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Palestinians tighten belts as aid crisis bites

Written by: Staff

Ramallah (West Bank), Apr 11: Maroof Rawashdeh stopped going to work for the Palestinian Authority when the money ran out to pay his bus fare.

He has no idea when he might get another paycheck now Hamas has taken over a government that has no cash and little prospect of essential donor funding unless the Islamist group bows to pressure to soften its stand on Israel.

''My pockets are empty. I borrowed from all the people I know and they cannot lend to me again,'' said Rawashdeh, a father of seven and technician with the Palestinian national broadcaster.

The Palestinian financial crisis is already taking a toll on an economy crippled during years of fighting with Israel.

But there is little indication so far that it will force Hamas to bow to Western and Israeli demands that it recognise the Jewish state it is sworn to destroy, renounce violence and accept past accords between Israel and the Palestinians.

Rawashdeh needs 20 shekels (4.30 dollars) a day, about a third of his salary, to pay the fare in a minibus from his village of Bitin to his workplace in Ramallah.

This is by no means the first time that he and the 140,000 or so government employees had not been paid on schedule, but the situation is worse this time because nobody knows when, or if, salaries will ever come.

New Finance Minister Omar Abdel-Razeq has said bluntly that the Palestinian Authority cannot pay salaries, at least for now.

Israel cut off tax revenue transfers to the Authority even before Hamas took office following its election victory. The United States and European Union suspended aid to the government, though Washington promised more humanitarian aid.


Salary payments of about 8 million a month are an important engine for the Palestinian economy, dependent on aid and government spending.

Normally, shops and markets are packed during the first two weeks of the month. There was little sign of shoppers early this week as government workers began tightening their belts and concentrating on essentials.

''No more candy, no more meat. Lentils and beans are fine,'' said civil servant Majdi Sharour, a father of four.

Payments for mortgages and loans are also usually made at the start of the month.

''All these cheques bounced,'' said a bank official in Ramallah, waving a bundle of paper. ''The pockets are empty.'' Palestinian officials said that if money did come available, priority would be given to low-ranking employees who find it harder to endure long salary delays.

There are particular worries over what already restive security forces, tens of thousands strong, will do if they do not get paid quickly.

Hamas calls the decision of Western countries to cut aid ''blackmail'' and punishment for Palestinian voters who rejected moderate President Mahmoud Abbas's long-dominant Fatah movement, widely accused of corruption.

Some Palestinians blamed the reluctance of Hamas to change for the suspension of foreign aid.

''People need to eat, they do not need political slogans,'' said Sharour.

But others believe the crisis will only increase the popularity of the Islamists.

''With each dollar withheld, Hamas will get more support in return,'' said taxi driver Omar Rajab.


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