Palestinian Authority Using Prisoner's Death to Keep Up Populist Struggle Against Israel

While a third intifada doesn't seem to be on the horizon, it is impossible to ignore the continuous increase in the number of 'populist' incidents over the last six months.

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The Palestinian Authority knows full well that the prisoner Maysara Abu Hamdiya, a resident of Hebron who died of cancer Tuesday morning, did not become ill because of Israeli abuse. It is reasonable to believe that the PA leadership in the West Bank assumes that the last prisoner who died in jail at the end of February, Arafat Jaradat, did not die as a result of being tortured. And yet, in both cases, PA President Mahmoud Abbas publicly accused Israel of playing a part in the prisoners' deaths.

In the Jaradat case, Israel was explicitly accused of torture. On Tuesday the PA said Israel should have released Abu Hamdiya because of his illness, though the Israel Prison Service says the release procedure had indeed begun before Abu Hamdiya's death.

The PA does not wish to ignite a third intifada in the territories, but its leadership has an interest in making public accusations against Israel.

One reason is to keep the prisoner issue high on the political agenda. Even after the deal to release captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was completed, there are still thousands of Palestinians serving lengthy prison terms in Israel. (Even worse, Fatah has not succeeded in securing the release of any of them, while Hamas got Israel to release more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for Shalit.)

In criticizing Israel after Abu Hamdiya's death, Abbas met the expectations of his domestic audience. Continued pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, in conjunction with prolonged hunger strikes by some inmates, are likely to lead to Israel's eventual release of Palestinian prisoners. If this takes place, it would likely be seen as one of the gestures to the PA the U.S. government expects Israel to implement in the near future, as discussed during U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Israel last month.

Another consideration of the PA leadership is its need to maintain the popular struggle in the West Bank. The strikes, prisoner riots in Israeli jails and protest rallies across the West Bank, especially those accompanied by clashes with IDF forces and the Border Police, are all seen as serving the Palestinian cause, as long as the fight does not spiral out of control and drag both sides into a wide-scale armed conflict. The PA also has a certain interest in diverting the public's anger in the West Bank towards Israel, away from its criticism of the deteriorating economic situation.

April 17 will be Palestinian Prisoners Day, followed about a month later by Nakba Day, to mark "the catastrophe" (nakba), the Palestinians' term for what happened to them when the state was founded in 1948 , and Naksa Day (commemorating the anniversary of the outbreak of the Six-Day War). From Israel's point of view, all these days have a habit of being troublesome. The atmosphere becomes tenser in the run-up to them nearly every year.

As expected, members of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip called Tuesday upon residents of the West Bank to start a third intifada in response to al-Hamdiya. At least two mortar shells were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel on Tuesday. All the same, it seems that for the moment the Gazan interest is best served by creating friction within the West Bank rather than Gaza. Most of the time, Hamas enforces quiet in Gaza, and apart from a few exceptions usually prevents smaller splinter groups from firing into Israel. Therefore, the Israeli response to the firing – which is the second incident in two weeks – will be limited.

From the Israeli perspective, a more substantive danger now lies in the West Bank, not the Strip. It is true that a third intifada doesn't seem to be on the horizon, despite hopes from Gaza, but it is impossible to ignore the continuous increase in the number of "populist" incidents (the throwing of rocks and petrol bombs, demonstrations) over the last six months. Ultimately, the gradually accumulating incidence of events means that the West Bank is more turbulent and tense than it has been in recent years.

In time, due to some event that will be perceived by the Palestinians as more significant than a Palestinian prisoner's death from cancer, the spark let loose by that event could ignite a greater conflagration than has been seen in the recent rounds of tension.

A Palestinian girl carrying a poster of Arafat Jaradat, who died in an Israeli prison, during a protest at the Erez border crossing in Gaza on Tuesday, February 26, 2013Credit: AP