‘HALT PRIVATISATION POLICIES’ – Palestinian protesters demand of PNA

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PROTESTERS rallied across the West Bank on Saturday, criticizing government policies that have lead to a rise in living costs.

In Hebron, hundreds marched from the Hebron municipality headquarters to the ministry of economy building, at a rally organized by leftist groups. Demonstrations were also held in Bethlehem, Nablus and Salfit.

Protesters called on the PA to revoke new tax laws proposed at the start of this year, and chanted ‘social and democratic rights will guarantee national rights.’

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said in early January that the PA was planning to double the income tax rate to 30 per cent as part of efforts to cut the budget deficit to $750 million in 2012, from $1.1 billion a year earlier.

After launching a ‘national dialogue’ on the government’s economic policies, Fayyad announced last Sunday it was suspending the proposed income tax hike.

Protesters on Saturday aimed to up the pressure on the PA to revoke the measures, and warned that prices had already risen because of government policies.

Othman Abu Sabha, a member of the National Initiative party, said the protests were a ‘natural response to government measures which have increased unemployment.’

‘We are becoming beggars under this new government policy, we don’t want a government that forces us to pay so many taxes,’ said protester Badawi Al-Turk.

‘The government wants to increase its revenues while Israel’s occupation forbids Palestinians from controlling their lands and crossings,’ PFLP member Badran Jaber said.

Palestinian People’s Party leader Khalid Mansour called on the PA to lower taxes on basic goods, in particular fuel, electricity, water, food and medicine.

The PPP organized Saturday’s demonstration in Bethlehem, which called for the government to cancel its economic programme, saying it failed to promote social justice.

Proposed tax reform will increase the wealth of the rich and harm the poor, demonstrators said.

One protester in Salfit questioned what services people would receive in exchange for the tax rise. ‘The people pay themselves for almost everything, including health insurance and education, while in other countries citizens get services for their taxes,’ he complained.

Leftist parties organizing the Hebron protest released a statement on Saturday calling on the PA to ‘immediately halt its privatization policy and to review the budget to take into account people’s national and humanitarian needs.’

Meanwhile, Fatah leader President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas chief Khalid Mashaal are to meet in the Qatari capital to review progress on a reconciliation deal between their parties, a Fatah official said.

The main issue on their agenda is the formation of a unity government to end four years of separate administrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The leaders agreed in Cairo to start serious consultation on the composition of the new government by Feb ruary 21, Ahmad said.

Secretary-general of Fatah Revolutionary Council Amin Maqboul said last week that failure to appoint a new cabinet is the main obstacle to holding elections and proceeding with the deal.

After the rival factions signed a reconciliation deal in May 2011, they agreed to hold elections within a year, and appoint an interim government to unite both territories.

But the parties sparred for months over the candidate to lead the unity government.

After meeting in November to kickstart the stalled deal, Mashaal and Abbas indicated that elections would still be held by May 2012, but Abbas has yet to issue a presidential decree which is required three months prior to the vote.

Al-Ahmad, who is part of the Fatah delegation in Qatar, said reconciliation was crucial to face the stalemate in the peace process with Israel.

Abbas and Mashaal will review all developments since their November summit, Al-Ahmad said, including the work of the public freedoms committee tasked with resolving political detentions, the issuing of passports in Gaza and other rights violations.

They will also discuss PLO reform, including a committee established to prepare for elections to the PLO parliament, he added.

• Israeli policies have arbitrarily denied thousands of Palestinians the right to live in or travel to and from the West Bank and Gaza, an international rights group said on Sunday.

‘Israel’s control over the population registry has significantly reduced the registered Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza, probably by hundreds of thousands of people,’ the report by Human Rights Watch said.

‘This reduction has occurred while Israel has simultaneously increased the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, in violation of international humanitarian law on transferring one’s population to occupied territory.’

Israel’s 1967 census of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza excluded at least 270,000 Palestinians who were not present in the aftermath of the war in which Israel seized the territories, the group said.

Israel later removed from the registry Palestinians who travelled abroad for significant periods, including some 130,000 West Bank Palestinians between 1967 and 1994, the report noted.

Since 2000, Israel stopped processing residency applications by unregistered Palestinians who live or have family and work ties to the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel received an estimated 120,000 such applications that it did not process between 2000 and 2005, the report said.

Meanwhile Palestinians registered in Gaza were forbidden from travelling to the West Bank or changing their registered address despite living in the West Bank.

‘Around 35,000 of these ‘Gazans’ had entered and resided in the West Bank using temporary permits that have expired,’ Human Rights Watch said.

Around 12,000 unregistered Palestinians live in Gaza, and are forbidden by Egyptian authorities from travelling through its Rafah crossing out of the coastal strip, according to the report.

Citing a political gesture to the Palestinian Authority, Israel processed 33,000 registration applications between 2007 and 2009, and allowed around 2,800 Palestinians registered in Gaza to change their address to the West Bank.

‘Israel should allow Palestinians to live in their homes with their families, and to travel freely, not treat its control over where Palestinians can live as a political bargaining chip,’ Middle East director at Human Rights Watch Sarah Leah Whitson said.

‘These steps have not cleared the backlog,’ the report added, noting that the indiscriminate policy towards registration does not screen individuals for security threats.

‘Israel has never put forth any concrete security rationale for blanket policies that have made life a nightmare for Palestinians whom it considers unlawful residents in their own homes,’ Whitson said.

‘The current policies leave families divided and people trapped on the wrong side of the border in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel should revise these policies and process requests for families to reunite, so that Palestinians can live with their families where they want.’