Palestinians’ Rift With Their Leaders Is at Its Widest as Violence Rises in the West Bank

Ramallah’s statement that it’s freezing security coordination with Israel has been greeted with skepticism as violent protests against price hikes reflect the Palestinian Authority’s limited influence

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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A man walking by burning tires during clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians in Hebron on Wednesday.
A man walking by burning tires during clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians in Hebron on Wednesday. Credit: Hazem Bader / AFP
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Declarations against Israel last week by the Palestinian Central Council, which met for the first time in four years, have failed to captivate everyday Palestinians, revealing the wide rift with the leadership in Ramallah as price hikes send the people out onto the streets.

The violent protests and clashes in West Bank cities including Hebron reflect the Palestinian Authority’s problems in keeping the situation under control.

The Palestinian Central Council, which met Monday, is the second most important Palestinian leadership institution; above it is the Palestinian National Council, below it the PLO Executive Committee. These three entities make up the PA.

The Central Council met under the shadow of power struggles and officials' threats to boycott the meeting, in part because they did not believe that significant decisions would be made against Israel.

In the event, there were plenty of no-shows. As expected, the 141-member council approved the appointment of senior PA officials, members of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ inner circle.

These appointments are designed to strengthen Abbas, but they were hardly mentioned in the meeting’s closing statement. Instead, a highlight was a supposedly dramatic statement on the freezing of security ties with Israel and the agreements signed with it, including recognition of Israel, as long as Israel fails to recognize a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders.

The announcement, which was broadcast on Palestinian television a few hours after the meeting, was mocked on Palestinian social media. Some critics compared Monday’s statements to similar decisions in the past that were never implemented, such as in January 2018.

“In 2018 it resonated because of the crisis with the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government. There was pressure from international and Arab entities not to go too far, and the issue drew international attention,” said a senior official from Abbas’ Fatah party, which controls the PA.

“This time we didn’t even have that. Everything was perceived as a laconic statement that would lead to nothing. It’s clear that there’s no strategic decision to go to a point that would have international significance – dismantling the PA. Every child in the West Bank knows that without security coordination there’s no PA.”

Members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in Nablus on Thursday. Credit: Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP

‘Cut off from the grassroots’

Nasser al-Qidwa, the Palestinian foreign minister and PLO representative to the United Nations until he was expelled from Fatah, is among those who urged a postponement or boycott of the council meeting.

“Before our eyes the highest institutions of the Palestinian people are crumbling,” said al-Qidwa, who was expelled for planning a rival Fatah slate in last May’s general election, which was canceled.

“This bunch is cut off from the grassroots. They’re not dealing with establishing a state but with who gets a Palestinian ID card with Israel’s approval and who’ll be paid a salary.”

Nabil Amru, a member of the Palestinian Central Council until he was dropped a few years ago, tends to agree. “You might say that the split is no longer Hamas versus the PA but much more than that,” he said. “This crisis doesn’t benefit anyone, not Israel either.”

According to Amru, “If Israel thinks it can rest on its laurels it’s making a big mistake, because nobody knows what the implications will be.” Al-Qidwa and Amru, no longer members of a decision-making body, are among the few senior sources who agreed to speak on the record.

Amru added that Abbas and the other Palestinian leaders had a rare opportunity to extricate themselves from the crisis via a general election.

“Everybody wanted the election, 95 percent of Palestinians registered to vote because they wanted change and a democratic process,” he said. “Abbas is letting this waste away on one claim or another, and this has generated disgust in everybody – even the international community, which already is less interested in the Palestinian issue.”

Protesters against the Palestinian Authority and the cost of living in Hebron a week ago. Credit: Hazem Bader / AFP

‘Only popular protest can be a deterrent’

But the Palestinian public was skeptical. “Everyone knows that Israel does what it wants in the heart of Palestinian territory, and nobody in the PA will oppose them,” said a Fatah activist from the Nablus area.

“The ones who control the streets these days aren’t the factions but the businesspeople. Economic power is driving everybody. True, there’s no shortage of armed young men, but you can’t talk about an organized militia. Nobody takes the various threats very seriously.”

He spoke to Haaretz after the funerals of three young men from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, Fatah’s military wing, who were killed Tuesday by Israeli special forces during an arrest operation in the city.

The incident infuriated people in the West Bank and Gaza. Armed men fired into the air and the Gaza factions published belligerent statements. Calm was eventually restored, and Abbas even promised that “we won’t let this repeat.”

Hebron was also a focus of protests and clashes; at the start of the week thousands took to the streets to protest the high cost of living. Some observers consider this a popular protest, though others call it an initiative by candidates ahead of next month’s local elections. The Palestinian leadership is calling it temporary and is in no hurry to halt the price rises.

According to a senior government official, the leadership’s hands are tied. “The lack of economic independence and reliance on Israel doesn’t leave us room to maneuver,” he said. “Only popular protest can be a deterrent, but that could lead to a loss of control.”

While in Hebron people are worried about price hikes, another issue is the clash between clans in the city. Cameras pick up street fights and exchanges of fire without interference from the Palestinian security forces or police. The use of guns in these conflicts has become common, with the PA’s ability to intervene limited.

In Nablus, people talk about the different attitude and the story of the three young men. “None of them had political or economic backing and they had nowhere to make a living,” said one man who knew them. “One of them even sold his rifle to buy something smaller so he’d have a little extra money. Now everyone one is embracing them.”

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