Palestinian forces break up Ramallah protest over Gaza

RAMALLAH: Palestinian security forces fired stun grenades and tear gas to disperse a rare anti-government protest in the occupied West Bank Wednesday, an AFP reporter said, as hundreds demonstrated against Palestinian punitive measures against Hamas-run Gaza.

The protest in central Ramallah, the West Bank city that houses the Palestinian government, was in defiance of a temporary ban on demonstrations announced earlier Wednesday.

The protesters were demanding that 83-year-old Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas drop measures against Gaza which critics say amount to collective punishment of the two million residents there.

After the protesters were dispersed organisers pledged to again flaunt the ban by holding fresh rallies in the coming days in a new challenge for the ailing and unpopular Palestinian leader.

"There will be more protests within the next week," campaign activist Fadi Quran told AFP.

Gaza, which is only reachable from the West Bank via Israeli territory, is run by Islamists Hamas, who seized it from the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in a 2007 near civil war.

Seemingly to hurt Hamas, the PA has introduced a series of measures against Gaza over the past year, while it has not paid the full salaries of tens of thousands of its civil servants in the strip for months.

Critics say such moves further exacerbate the split between the two parts of the Palestinian territories.

Since 2007, Israel has maintained a crippling blockade on Gaza which it says is necessary to isolate Hamas, but which detractors say amounts to collective punishment.

'Pro Gaza, not pro Hamas'

The protests come at a difficult time for Abbas, who was recently hospitalised for a week with a lung infection.

Polls show the majority of Palestinians want him to resign.

He is also facing potential isolation after cutting off all contact with Donald Trump's administration, accusing the US President of pro-Israel bias.

The decision to ban protests in the city came after a Sunday demonstration, in which some 2,000 Palestinians called for an end to the Gaza measures.

A statement on official news agency Wafa on Wednesday cited the Eid Muslim festival which is expected to begin Friday as justification for the ban.

On Wednesday night dozens of Palestinian security forces, positioned in the city's central Manara square and roads leading to it, fired sound grenades and tear gas after hundreds of protestors began chanting in support of Gaza.

The measures forced the protestors, including men, women and children, to retreat, before returning, with the scene repeating itself for nearly an hour.

A small group of pro-Abbas demonstrators then emerged, but were not dispersed by the security forces.

There was no immediate confirmation on the number of arrests and injuries, but AFP correspondents saw a number of people being detained.

Quran denied that the march was pro-Hamas, instead stressing that it was in favour of Palestinian political unity and ending the decade-long split.

"The protest was mostly made up of Palestinian youth, activists who don't belong to any political party," Quran said.

"A massive amount of security forces in the square began arresting and attacking people as soon as they arrived."

Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation agreement last October, but it has since collapsed.

The United Nations has said Gaza will be unlivable by 2020. — AFP