Palestinians are unhappy but less prone to street protests
RAMALLAH - When Palestinians remember the first intifada, which broke out in 1987, they refer to the “stone revolution” with pride. They reminisce over the time when the majority of those living in Israeli-occupied territories took to the streets in a national struggle for freedom.
Now however, only a few handfuls of people honour calls for demonstrations, prompting journalists covering such events to note sarcastically that they outnumber the protesters. Most of those who do show up are people personally and directly affected by specific Israeli measures. For example, in a recent demonstration against Israel’s prolonged detention of Palestinians, most of those present were the families of detainees.
“We have come to expect tens of participants when we call for public participation in a demonstration”, a young activist told The Arab Weekly.
“The continuous disappointments are a factor,” he added, referring to Palestinian dissatisfaction of the status quo, in which no peaceful settlement appears in the offing. The activist insisted on anonymity.
Declining public participation in politics has marked the last decade, mostly after the second intifada, which broke out in September 2000 following a visit by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. By February 2005, 3,307 Palestinians, including 654 children, and 972 Israelis, including 117 children, had been killed. When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas took office, one of his key slogans in the electoral campaign in 2005 was disarming the intifada.
Despite the failure of the negotiated process to yield a peaceful solution with Israel, Abbas is a firm believer in the political and diplomatic path as the only way to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This conviction is behind the Palestinian Authority’s (PA’s) decision to stop any confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis and curb any move towards a third intifada.
Palestinian security officials are often on the scene to prevent protesters from clashing with the Israeli army or settlers.
“I can’t say that the PA’s suppression of protests had discouraged us but it was an added factor as to why people stopped taking to the streets,” the activist said.
Two years ago, PA riot police clashed with protesters who were marching on to the presidential headquarters to declare their rejection of negotiations with Israel.
The talks stalled two years ago, with no sign that they will resume. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu formed a new cabinet comprising top Israeli hardliners who reject a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians.
On the Palestinian street, there is a general desire to change the status quo but those voices lack an umbrella organisation to lead them and have no shape or a national programme for their struggle to end Israel’s occupation. The Palestinian movement is deeply split between Fatah, headed by Abbas, which controls the West Bank, and the militant Islamist Hamas which runs the Gaza Strip.
“People will not call for an end to the Fatah-Hamas split when they can barely feed their children,” said Hani Masri, head of the Masarat think-tank in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Masri told The Arab Weekly that any national programme needs to be connected to people’s daily concerns.
Also, Palestinians had little to show for the high price they paid in the intifadas. Even hopes in the autonomy deal between Israel and the Palestinians, signed in 1993 to shift Palestinians to statehood, are diminishing.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has repeatedly said that Israel wants a Palestinian Authority “without an authority”.
“People started to feel the financial gap between them and the current leadership,” Masri said. “In the past, the leader would be from the people and not far better off than they are.”
Many Palestinian leaders are chastised for becoming rich after taking office. Some are known to have plush summer homes in Jordan, Europe or the United States.
Nonetheless, demonstrations still occur in several areas. West Bank villages like Nabi Saleh and Beit Ummar have been organising weekly demonstrations against Israel’s separation barrier or settlements built on their lands.
Villagers, however, suggest that Palestinian officials are relaxing in their fancy homes, their sons receiving the best education abroad, while the people on the ground are the ones who fight Israel’s military occupation.
There are additional factors for the Palestinians’ mounting frustration. The complex and deteriorating situation in the Arab world is discouraging them from revolting against growing hardships they are facing, topped by Israel’s continuous occupation, a split between the West Bank and Gaza, growing Jewish settlement activity on Palestinian lands and economic woes.
Palestinians know that Arab backing is crucial to any moves. This explains the young Palestinian movements that sprouted after the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. A large number of protesters, motivated and encouraged by the “Arab spring”, took to West Bank streets in March 2011, calling for Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.
“There was a division among the young groups regarding the priorities and the programme they’ve adopted. Some called for an end to the split, others for the end of Oslo (peace agreements with Israel) and some were in favour of the right of return (to Palestinian territories),” Masri said.
Hope, not despair, motivates people and in the current situation Palestinians see little hope in their future leading them to tend to issues affecting their daily lives.
“Despite their pain, Palestinians still want to continue and are ready to take part in a change” that would improve their lives, Masri said. “The (Palestinian) cause is alive but people are less mobilised nowadays.”