Jonathan-cook.net – 3 March 2011
More than a thousand Palestinians who staged a day of rage in the West Bank city of Hebron last week were left with few illusions about how their struggle for liberation differs from that of Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans.
Hebron was the focus of protest because a tiny enclave of Jewish settlers living illegally in the heart of the city and protected by Israeli soldiers has made the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians wretched.
The protesters were confronted, on one side, by massed ranks of Israeli paramilitary police, while Palestinian security forces assisted by blocking the entry of demonstrators from the other side. Squeezed into their own little Tahrir Square, the protesters suffered tear gas and baton attacks from the Israeli police while the Palestinian forces mutely stood by.
While this was not exactly a joint security operation, it neatly highlighted the main dilemma facing any Palestinian protest movement. What must Palestinians first liberate themselves from: Israel’s occupation, or their leadership’s effective complicity in it?
Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Ramallah-based government-in-permanent-waiting, are keenly worried about how Palestinians may ultimately answer that question.
In recent months, the PA’s credibility in the West Bank and Gaza has been in freefall. Its reputation was severely battered by the leaking in January of the so-called Palestine Papers, documents that showed senior officials preparing to give away most of the shop in return for the right to name the leftovers a Palestinian state.
The use of American-trained Palestinian security forces in the West Bank to repress any sign of protest in solidarity with pro-democracy activists in neighbouring Arab states has further dented the faith of Palestinians in their leaders.
Weak and dependent on Israeli and US good will, the PA is aware that it is treading a dangerous path. Unless it asserts itself against both the occupier and its chief political rival, Hamas, some in the PA fear, it could end up sharing the fate of the deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
That explains the PA’s dramatic recent change of tack.
In the immediate wake of Mubarak’s ousting, Palestinian officials announced that long-delayed presidential and parliamentary elections would be held as early as September. President Mahmoud Abbas has been suffering a legitimacy deficit since his term of office expired more than two years ago.
For the first time, the PA leadership also turned a defiant face to Washington, in stark contrast to the weak-kneed positions it adopted, according to the Palestine Papers, at recent peace negotiations. Its decision to push before the UN Security Council a resolution against Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank cornered the US into casting a lone and embarrassing veto.
If it is to maintain its credibility at home, the PA will have little choice but to continue appealing over the heads of Israel and the US to the rest of the international community.
In coming months we are likely to see the PA again showing its mettle, this time by lobbying at the UN for acceptance of the Goldstone Commission’s report, which suggested that Israel committed many war crimes during its three-week attack on Gaza two years ago.
And in September, around the time of the expected elections, the PA will probably chase votes with a unilateral declaration of statehood at the UN – again over the trenchant opposition of both Israel and the US.
The PA’s strategy is to to harness the pent-up frustration building against it on the Palestinian street and redirect it outwards, at Israel and the US. The leadership trusts that this is the way to save its skin. Israel, on the other hand, appears to fear that the PA is riding a tiger it cannot control.
Certainly, the promise of elections will not quell Palestinian dissatisfaction if Hamas refuses to participate, as seems almost certain. And a series of stymied moves at the UN are unlikely to help burnish the PA’s reputation either.
Instead, a future day of rage called by the PA – to protest against, say, a US veto against a declaration of statehood – might rapidly metamorphose into a Cairo-style stand-off to topple the Palestinian leadership.
It is just such a scenario that has prompted the Israeli army to establish what it is calling “rapid-response teams”, using intensive surveillance of the main Palestinian cities to spot early signs of trouble and intervene.
Israeli commanders are reported to be worried that the occupied territories may soon see Egypt-style mass demonstrations that could sweep away the PA. That would be an unmitigated disaster for Israel, forcing it into directly reoccupying the West Bank – an extremely costly move and one that would further tarnish its international image.
The removal of the PA would also – and this is what keeps Israeli leaders awake at night – expose Israel to the unmediated wrath of Palestinian protesters demanding an end to their subjugation. Without the PA, Palestinians would be free to vent their full fury at Israel’s occupying army.
In recent days Israeli commentators, from the veteran peace activist Uri Avnery to a columnist for the rightwing Jerusalem Post, have conjured up scenes of Palestinians in their tens of thousands tearing down the separation wall and marching on the checkpoints.
Palestinians have long held the view that, faced with mass non-violent resistance of this kind, Israel’s most likely response would mirror Libyan tyrant Muammar Gadaffi’s: turning its guns and planes on demonstrators without mercy.
Can Israel afford such a discomforting comparison or would it stay its hand? How Palestinians answer this question will be a major factor in determining what happens next.