GAZA,(Reuters) – Thousands of Palestinian security men fired off automatic rifles and smashed windows at parliament in Gaza on Thursday in one of the biggest protests over unpaid wages since the Hamas government took office.
Protesters criticised a plan by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who is also a senior leader of the Hamas Islamic militant group, to make partial salary payments to the lowest paid workers in the Palestinian Authority in the next few days.
“We want to know when this tragedy will stop,” one security official shouted through a loudspeaker outside the parliament building in central Gaza City.
Most of the protesters were from forces loyal to the Fatah movement of moderate President Mahmoud Abbas. They dispersed after around three hours.
The government has been unable to pay salaries for three months to 165,000 government workers after the United States and other Western countries imposed sanctions over Hamas’s refusal to recognise Israel, disarm and accept interim peace accords.
The embargo has deepened a humanitarian crisis in the occupied West Bank and the impoverished Gaza Strip.
Some protesters climbed onto the roof of parliament in Gaza and smashed several windows.
Haniyeh pledged on Tuesday to pay a full month’s wages in a few days to 40,000 workers whose monthly salaries were less than 1,500 shekels ($332). He also promised to pay each of the other 125,000 government workers, who earn higher salaries, an advance of 1,500 shekels. The finance minister later said it was unclear when workers who earn more would get their money.
“The 1,500 shekels are not enough to pay debts, buy milk and diapers,” said one banner stuck to the gate of parliament. The government’s inability to pay wages as well as a power struggle with Abbas over control of the security forces have sparked fears that tensions could spiral out of control. Clashes last month between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza killed 10 people.
Hamas formed a government in March after beating Fatah in parliamentary elections in January. Abbas was elected separately in early 2005 in a ballot Hamas did not contest.
The fresh unrest comes a day after a senior U.N. official said international proposals to pay only some Palestinian workers, mainly in the health sector, could fuel tensions unless major donors agreed to leave the door open to expand the mechanism later to pay security forces and others.
Seeking to help needy Palestinians while bypassing the government, the Quartet of international peace mediators is putting together an aid mechanism to provide direct assistance.
The Quartet comprises the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. Because of U.S. and Israeli opposition to paying salaries to government workers, the mechanism is expected to initially pay “allowances” only to health workers and possibly other social sector employees.
But Alvaro de Soto, the U.N. special envoy for the Middle East peace process, told Reuters on Wednesday the mechanism should be flexible. He said he dreaded the consequences of paying some workers and not others. Around 70,000 security men are on the government payroll.