GAZA (Reuters) – Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s guards fired into the air on Monday to clear a path through striking workers who mobbed his motorcade in another sign of deep divides on the road to a unity government.
The protest outside parliament forced Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, to cancel a speech to the legislature on how his government was dealing with an economic crisis that has increased poverty in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The parliamentary session was suspended when members of President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction left the chamber to join the protesters, who chanted “Haniyeh, where are the salaries?” and “Haniyeh go home.”
A strike by government employees started on September 2.
Some protesters jumped on top of Haniyeh’s car, and the prime minister’s bodyguards and members of a Hamas-led police force responded by firing rifles into the air to force them back. One woman was slightly hurt.
An aid embargo spearheaded by Washington has prevented the Hamas-led government from paying salaries to 165,000 workers since the Islamic militant group took power in March. The wage bill is around $120 million a month.
The workers’ unions are dominated by Fatah, defeated by Hamas in parliamentary elections in January. The strike has shut down hundreds of Palestinian public schools and health clinics.
Haniyeh brushed aside the protest as democracy gone too far.
Abbas and Haniyeh agreed last week to form a coalition government in a bid to ease the aid embargo. But after Washington raised objections, Abbas froze talks, aides said.
Haniyeh said there was an agreement to delay, not freeze the talks. “The occurrence of a problem here or there does not mean that we have reached a dead end,” he told a cabinet meeting.
In a small boost for Haniyeh, Qatar said it had donated $50 million to help the Palestinian Authority pay overdue wages.
The U.S.-allied Gulf state has previously given money to the Authority despite calls from Washington to halt funding unless the government recognizes Israel and renounces violence.
In northern Israel, a criminal court indicted three Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas on a raft of charges including helping carry out the deadly operation to snatch two soldiers that sparked a war with the Jewish state.
The three men, all in their early 20s, were also charged with murder, attempted murder and belonging to a terrorist group.
The trial opening in Nazareth District Court reflects Israel’s view that Hizbollah, a Shi’ite group which enjoys broad support in Lebanon and representation in the Beirut government and parliament, is not a legitimate fighting force.
Officials said the three men — Mahmoud Ali Suleiman, Mohammed Srur and Maher Qurani — were captured in Lebanon by Israeli forces during the war, launched after Hizbollah seized the two soldiers and killed eight others in a July 12 ambush.
All three were accused of having support roles in that raid.
One of the two state-appointed lawyers representing the Hizbollah captives said they would probably contest the charges at a follow-up reading of the indictment slated for Oct 5.
Israeli political sources have predicted the release of Lebanese prisoners in exchange for the two soldiers. Even if convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, the three Hizbollah captives could expect to be included.
In a separate case, an Israeli military court withheld a ruling on the release of 21 senior Hamas officials detained after Palestinian militants abducted an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid from Gaza in June. Jawad Boulos, a defense lawyer, told Reuters a decision could be issued on Thursday.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Israel may release more Palestinian prisoners than expected as part of a possible deal covering the release of the Israeli soldier.
It could involve the release of an initial large batch of women and children and then Palestinian prisoners in three batches, the state news agency MENA quoted Mubarak as saying on Sunday night, without giving an overall figure.