Analysis

As Israel Steps Up West Bank Response, Palestinian Authority Takes a Blow

Hamas' patriotic image is only strengthened by last week's events, while the Palestinian Authority is perceived as the Israeli occupation's subcontractor

Palestinian security forces scuffle with Hamas supporters during a rally marking the 31st anniversary of the founding of the Islamist movement, Hebron, West Bank, December 14, 2018.
AFP

The Palestinian Authority fears the rise in clashes with the Israel Defense Forces is further undermining its standing with Palestinians in the West Bank and increasing support for Hamas. That, at least, is the conclusion that can be drawn from protests in Nablus, Hebron and Ramallah the PA forcibly dispersed Friday.

It wasn’t the first time in the past decade that PA police officers have clashed with Palestinian protesters in the shadow of IDF attacks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but it came at a political low point for the PA, at home and abroad, and at a time of economic crisis for the PA and its Palestinian inhabitants.

No wonder the Palestinian National Initiative — a relatively young political force with an important role in the intra-Palestinian reconciliation efforts — has warned against turning “heroic and brave confrontation with the occupation and its criminal settlers into fighting among Palestinians that only serves the Netanyahu government and its policies.”

Palestinian wrapped in Hamas flag rides a bike during clashes with Israeli troops at the Hawara checkpoint, south of the West Bank city of Nablus, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018.
Majdi Mohammed,AP

The Nablus and Hebron protests on Friday were held to mark the 31st anniversary of Hamas. The official reason for the violent breakup of the protest in Nablus — PA police fired into the air and beat demonstrators, among other actions — was that participants had raised a Hamas flag and refused to wave Palestinian flags. The official reason for dispersing the Hebron demonstration, in part by hitting female protesters with batons, was that in a premeditated provocation they had slandered the PA.

The Palestinian public views the incidents in which Israeli soldiers and civilians were shot near the Givat Assaf outpost and the entrance to the settlement of Ofra as legitimate acts of heroism against the endless encroachment of settlers in the area. Associating the shootings with a Hamas cell reinforces the patriotic-nationalist image of the Islamic resistance movement, in contrast to the PA’s image as the “subcontractor of the occupation.”

It’s difficult not to notice, especially at a time of continuous, intensive military raids, how the Palestinian security forces are deployed: No Israeli soldiers are in evidence whenever armed and uniformed Palestinian troops are about. The reverse is also true: There are no Palestinian police in sight whenever Israeli soldiers raid a neighborhood, breaking into shops and homes, confiscating security camera footage and shooting at young people who throw stones at them.

The disappearance of Palestinian police from the streets follows warnings issued by the army. To many, this is an absurd situation, enshrined in the Oslo Accords, that prevents the Palestinian National Security Forces from defending their compatriots from Israeli military attacks.

Palestinian security forces scuffle with a Hamas supporter as they try to disperse a hu a rally marking the 31st anniversary of the founding of the Islamist movement, in the occupied West Bank town of Hebron on December 14, 2018.
AFP

Last week the residents of Ramallah experienced military raids of extraordinary proportions, compared to recent years. There were continuous raids, gunfire aimed at stone-throwing protesters, roadblocks at city exits and the takeover of homes, in addition to settlers attacking cars and homes.

When the Palestinian security forces attack their own people rather than protecting them, contempt for them grows. Then, when the ruling party, Fatah, calls for protests against the occupation (for example, on village lands that settler violence prevents farmers from accessing), the calls are met in the best case with pity and in the worst with scorn.

IDF forces have killed five Palestinians since Wednesday. In each case, Palestinians believe these were extrajudicial executions, carried out instead of arrests: Ashraf Na’alwa, the perpetrator of the attack in Barkan over two months ago; Saleh Barghouthi, the suspected shooter at Ofra; Majd Mteir, of the Qalandiyah refugee camp, who stabbed police officers in the Old City of Jerusalem; Hamdan al-Arada, 67, a businessman who, after encountering soldiers in the El Bireh industrial zone, panicked and lost control of his vehicle. Soldiers assumed he was perpetrating a car-ramming attack. The fifth was Mahmoud Nakhleh of the Jalazun refugee camp. According to residents, soldiers shot him in the abdomen Friday and delayed his evacuation to a hospital.

The third protest that was quelled was by Nakhleh’s friends in Jalazun, north of Ramallah. On Friday they marched through El Bireh, planning to demonstrate at the grave of Yasser Arafat. After being forcibly dispersed they headed to Ramallah’s Manara Square. On the way, they set garbage bins alight and rolled them onto the street. They broke security cameras and demanded shopkeepers shut their doors in mourning for Nakhleh. A journalist accompanying them in a live feed and who was careful not to focus the cameras on their faces, told viewers they were expressing outrage at their friend’s death.

But by daring to disrupt life in these ostensibly calm, more complacent cities, they exposed an old social rift between the refugee camps and the rest of society and its official leaders. These tensions have risen in a period of economic decline and a sense of hopelessness about the future. In a conciliatory effort, a partial day of mourning was declared on Saturday, while Nakhleh was buried. At the same time, the Palestinian intelligence service arrested the journalist for broadcasting their protest by video link, according to his relatives. The direct broadcast had obviously exposed too many internal problems and social tensions that could be interpreted as weakness of the PA, a lack of solidarity and growing alienation.

Israeli forces blow up Abu Humaid family house, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018. Islalm Yousef Abu Humaid is accused of killing aIsraeli soldier by dropping a slab from a roof during a raid last May.
AFP

Fear for the PA’s fate was hinted by the official news agency Wafa’s report of a visit by Egyptian intelligence to the presidency in Ramallah Thursday. The official reports said Egypt expressed support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the PA and the Palestinian people. Between the lines one could detect concern that the Egyptian authorities had accepted Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip.

Attending the meeting were Abbas, the heads of Palestinian intelligence and preventive security and a senior Fatah and PA official, who enjoys the most direct access to Israeli authorities: Hussein al-Sheikh, the head of the administration for civilian affairs (the counterpart of Israel’s coordinator of government activities in the territories). The delegation couldn’t enter or leave Ramallah without Israel’s permission. If giving its permission means that Israel also accepts Egypt’s message, the signal on the ground is the opposite.

At midnight Friday, around 20 activists of the popular resistance committees against the settlements and the fence gathered at the home of Islam Abu Hmeid, in the Amari refugee camp in El Bireh. Abu Hmaid killed a soldier in Israel’s Duvdevan special forces unit in May, throwing a marble slab onto him from a balcony during a military raid on the camp.

The protesters knew the army would soon arrive to destroy the house, and said they intended to prevent that from happening. Indeed a large contingent of troops arrived at the scene early Saturday morning and clamped a curfew on the area and the surrounding neighborhoods.

As this story was being written Saturday morning, the house was blown up. About 60 people were injured in ensuing clashes, including journalists the Palestinians said were attacked by the soldiers.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said 300 Palestinians were wounded in confrontations throughout the West Bank in the past 24 hours. Palestinian security personnel were not present, at least not armed or in uniform. Their absence may have been regarded as natural and perhaps logical and understandable, had they not on so many previous occasions violently suppressed their own people’s freedom of expression and rights to organize and demonstrate.