- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank — At a time when Hezbollah has enjoyed a surge in popularity throughout the Arab world from the monthlong war with Israel, the Hamas-led government is losing support over its inability to pay salaries of government employees.

A strike by disgruntled government workers kept Palestinian public schools, government offices and public hospitals closed yesterday for the third consecutive day.

“We just want to feed our families,” said Jihad Abu Zneid, a legislator from the Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “We need early elections.”

A Western-aid embargo prompted by Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel has left more than 150,000 Palestinian government workers without regular paychecks for the past six months.

Another Palestinian legislator from the Fatah party, Azzam al-Ahmad, warned yesterday that Mr. Abbas may fire the Hamas-led Palestinian government if it does not agree to recognize Israel and take other steps to end a U.S. and European embargo.

“If the performance of the government continues like this, President [Abbas] will use his constitutional powers to fire the government and pick a new government,” Mr. al-Ahmad, head of Fatah’s parliamentary bloc, told Reuters news agency.

The walkout gives Mr. Abbas additional leverage to persuade Hamas-picked Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to relent on the group’s rejection of peace talks with Israel.

“When the Palestinian government becomes incapable of delivering, it will be frank with the people,” said Mohammed Barghouti, the Hamas-appointed Palestinian social welfare minister. “The solution is unity and a domestic agreement that respects both parties.”

Some schools in the West Bank remained closed by force yesterday, with masked militants supporting the strike keeping away children and teachers.

In Nablus, the pro-strike militants shot and wounded a 12-year-old boy.

Anarchy in the streets has marked the first six months of the Hamas administration. Rival security forces have failed to establish order and at times fought each other.

The Israeli army has ordered its soldiers back into Gaza in retaliation for the July 25 kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

A similar kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah three weeks later led to an inconclusive 34-day war that made the Shi’ite militia of southern Lebanon popular throughout the Arab world.

Palestinian government employees have continued to rack up steep debts because donors in Europe and the United States have refused to bankroll an administration that refuses to recognize Israel.

Mr. Barghouti and other Hamas officials have argued that the crisis is the doing of Israel and the United States, which refused to accept the Islamists’ landslide victory in January.

But the public-sector strike that began over the weekend is shifting at least some of the blame to Hamas’ intransigence.

“The crisis has reached the peak. People can’t wait any longer without income,” said Samir Barghouti, director of the Arab Center for Economic Development.

“The Arab pressure, the international pressure and the Israeli pressure has worked. Regular people are saying, ‘We elected Hamas and we trust Hamas, but Hamas is not able to bring results.’”

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