday, as popular action against rising living costs continued.

According to Nasser Younis, head of the West Bank union of public transport, more than 24,000 drivers are on strike.

Demonstrations erupted across the West Bank over the past week, protesting the rising prices of basic commodities. The price of fuel was increased by five percent after key suppliers in Israel hiked their charges.

An onlooker in Bethlehem, Muhammad Riziq, said that seeing streets empty except for rocks and burning tires brought back memories of the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s.

Hebron Governor Kamel Hmeid told Palestine radio that "a lawless minority" were to blame for the clashes in the city, which has often been the scene of angry confrontations between Israeli settlers and Palestinian inhabitants.

Poor planning, tight Israeli controls and global economic worries have caused a marked slowdown in the Palestinian economy, with growth rates falling by half from the 9 percent increase in 2010.

The PA, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, has taken on increasing debt to plug its budget holes, but economists say the situation is unsustainable.

President Abbas initially welcomed the protests, equating them with the Arab Spring but pinning the blame firmly on Israel for the economic turbulence.

However, public anger has so far been directed solely at his own administration, led by Fayyad, rather than at Israel.

Underlining the problems facing the cash-strapped PA, Finance Minister Nabil Qassis said on Monday that civil servants earning over 2,000 shekels ($502) a month would only receive part of their August pay because of on-going financial woes.

The PA's budget problems, caused in part by a fall in aid donations, especially from Gulf states, has delayed salary payments for 153,000 civil servants several times already in 2012, with no solution in sight.

Reuters contributed to this report.
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