Unpaid Palestinian workers launch attack on parliament

June 15, 2006|By TRACY WILKINSON | TRACY WILKINSON,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- In the latest spasm of chaos, angry Palestinian government employees who haven't been paid in months stormed the parliament building here yesterday, and skirmishes between rival factions in the Gaza Strip left at least one person dead.

Nearly daily violence comes as part of a volatile power struggle percolating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since late January, when the militant Hamas movement unseated the Fatah party in legislative elections. It has plunged Palestinian society into financial and political disaster and raised the specter of all-out civil conflict.

One bit of temporary relief: The Palestinians' foreign minister returned yesterday from a tour of Muslim nations, with a reported $20 million stuffed in his suitcases.

The Hamas-led government has been desperate for cash since Western nations that sustained the Palestinian Authority for years froze most funding because of the group's endorsement of violence and refusal to recognize Israel.

Chanting "we are hungry," scores of protesters burst into the parliament yesterday as lawmakers gathered for a morning session. The pro-Fatah protesters hurled water bottles at Hamas legislators, climbed atop desks, upended files and drove the speaker of parliament, Aziz Dweik, of Hamas, to flee under guard.

It was the second attack in as many days at the parliament, which stands as a symbol of contested political power. Fatah gunmen shot up and burned the building on Monday and briefly abducted a Hamas legislator. The building's windows were still cracked and pockmarked yesterday.

After yesterday's actions, Hamas responded with its own counter-demonstration. Hundreds of men and women, many waving or draped in the green Hamas flag, surged through Ramallah streets and rallied outside the parliament and the offices of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, also of Hamas. Shopkeepers in the central business district shuttered their stores, either in support of the demonstrators or out of fear of more violence.

"There are parties who are trying to stir up trouble and create divisions among the Palestinians," Hamas official Farhat Assad declared to the Hamas demonstrators. Addressing Fatah supporters, he added: "We ask, whose interests are you serving through these actions, burning down our institutions? It is uglier than the practices of the Israeli occupation."

Separately, a gang of youths from the Amari refugee camp went on a vandalism spree after a companion was fatally shot by Palestinian police while he allegedly tried to steal a car. The gang smashed traffic lights and attacked businesses, including a popular restaurant called Stones that had become a favorite among Westernized yuppie Palestinians. While the violence was not political, it contributed to the sense of lawlessness.

The real power struggle is over who controls the streets and the guns. Sporadic fighting between Fatah and Hamas security cadres has erupted in recent weeks, with more than a dozen people killed.

Yesterday, in the Gazan town of Khan Younis, armed Hamas militants ambushed and wounded the local commander of Fatah-dominated security services loyal to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president who is opposed to Hamas. Supporters of Rifat Kulab, the commander, shot and killed a Hamas gunman. That man's supporters, in turn, torched Kulab's home.

At virtually the same time, Abbas and Haniyeh were meeting in Gaza City with their top security officials in an attempt to halt the increasingly deadly infighting.

The officials said later they had agreed to a plan to integrate a 3,000-man militia formed by the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry into the Fatah-dominated national police. That way, said Mohammed Dahlan, a top security official and Fatah member who announced the agreement, only uniformed agents belonging to a single institution will be on the streets.

"It is clear there is a chaos," Dahlan said.

But Dahlan offered few details on how the integration would work, nor did he present a timetable. It appeared that key elements had yet to be agreed to. Previous agreements to end the conflict between competing security services failed, and the latest plan was greeted with general skepticism.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, also of Hamas, was apparently doing his bit for the Palestinians' cash flow problems. He returned to Gaza from a tour of Muslim countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Iran, and was carrying $20 million worth of euros in his luggage, according to several Palestinian officials.

Transporting large amounts of cash has become a somewhat common way to infuse government coffers since the international boycott against Hamas has made banks unwilling to get involved with money transfers to an organization that the United States considers a terrorist group.

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angles Times.

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