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3 Reasons Why Abbas Is Riding the Wave of Popular Palestinian Protest in Jerusalem

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Palestinians praying in the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, outside the entrance to the Al-Aqsa compound, July 25, 2017.
Palestinians praying in the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, outside the entrance to the Al-Aqsa compound, July 25, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The Palestinian Authority’s show of support Tuesday for Waqf (Muslim religious trust) officials in Jerusalem and the Palestinians praying outside the gates to the Al-Aqsa compound in the past two weeks are a watershed for the political leadership, and chiefly for PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah convened on Tuesday night, a day ahead of schedule. The meeting began with an unusual address by Abbas: “We are with you,” he said, referring to the Palestinians worshippers who refused to enter the Temple Mound compound after Israel installed metal detectors at its entrances. They are still not entering, even though Israel removed the detectors on Monday night, because it is now working on other technological security measures at the holy site.

“We support you and are proud of you and of everything you have done,” declared Abbas. “You are caring for and guarding the Al-Aqsa compound, and guarding your lands and your dignity and your religion and the holy sites. This is the appropriate reaction to anybody hurting our holy sites. Jerusalem is our capital and is our sovereignty, and what you did was the right thing. You stood as one man and we support you and support everything you do,” he added.

At the end of the meeting, the PA resolved to continue supporting the Palestinians in Jerusalem, and also to appeal to international organizations – including the International Court of Justice – to complain about Israel’s behavior in general and specifically regarding the Al-Aqsa compound.

In addition, the PA will allow marches to the checkpoints and historic points of friction with Israel this Friday.

On the face of it, these decisions are signs of escalation from the PA. But for Abbas and the Palestinian leadership, Jerusalem must be, and must remain, the main venue for its clashes with Israel, and these developments serve the Palestinian interest.

First of all, the topic at stake is Jerusalem and Haram al-Sharif (the Muslim term for what Jews call the Temple Mount), which are at the heart of Palestinian nationalism. Keeping them in the headlines serves Palestinian propaganda in the international arena and on the Palestinian street, and especially helps it in Washington – which neither quite understands nor is even aware of the Palestinian narrative and the heart of the conflict.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, July 21, 2017.Credit: ABBAS MOMANI/AFP

Second, the protest in Jerusalem is being perceived, as of writing, as a popular protest as opposed to an armed one. Despite the July 14 Temple Mount attack that left two Israeli policemen dead, and which Abbas condemned, the images coming from the Old City of Jerusalem show women, children and old people praying at the foot of the walls and in alleyways, without violence. Any images of violence show injured Palestinians – images reminiscent of the first intifada in the late 1980s, which filtered through to Israeli public, too.

Third, for the Palestinian leadership, Jerusalem is the most convenient arena for a popular clash with Israel. In contrast to the West Bank, Israel can’t complain to the Palestinians, since it controls the city. In reality, it conduct itself as the sovereign, and no official or popular Palestinian element has any influence over decisions. This means Israel cannot demand that Abbas and his security mechanisms calm things down, or carry out preventative arrests, or interrogate any activists calling for protests.

Earlier this week, we wrote that in the absence of political leadership, Israel finds itself talking with the Palestinian people – and the Palestinians in Jerusalem are gearing up for a protracted struggle.

The heavy presence by the gates to the Old City every evening, the organized and mostly voluntary distribution of food, and the clean-up crews at collection points all attest to what seems to be the beginning of spontaneous, popular, nonviolent organization.

Until recently, Abbas was still arguing with Washington about issues such as payments for Palestinian prisoners and their families, and the content of educational study materials, instead of listening to substantive reactions on the core issues, including Jerusalem. The wave of popular protest developing in the most important place – that of the future Palestinian capital – took them by surprise.

One doesn’t need to be a political genius or strategist to ride this wave, exploit it the fullest, and drive home messages to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, to the Israeli public and to the entire world: this is Palestine, and the Al-Aqsa compound should be in our hands.

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