Palestinian public service workers walked off their jobs Tuesday at the beginning of a two-day protest against their government's efforts to force them to pay their utility bills.
The new measure reflects widespread economic hardship in the West Bank after seven years of conflict with Israel, including international economic sanctions and tough Israeli restrictions. Many Palestinians are unable to pay even routine bills and have run up huge amounts of debt.
The 40,000 workers are trying to force the Palestinian Authority to rescind the new requirement that Palestinians obtain a certificate showing they have paid their electricity and water bills before they can receive government services.
West Bank citizens owe about $500 million in back utility bills. About 2 million Palestinians live in the West Bank.
Bassam Zakarneh, head of the Palestinian public workers union, said the decision to collect the back bills is "illegal, hasty and wrong" adding that it "harms the dignity of the employees".
Ibrahim Moussa, 65, who supports an extended family of 27 with only two breadwinners, refused to pay. He said he owes $16,000 for electricity and $5,250 for water in bills dating back to 1997. "We demand that the government find us jobs and then we'll pay" he said, "but as long as there are no jobs, there is no money."
Government spokesman Riad Malki says that the Palestinian Authority will look into the best ways to collect the debts without affecting people's civil rights.
The government, headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, is in effective control only of the West Bank. Islamic Hamas militants overran the Gaza Strip last June, expelling forces loyal to Abbas.