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Palestinian Leadership Struggling to Rally Public Against Israeli Annexation

PA was barely able to rouse 200 people to attend a demonstration in Ramallah against Israel's plans to annex territories of the West Bank

Jack Khoury
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas leaves a Palestinian leadership meeting at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 19, 2020.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas leaves a Palestinian leadership meeting at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 19, 2020.Credit: AFP
Jack Khoury

The Palestinian leadership has been working overtime recently – holding meetings with foreign ambassador and diplomats and providing statements and interviews to Palestinian and foreign media outlets.

On Monday, at the height of the blitz of interviews, Palestinian factions organized a demonstration in Manara Square in Ramallah against Israel’s plans to annex territories of the West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party and the Palestinian security forces had been asked to recruit people to attend the demonstration, but even these two powerful organizations were unable to whip up public enthusiasm to turn out. Barely 200 people showed up at the square.

The protest featured two hours of speeches by a number of leaders, in which speakers declared that Israeli annexation could bring about the breakup of the Palestinian Authority and shelve the dream of a Palestinian state. These are major threats, which during other times could have rattled the public, but the Palestinian public was more interested in another announcement. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh informed the foreign press that the PA was halting the payment of salaries to its civil servants.

The sparse crowd in Manara Square and the press coverage of the speeches provided a clear indication of what the Palestinian leadership now faces. The crisis of confidence between the leadership and the public has deepened so much that the public can no longer back its leadership. The masses will not take to the streets over annexation, but would over the economic crisis.

The Palestinian decision to halt coordination with Israel has already impacted the civilian sector. Hundreds of Palestinian patients from the Gaza Strip cannot get permission to receive medical treatment in the West Bank and Israel. At Israel’s District Coordination and Liaison offices in the West Bank, the lines are getting longer due to the absence of coordination from the Palestinian Authority, while requests are piling up at the Red Cross and human rights organizations on civilian matters that involve coordination with Israel.

On Tuesday, news photographers who had their fill of two hours of speeches at Manara Square turned their attention to the nearby Beit El checkpoint, which is known to be an area of friction where clashes can quickly develop between young Palestinians and Israeli soldiers, but no one cared to show up there either. “There isn’t even one picture to take,” one photographer groused.

An empty tool kit

A year and a half have passed since tens of thousands of Palestinians took to the streets against a planned change by the Palestinian Authority to social security policy, which Palestinians were concerned would have battered their savings. The protests were successful and President Abbas suspended the plan.

This week, on Tuesday, the focus of attention was also economic. According to Prime Minister Shtayyeh, the halt of payments to civil servants is a result of conduct by Israel, which Shtayyeh said will only transfer tax revenues which it collects on behalf of the PA if Palestinians consent to resume the security cooperation.

“It’s not that Palestinians have forgone their dream of self-determination, independence and liberation and the end of the occupation. It’s just that Palestinians have gotten to a situation in which they no longer believe in anyone,” a longtime Fatah member remarked. “The disconnect between the leadership and the public is worsening, and what happened at Manara is a symptom of it.”

Members of the Palestinian leadership understand that the lack of public support is putting a crimp in the tool kit of options at their disposal, which is empty in any event. Under President Abbas’ leadership, the Palestinian public will not return to the days of the intifada and is not interested in doing so. And nonviolent struggle is also far removed from reality.

Fatah would have a hard time mobilizing support from residents of the cities, the villages or the refugee camps for protests. The threat of the halt to coordination with Israel and efforts to enlist international support have become the only means at the Palestinian Authority’s disposal. But they are not enough to leverage substantial pressure on Israel – and certainly not on Donald Trump’s United States.

So in the absence of a long-term strategy and amid the continued split between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian policy is largely passive, and the Palestinians have their sights set on steps taken by the other players in the arena. That has been the case over the past year, during which they waited for a new government to be formed in Israel. They have also been deluded and will continue to be so, as they anxiously await the results of the presidential election in the United States in November, in the hope that the annexation plan will be shelved.

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