Pillars of smoke from burning tires, masked men hiding behind overturned dumpsters, ambulances on standby, sounds of distant shooting, and dozens of men watching from not far away. No women are present. This is the road to the Beit El checkpoint at the eastern entrance to Ramallah and El Bireh. The bystanders can’t see the soldiers — two houses in the field before the checkpoint block the view.
The checkpoint has been closed since Sunday night because of the ongoing demonstrations and clashes. Wednesday, it was students from Birzeit University who came to express their opinion by throwing stones and burning tires a few hundred meters from the soldiers. They and others continued demonstrating at the site even after three of their fellows were arrested by undercover soldiers – an operation the Palestinian media termed an “abduction.”
One of the three reportedly suffered a serious bullet wound to the head. At least eight others were also wounded by Israel Defense Forces fire and evacuated to the hospital.
Ever since the second intifada, to ensure that hundreds of settlers from Beit El could travel comfortably, this checkpoint has been closed to tens of thousands of Palestinians – everyone except VIPs, essential employees of the Palestinian Authority, senior NGO officials, diplomats and foreign journalists. Recently, these restrictions were eased slightly: Anyone could enter Ramallah through the checkpoint, though exit restrictions remained in force. But since Monday, it has been closed even to the abovementioned special cases due to the incessant demonstrations and clashes.
During previous periods of tension – for instance, during last year’s war in Gaza – the checkpoint wasn’t closed, because the PA security services prevented demonstrators from approaching it. But now, PA security personnel aren’t there. Instead, they’re deployed not far away, around the home of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and the nearby road leading to Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank (“the real government,” as Palestinians say). There, no demonstrators are allowed.
Of all the enclaves that comprise Area A, the part of the West Bank under full PA control, the Ramallah enclave has been the most isolated by the clashes – of all places, Ramallah, the unofficial capital, the nonstop city, the place shown off to diplomats from donor countries so they’ll be awed by the PA’s achievements. Demonstrations and clashes occur frequently at all the exits leading eastward to Area C (full Israeli control) and Jerusalem – Qalandiyah, Beit El, the Jalazun refugee camp and Atara. Thus travelers must take detours to enter or leave it. Or else not leave.
The Israeli checkpoints and military bases at the exits from Area A attract demonstrators because they symbolize both the expanding settlements that are pushing Palestinians into enclaves and the restrictions on Palestinian movement. But the Beit El checkpoint is a triple symbol – of settlements, movement restrictions and also the PA, whose senior officials, cronies and diplomatic supporters can pass through it and have grown used to the extra privileges Israel grants them.
The clashes here and elsewhere don’t affect the settlements; they merely intensify Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement. If they have any impact, it’s on the already shaky PA and the crumbling, schizophrenic movement that leads it – Fatah.
The demonstrators risking their lives are an influential, but small and unorganized, group of young men. In contrast, at the start of the second intifada, the demonstrators were of all ages and both sexes.
Some demonstrators are doubtless being spurred on by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It’s no surprise that the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Abbas also heads, now wants to reopen talks with Hamas in Gaza on a united stance. But Hamas isn’t running to rescue the PLO’s prestige.
The PLO is also now talking again about convening its parliament, the Palestinian National Council, whose meeting was initially postponed because Fatah and the PLO’s other constituent organizations opposed letting Abbas convene it. Until that happens, it ever does, Abbas can’t prevent the young men from going to checkpoints to clash with soldiers.
Every Palestinian wounded by IDF fire, and every rumor – true or not – of fatalities, further inflames the territory. But Fatah, “the people’s movement,” is absent. This will surely be remembered to its detriment.
The demonstrators risking their lives are students who know they have little chance of finding work, or unemployed people, villagers and refugee camp residents angry over the glaring class differences, especially in Ramallah. But Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque are what give the clashes meaning. Jerusalem, which most West Bank residents can’t enter, which the PA has conceded de facto (though not declaratively), and where the socioeconomic and psychological situation is worse than in any other Palestinian area, has proven to be a decisive factor.
The vast majority of Palestinians, along with the PLO and the PA, are now acting as extras: They are neither participating in the clashes nor trying to quell them. The public wants the situation to change, but also fears change, because it has no leadership to navigate and make decisions.
Palestinians are dependent on the PA but want it dismantled; they want it dismantled, but fear the chaos that would reign without a police force. From their standpoint, all the options are currently terrible.