Palestinian police storm government building to protest overdue salaries |

Palestinian police storm government building to protest overdue salaries

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip – In the first major sign of discontent with the Hamas-led government, dozens of masked Palestinian policemen blocked a main road in the Gaza Strip on Saturday and briefly seized a government building to protest the delay in paying their salaries.The outburst reflected a growing sense of desperation in the streets of Gaza as already impoverished Palestinians start feeling the sting of the new government’s economic isolation.Western nations have cut off aid to the cash-starved Palestinian Authority, demanding that the militant group Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist. Israel also halted the monthly transfer of about $55 million in taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinians.The U.S. government also has barred Americans from most business dealings with the Palestinian government. Hamas, which is listed as a terrorist group by the United States and European Union, is responsible for scores of suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis in recent years.With its coffers empty, the government already is two weeks late in paying March salaries for its 140,000 employees, and it is unclear when it will have the needed funds. The Palestinian Authority is the largest employer in the West Bank and Gaza, sustaining about one-third of the population.Upset at the salary delays, about 50 armed policemen paralyzed the central Gaza town of Khan Younis by blocking off the main road there, forcing workers from northern Gaza to get out of their cars and walk more than a half-mile to get into town. Those heading to the southern town of Rafah had to take back roads.Dozens of schoolchildren left their classrooms after the angry gunmen fired outside the building.The police also stormed the local government building, taking positions on the roof and on balconies and firing in the air. The gunmen left peacefully after holding talks with local government officials.”We want salaries. We want the government to live up to its responsibilities,” said a protest leader identifying himself as Abu Hassan. “If they don’t have the ability to secure our salaries and to guarantee good living conditions for the people, they either have to step aside or to ask the people what the next step must be. They cannot act alone.”Finance Minister Omar Abdel Razek said he was surprised by the violent outburst, since the payment of salaries was routinely delayed under the previous government, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ more moderate Fatah Party.”I call on everyone to be patient and to show steadfastness in confronting the siege … practiced against our people,” he told Palestinian Radio. “Problems cannot be solved in this way and we cannot bring money by storming buildings and offices.”But the outburst signaled that the Palestinians, whose economy was crushed by five years of fighting with Israel, have little patience for further economic hardships in the wake of Hamas’ victory in Jan. 25 parliamentary elections.”We respect the result of the election, and we respect the people and the government, but this doesn’t mean we have to starve to death,” Abu Hassan said. “The government is talking about alternatives to secure money for salaries, but until now they have showed us nothing.”On Thursday, a group of Fatah-allied militants briefly took over the Palestinian Cabinet building in Ramallah, demanding jobs and perks. Similar protests occurred under the previous government.Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Abu Halal suggested the protesters redirect their anger at Israel.”If they have the strength and the will, let them blow up in the face of the occupation. They are the ones who are starving our people,” he said.The demonstrations came as Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar met with Arab League officials in Egypt to discuss ways out of the financial crisis. The meeting was the first in Zahar’s two-week fund-raising tour of Arab nations. Arab states have been reluctant to commit more aid to the Palestinians.Meanwhile, the Israeli army launched a new artillery barrage at Gaza in response to continuing volleys of homemade Qassam rockets that Gaza militants have fired at Israel, the army said.Israeli troops also have made brief incursions into Gaza in recent days to search for booby traps along the border. The raids marked the first time Israeli soldiers re-entered Gaza since Israel pulled out of the territory in September after 38 years of occupation.The head of Israel’s National Security Council, Giora Eiland, said the Palestinian government must take control of Gaza and stop the attacks on Israel. He said Israel regretted civilian casualties caused by its counterattacks but blamed the militants for launching rockets from populated areas.”With all the grief involved, and all caution taken, sometimes civilians can get harmed,” he told Israel Radio.Eiland also did not rule out the possibility Israel could wage an offensive inside Gaza.”So far we are not going back into Gaza. Entering Gaza is for sure a step on a higher level,” he said. “Perhaps at a certain stage there will be no choice but to do it.”

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