KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip, AP -Palestinian police sealed off a main road and stormed a government building in this central Gaza town of Khan Younis on Saturday, angered by the Hamas-led government’s failure to pay them.
The gunmen surrounded the building where town councilors have their offices, taking positions on the roof and on balconies and firing in the air. The Palestinian Chamber of Commerce also has offices there.
The protest was the first sign of serious discontent with the new government since it took office two weeks ago, and it reflected a growing sense of desperation in the streets of Gaza as the already impoverished Palestinians begin to feel the economic repercussions of Hamas’ rise.
Western nations have cut off aid to the cash-starved Palestinian Authority, demanding 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.
Stepping up the pressure, the U.S. government on Friday said it has barred Americans from most business dealings with the Palestinian government.
Israeli officials say they hope the financial pressure forces Hamas — which is listed as a terror group by the United States and European Union — to moderate or stirs enough popular discontent to remove the government.
The Palestinian Authority is the largest employer in the West Bank and Gaza, sustaining about one-third of the population.
With salaries for the government’s 140,000 employees two weeks overdue, about 50 masked policemen protested Saturday by shutting Khan Younis’ main road, which links the central Gaza town with the rest of the Gaza Strip.
The men, who identified themselves as security officers, were not in uniform and had covered their faces with scarves and shirts.
Sporadically firing rifles in the air, the gunmen paralyzed Khan Younis, forcing workers traveling from northern Gaza to get out of their cars and walk more than half a mile to get into town. Those heading to the southern town of Rafah had to take back roads.
Stores throughout the town were closed and residents gathered to watch the demonstration. Dozens of schoolchildren left their school after the angry gunmen fired outside their building.
During the protest, several of the security officials stormed the local government building.
“We want salaries. We want the government to live up to its responsibilities,” said a leader of the protest who gave his name only 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 at 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.”
The protest came a day after Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told thousands of supporters that his government would not cave into financial pressure.
“Attempts to destroy this government and put obstacles before it and disrupt it will only be met with more steadfastness, resolve and solidarity,” Haniyeh told a rally Friday.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar also began a fundraising tour of Arab nations Friday seeking new aid, but Arab states have been reluctant to back up their vocal support for the Palestinians with cash.
The demonstration Saturday underscored that the Palestinians, whose economy was crushed by five years of fighting with Israel, have little tolerance for further economic hardship in the wake of Hamas’ victory in 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.”
Meanwhile, the Israeli army launched a new artillery barrage at the Gaza Strip on Saturday in response to the continuing volleys of homemade Qassam rockets launched at Israel by Gaza militants, the army said. The cross-border fighting has escalated in the past week, with 16 Palestinians in Gaza killed by Israeli shelling and targeted attacks on militants.
Israeli troops have also made brief incursions into Gaza in recent days to search for possible explosives placed by militants along the border between Gaza and Israel. The raids were 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 Saturday 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.
“To give immunity to those who launch Qassam rockets only because they act from within civilian areas is unacceptable for Israel. With all the grief involved, and all caution taken, sometimes civilians can get harmed,” he told Israel Radio.
He 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. I don’t think it’s the preferred mode of action.”