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West Bank city hit by violent price protests

by Darren Whiteside, Reuters

September 10, 2012 | 10:32 am

Palestinian youths attacked a local police station and other government buildings in Hebron on Monday as protests against the rising cost of living in the occupied West Bank turned increasingly violent.

Several thousand people hurled stones at the Palestinian police station in the city after earlier clashes targeted municipal offices and fire trucks, witnesses said. Riot police fired tear gas to try to chase away the crowds.

Stone throwing was also reported in Bethlehem, while demonstrators set tires alight on main roads into another major West Bank city -- the administrative capital, Ramallah.

Small-scale protests sprung up last week following a five percent hike in fuel costs, but Monday's violence suggested the spontaneous movement could spiral out of control, posing a major problem for the Western-backed Palestinian Authority (PA).

It is also likely to set alarm bells ringing in Israel, where security chiefs have long warned of the risk of unrest at a time of growing economic hardship coupled with total paralysis in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

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 registered 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.

ARAB SPRING

Public transport workers staged a strike across the small territory on Monday to demand a cut in fuel costs, preventing many people from getting to their work, while a number of schools reported low attendance.

Taxi drivers blocked a road in front of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's Ramallah office, while dozens of youths urged him to "leave, leave," echoing a slogan made popular in the Arab Spring uprisings that have unseated several Middle East governments.

Palestinian President Mahmoud 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.

When the Arab Spring first rippled across the Middle East last year, the Palestinian Territories remained quiet, with locals saying there was no appetite for fresh confrontation after decades of mainly fruitless rebellion against Israel.

But tensions have risen over the summer months, with Palestinians angry at continued deep schisms within their own political class, and frustrated at the growing cost of living.

Underlining the problems facing the cash-strapped PA, Finance Minister Nabil Kassis 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. ($1 = 3.979 shekels)

<i>Writing by Crispian Balmer, Reporting by Jihan Abdalla and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; editing by Diana Abdallah</i>

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