|PA employees fear for jobs in post-Arafat era|
|Political fallout may be final blow to economy
Money from EU, Arab countries could dry up, worsening an already dire financial situation
Employees of Yasser Arafat's cash-strapped Palestinian Authority said on Sunday they feared for their livelihoods should the veteran president die, as officials and the World Bank raised the alarm over the growing budget deficit.
"Our salaries are already a week late, and my colleagues and I are scared this delay could herald more problems in the future, especially if, God forbid, the president dies," said said Im Mohammed, 34, a school teacher. "We know that the money for our salaries was not coming from Arafat's pocket, but if he goes, there could be political and security chaos which would also destabilize the economy."
Some 800,000 Palestinians, almost a third of the total population, live off PA salaries, which in turn keep the food, clothing and beverage industries going in the otherwise shattered private sector.
The prospect of the imminent death of the PA's leader at a time when the authority is already struggling to foot salary bills has only added to the worries of employees.
More than 30 percent of the population is unemployed while 50 percent of Palestinians live below the official poverty line of $2 a day.
The PA's budget, including civil servants' salaries, is mostly financed by the European Union (EU) and Arab countries as well as from dwindling income taxes and other revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the PA.
The last two sources have almost dried up since the beginning of the four-year-old intifada owing to the Palestinian economic crisis and Israel's irregular transfers of withheld revenues, which it uses as political leverage.
Mohammed and Ahmed, both working for Arafat's Force 17 security guard, said that they were very worried about their future.
"God knows if we'll still have a job if Abu Ammar dies. How will we support our family and pay the bills?" asked Ahmed, using Arafat's nom-de-guerre.
A financial director at one the PA's sprawling security services said the endemic budget crisis dated from long before Arafat's illness.
"The EU has been reliable, but the Arab Gulf countries have not fulfilled their commitments," he said on condition of anonymity. "With Arafat around, we could rest assured that he would always solve our financial problems."
World Bank director for the West Bank and Gaza Nigel Roberts also pointed to "much reduced contributions from Arab countries and a considerable amount of withheld revenues by Israel that have been a cause of concern for the past year."
But he said that, while Palestinian had every reason to be concerned, "it's completely false to think that if Arafat dies they won't be paid. The regularity of payment is a stabilizing factor for the Palestinian economy."
Azmi Sheibi, who heads the Palestinian Parliament's Economic Commission, said "the budget deficit problem and concerns over salaries started long before President Arafat's illness, but uncertainty about the future certainly adds to the panic.
"We need donor countries to fulfill their commitments and we've been discussing this matter with the minister of finance," he said.
Other PA officials said the political leadership, which is filling in for Arafat while he lies between life and death at a Paris hospital, was "shrewdly exploiting fears over financial insecurity."
Acting Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Mahmoud Abbas "said in an executive committee meeting of the PLO that unless donors raised their contributions the PA could collapse," said a financial director at a ministry. "It's obvious donors will do their utmost to guarantee that salaries are paid because, if people can't feed their family, they'll wreak havoc.
"In fact, European and especially American contributions are likely to increase in the post-Arafat era, under a new and improved Palestinian leadership."
Beirut,11 15 2004
The Daily Star