Ramallah, West Bank – While the Gaza Strip continues to be pounded by Israeli missiles, tensions spawned by the attacks are quickly rising in the West Bank.
Anger on the street is palpable with a widespread sense of outrage apparent, not only towards Israel but at the Palestinian Authority (PA) as well.
Palestinians here are angry at the lacklustre response by the PA’s leadership to the Gaza attacks specifically, and its acquiescence to Israel’s demands in general.
Protests against the Gaza onslaught in recent days have turned violent in Ramallah, Hebron and Jenin with clashes around Israeli checkpoints. Israeli soldiers shot two Palestinian men in separate incidents in Nabi Saleh village and in Hebron. Both died on Monday.
More than 50 people were reportedly wounded when Israeli forces fired tear-gas and rubber-coated bullets at protesters on Sunday in Ramallah, Bethlehem, East Jerusalem and the Qalandiya checkpoint. At some demonstrations, protesters were also confronted by PA security forces who attempted to disperse them before they reached Israeli checkpoints.
Hazem Abu Helal was detained and taken for questioning by Palestinian security forces last week, after a protest flared outside an Israeli settlement and military base in Beit El, near Ramallah.
“I was just standing, drying my eyes from tear-gas fired by the Israeli soldiers when the PA [security forces] flooded the place and took me away,” Abu Helal said. “They told me, ‘You are making trouble for us with the Israelis. Don’t embarrass us.'”
Abu Helal said the Palestinian Authority should cease any cooperation and coordination with Israel, a sentiment that is shared with many here who view it as submission to the occupation.
UN bid long forgotten
The authority’s popularity had dwindled long before Israel assassinated Ahmed Jabari, Hamas’ military commander, last week. The assassination escalated the conflict with Palestinians unleashing a flurry of rockets, and Israel attacking Gaza with missiles that have left more than 130 Palestinians dead – almost a quarter of them children, according to human rights groups. Five Israelis have been killed by rockets, including an Israeli soldier on Tuesday.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, arrived in the West Bank on Wednesday and met President Mahmoud Abbas, after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday. She also travels to Cairo for talks with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.
Sometimes-violent protests have broken out throughout the West Bank as a result of a stalemate in political talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Another factor is hard economic times, with the Palestinian Authority desperately short of cash and often unable to pay civil servant salaries. Many of the previous protests were met with an iron fist by security forces, with beatings and detentions.
With the PA’s much-vaunted bid for non-member state status at the UN General Assembly less than two weeks away, Palestinians seemed ambivalent about prospects for change on the political front. The government had hoped the move towards UN non-member status would help its sagging popularity, but some say Israel’s Gaza onslaught has stolen its thunder, and rendered the authority even more irrelevant than before.
“As we say in Arabic, the president is in one valley, and the Palestinian people are in another,” said Bassem Zubeidi, professor of political science at Birzeit University near Ramallah. “The UN bid will bring no changes on the ground. There will just be more of the same after it. Israeli settlement expansion will go on and so will land appropriations.”
Israel has already threatened to punish the Palestinian Authority for going to the UN through economic penalties. As part of the Oslo Accords signed in 1993, Israel collects and transfers tax revenue to the authority – an estimated $1bn a year – which the PA relies heavily on.
The Oslo Accords created the interim Palestinian Authority to govern parts of the occupied territories until a permanent agreement is reached and a Palestinian state created.
“As an observer, I don’t see how the PA is ready to deal with such repercussions,” Zubeidi said of Israel’s threats. “They have no plan, no strategy that will get Palestinians closer to their goal: Palestinian statehood. There is a huge chasm between the public and the PA.”
Abbas – leader of Hamas’ rival Fatah movement – recently declared at his Ramallah headquarters that the attack on Gaza was “happening in order to block our endeavour to reach the United Nations”.
Anger is so prevalent on the streets of the West Bank that the Palestinian Authority has left alone Hamas supporters – a reality that does not happen often. Last week, Hamas flags were surprisingly present in Ramallah, traditionally a Fatah stronghold, in protests against Israel’s bombing campaign.
Abbas has also delivered a conciliatory tone since the offensive began – calling both Hamas’ politburo chief-in-exile Khaled Mishal and Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister in Gaza.
Speaking on Sunday in a televised address, Abbas said he was closely working with Mishal and other Palestinian leaders on the immediate secession of Israeli attacks.
But for many, these words rang hollow. “As Palestinian citizens, we need more than slogans and words,” Abu Helal said. “We have been negotiating for years. Now is the time to try something new.”
“Abbas thought his UN bid would be the most prominent event on a world scale. This won’t happen.“
– Bassem Zubeidi, Birzeit University
Nour Hamayel, a 19-year-old from the city of El-Bireh, expressed similar sentiments. “Going to the UN is the last thing that should be done,” the college student said. “It is neither beneficial in the short or the long term. It is simply a continuation of the Oslo Accords.”
Even one of the president’s Fatah allies, Marwan Barghouti – currently in an Israeli prison serving a life-sentence for murder – has called on Abbas to head to Gaza immediately to demonstrate “steadfastness and resistance”.
Abbas has not entered Gaza since the people there voted for Hamas over Fatah in a 2007 election. Since then, separate political systems have effectively been in place, with Western-backed Fatah governing the West Bank and Hamas overseeing Gaza.
Hamas has slowly been emboldened by a shift in the regional dynamics heralded by a new Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt and Tunisia. Qatar’s diplomatic initiatives have helped after the gas-rich Gulf state began pumping money into development projects aimed at re-building the embattled Gaza Strip.
“Abbas thought his UN bid would be the most prominent event on a world scale,” Professor Zubeidi said. “This won’t happen. The Arab Spring has dealt him and the region a different set of cards, and with the numerous global problems, the UN step will just be an after-thought.”
Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @DaliaHatuqa