With Gaza in flames, can Mahmoud Abbas keep a lid on a smoldering West Bank?
- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
AM’ARI REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank — "I think the cease-fire is a big deception toward the Palestinian people," said Younes Mohammed, while sitting over a breakfast of tea and bread. "It only serves Israel…. How can the United States be a sponsor of the cease-fire at the same time it is sending arms to Israel?"
An hour after we spoke, the 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry collapsed in a spasm of violence and recrimination. But in this West Bank refugee camp, the men gathered around a television airing al-Quds TV, which is considered close to Hamas, already saw enemies everywhere. It wasn’t just the Israelis: The Gulf states too, and particularly Saudi Arabia, "want Gaza dead," said Mohammed. "And they will pay to see it happen."
The enemies, according to these men, also included their own leadership. "Abu Mazen is a Jew," Ibrahim, a tall young man with slicked-back gelled hair, told me, using the nom de guerre of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Ironically enough, Ibrahim works for Hemaya — a security company with strong links to the Abbas family. "Tell him that you can’t take your houses with you when you die."
Ibrahim’s palpable outrage — and also his dependence on the structures of Abbas’s rule — is a microcosm of where the West Bank stands today. As the violence in Gaza appears set to worsen, residents of this Palestinian territory are seething over what they describe as an unprovoked Israeli war on women and children. But with the memories of the Second Intifada fresh in their mind, they are wary of provoking an open confrontation with Israel.
A massive protest last week seemed to momentarily challenge the conventional wisdom that the West Bank was not ready for another uprising. In the largest West Bank demonstration in decades, thousands of Palestinians marched to the Qalandiya checkpoint, where they clashed with Israeli security forces — at least two Palestinians were killed in the violence, and the shops nearby were gutted by fire.
The demonstration showed the undeniable Palestinian anger at the war in Gaza, which has so far claimed over 1,400 Palestinian lives. The dynamics of how it was organized, however, suggest that it may prove difficult to replicate.
Maisoon al-Qadoomi is the energetic deputy general secretary of the Fatah Youth Movement. On July 18, she met with four fellow Fatah activists to discuss plans for what eventually mushroomed into the demonstration at Qalandiya. In a follow-up meeting, representatives of both Hamas and leftist groups joined her group to plan a joint demonstration; they made T-shirts and advertised the march, which began in Am’ari refugee camp, on Facebook.
"If Israel continues its aggressive policies against the Palestinian people, I don’t rule out the possibility of a Third Intifada," she said. "No one can be quiet…. Shejaiya [a Gaza neighborhood that has seen the worst of the Israeli bombardment] will come to Ramallah; they will make massacres here if we are silent."
Qadoomi may be eager to see larger protests in the future, but she’s also deeply committed to Fatah — and that means not pushing too hard against the Palestinian security forces that are charged with breaking up illicit demonstrations and keeping a relative peace in the territory.
"I understand the position of the Palestinian security agencies," she said. "There are points of conflict and confrontation, which the security forces manned in order to protect the Palestinian people."
If protesters were allowed to go wherever they wanted, in other words, they would inevitably confront Israeli soldiers — causing a spiral of violence that would quickly escalate beyond anyone’s ability to control. That’s not Abbas’s game plan: He’s the Palestinian president, after all, who has promised that there will be no Third Intifada as long as he is in power.
For now, Qadoomi and the rest of the Fatah youth are focusing their efforts on humanitarian work — not on organizing a reprise of the Qalandiya protest. The Ramallah Hospital on July 31 gathered roughly 2,300 units of blood and sent over 1,100 units to Gaza on Aug. 1 through the Red Cross. According to Mohammad Mazloum, who helped oversee the blood drive, as many as 4,000 Palestinians came to the hospital over the past two days to give blood.
There are still demonstrations in the West Bank, but in the absence of active support by the upper echelons of the political leadership, they have remained relatively small and easy for Israeli forces to disperse. Around midafternoon on Aug. 1, dozens of protesters gathered at Ofer Prison, which holds roughly 1,000 Palestinian prisoners and is a common flashpoint for protests. No Fatah flags were in evidence, though many people who dotted the demonstrations carried Hamas’s green flag.
The Palestinian youth who led the protests and the Israeli soldiers played a game of cat and mouse. A few of the teens, who were dressed in black shirts and wore white scarves over their faces, would sprint forward to the front lines and hurl a rock with a slingshot; the Israelis would immediately respond with tear gas and gunfire. The boys would dash back down the street, only to creep forward again and repeat the cycle.
The ragtag group, however, was too small to keep up the fight for long. After a few hours, the crowd began to disperse. A few young men suggested that the protest had fizzled because of the summer heat; one of the organizers pointed to similarly modest protests elsewhere in the West Bank as the reason why no single demonstration was as large as the July 24 protest at Qalandiya.
But while the status quo may hold for now in the West Bank, there are forces that could tug this Palestinian territory into another confrontation with Israel.
As people drifted away from the front lines outside Ofer Prison, one young man, wearing a checkered keffiyeh over his face and a green bandana championing Hamas, lingered behind. He gave his name only as Mohammad, and said that he studied engineering at Birzeit University.
"Of course I support the al-Qassam Brigades [Hamas’s military wing]," he said. "They are leading the resistance against the Israeli army; they have faced eradication [in the West Bank] by the Palestinian security and the Israelis."
Every week, he said, he goes to the protests to throw stones at the Israeli soldiers. They shoot back, he said, and two of his friends were injured last week. But still, he says, he ventures out toward the front lines.
"The West Bank is moving, there’s commotion," he said. "We come here and fight the Israeli soldiers to show that we support the people of Gaza."