Weakened by Israel, Abbas Could Do Nothing to Prevent Fatal Attacks

The Palestinians see their president's actions, or lack thereof, as resounding failure and defeatism at best, and conscious collaboration with Israel at worst.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, October 2, 2015.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, October 2, 2015.Credit: AP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The "thundering" silence of Mahmoud Abbas after the murder of the Henkin couple does not attest to support for armed attacks. It shows that the Palestinian president understands that he has to account for Palestinian public opinion, and this public opinion cannot see the settlers as innocent civilians.

The Palestinians see themselves as personal and collective victims of all settlers. For Palestinians, armed attacks against Israelis, especially within the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) are just a response to Israeli violence, a response which will never compare to the injustice done to them.

This does not mean that every Palestinian automatically supports murder. Palestinian media referred to Eitam Henkin's military past and stressed information – most likely wrong – about his senior role in military intelligence. In other words, they hinted he should not be treated as a civilian (while directly ignoring his wife as a target of the bullets). The Palestinian media reports also quoted Israeli speculation that the killers intentionally avoided harming the Henkin couple's children. After the murder of the Fogel family in Itamar, voices objecting to attacking the children of settlers grew.

The Israeli government judges Abbas according to his public declarations and his silence, but his public judges him by his deeds, or more correctly what it see as his lack of action opposite the Israeli regime. The Palestinian public sees a leader that is incapable of defending his people and its interests, incapable of defending against daily Israeli military incursions into neighborhoods and homes and fatal fire by soldiers. He is incapable of defending their right to pray at Al-Aqsa. He does not defend them from economic deterioration, from settler attacks and the ever-continuing grab of their lands by settlers and the Civil Administration.

Abbas truly abhors the use of weapons and attacks against civilians, not just Palestinian civilians but also Israeli civilians, among them settlers. If he didn't object, he would not have stood for years behind the policy of security cooperation with Israel and stuck to his diplomatic route, even though it was proven unable to stop Israel's settlement policy in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

His control of funds belonging to the PLO, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, and the growth of an economically established class that integrated into the status quo allowed him and the heads of his security apparatuses to maintain security coordination. His "thundering" silence, as Benjamin Netanyahu complained, over the murder of the Henkin couple, and dropping the bomb that wasn't at the UN, did not end security cooperation. Hamas sources even report arrests of their members, although they do not seem related to Thursday's attack.

Abbas has feared and continues to fear militarization, the certain strengthening of Hamas in case of military escalation, the disaster it would cause the Palestinians, first and foremost. But because the Israeli government has responded to Abbas's approach only with what Palestinians experience as increasing oppression and abuse, the weakened Palestinian president is unable to make his public accept the logic behind his fears. What his public sees is the resounding failure of his way and defeatism at best, and conscious collaboration with Israel at worst. Thus, even Abbas, who is out of touch with his public more than any other Palestinian leader, cannot ignore the scorn for him and the descent of his status to an unprecedented low.

As expected, Naftali Bennett rushed to place responsibility for the Old City murder on Abbas and the PA on Saturday night. In the eyes of the Palestinian public, this placement of responsibility only emphasizes Abbas's pathetic situation. He doesn't even go to Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa. He cannot leave roads passing through the Area C in the West Bank without permission from and coordination with Israel, and still Israel holds him responsible for what happens within its own areas of security control. The way in which Israel makes Abbas a laughing stock, in the eyes of the Palestinian public, only weakens his arguments against using weapons even more.

In a public opinion poll held during the former peak of escalation in Jerusalem, from the 17th to the 19th of September, 42 percent of the respondents said the most effective means of reaching a solution of a Palestinian state alongside Israel is armed struggle, up from 36 percent three months earlier. In parallel, the survey revealed an additional decline in the status of the PLO and Abbas, a rise in pessimism about a diplomatic solution and a rise in the feeling of abandonment by Arab states.

Khalil Shikaki, director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, who conducted the poll, said 10 days ago: "At the beginning of 2000, polls showed there was not much support for violence. There was support by June 2000. Now, we see again a rise in support of violence. It is clear we are on the edge of a new development. The support reflects a clear situation of frustration and a very pessimistic outlook. It needs only a spark, for the situation is fertile for a major explosion."

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