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PA suppresses sit-in in Ramallah held by former political prisoners of Israel

June 26, 2017 2:21 P.M. (Updated: July 1, 2017 5:02 P.M.)
Former prisoners demonstrate against salary cuts in Gaza (File)
RAMALLAH (Ma'an) -- Palestinian security forces forcibly suppressed a sit-in Sunday, which was organized more than a week ago in front of the Palestinian Ministers’ Council in the central occupied West Bank city of Ramallah by former political prisoners of Israel in protest of having not received their paychecks this month.

Security forces tore down and seized the demonstrators’ sit-in tents -- as well as mattresses and picket signs -- forcibly evacuated the area, and declared the surroundings of the council’s headquarters “a closed military zone,” demonstrators said at a press conference held later at Yasser Arafat Square in Ramallah.

One protester, Abdullah Abu Shalbak, told Jerusalem-based outlet al-Quds News that security forces in civilian clothes raided the area at around 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning, pressuring former prisoners and their supporters to evacuate the area.

After the plainclothes officers failed to disperse the action, police and special forces arrived, escorted by an official who claimed to be from the Palestinian Ministry of Finance and refused to identify himself.

According to Abu Shalbak, the alleged finance ministry representative told protesters that an agreement had been made to cut the salaries of the former prisoners, but would not provide details of the agreement.

Abu Shalbak, who said he has spent 21 years in Israeli prisons, was quoted as saying: "Today we are here, but tomorrow we might be inside (Palestinian) jails on criminal charges for bounced checks or defaulted loans that we cannot pay because our salaries were cut off."

A number of former prisoners and their family members started the sit-in more than ten days prior, demanding that the Palestinian government and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reverse an abrupt decision to discontinue payments to some 277 former political prisoners of Israel starting at the beginning of June.

“These prisoners are demanding their right to a dignified living and the reinstatement of their allocations that are guaranteed by law,” an activist said at the press conference, and announced that the sit-in would be moved from the council’s headquarters and reestablished at Yasser Arafat Square.

Protesters also stressed that no officials had come to the sit-in over the course of ten-day period to negotiate with the former prisoners.

Demonstrators vowed not to cease protest measures until their demands were met and insisted that they “would not conform with the American and Israeli demands” -- referring to mounting pressure from the United States and Israel to discontinue the “martyrs” compensation program altogether, which also includes payments to the families of Palestinians who have either been killed or wounded by Israeli forces.

Initial reports of this month's salary cuts said that those affected were all former prisoners who have since been deported to the besieged Gaza Strip, but it seems that former prisoners in the West Bank have also been affected, and some reports indicate the common thread was their affiliation to Hamas.

Protesters told Ma’an Sunday that the 277 former prisoners were all released in the 2011 Shalit prisoners exchange deal with Israel -- some of whom having been redetained and are currently in Israeli custody.

Meanwhile, the PA has yet to officially comment on the move. Earlier this month, Issa Qaraqe, the head of the PA’s Prisoners’ Affairs Committee, said he had not received any official notification or explanation from the government on the issue. "We were surprised by the decision," Qaraqe said.

Qaraqe told US-based news site al-Monitor that the cuts were not related to diplomatic pressure, but that the decision was made because of the PA's ongoing dispute with Hamas, the de facto ruling party of the Gaza Strip. "The decision is part of the (PA’s) pressure on the movement and has nothing to do with the United States and Israel calling on the PA to stop paying the Palestinian prisoners (currently in Israeli jails).”

Al-Monitor quoted PA spokesman Yousif al-Mahmoud as saying: “I'm not sure how accurate this is, and that's why I cannot comment on the issue because no official decision was issued. But the government would never take any action that does not serve the interests of the Palestinian citizens and prisoners.”

According to Al-Monitor, the PA also cut off the salaries of nine members of the Fatah bloc in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) who were dismissed from the movement for having “other allegiances,” in reference to dismissed Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan.

This also comes two months after the PA government decided to reduce salaries paid to civil servants in Gaza by some 30 percent.

In addition to the salary cuts, anti-PA criticism has continued to grow, over the violent suppression of demonstrations, ongoing security coordination with Israel, the blocking of a number of news sites allegedly affiliated to Hamas and Dahlan, and a PA request that Israel drastically reduce electricity supplies to Gaza, which now faces a critical humanitarian situation and just two hours of electricity a day as a result.
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