The Middle East Channel

In the midst of peace talks, Palestinians are more divided than ever

On Aug. 25, one week prior to the opening of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, a group of Palestinians held a conference in Ramallah to discuss – and protest — President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to travel to Washington to attend the talks. The Ramallah gathering, to be held at Ramallah’s Protestant Club meeting house, had been meticulously ...

By , a senior analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

On Aug. 25, one week prior to the opening of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, a group of Palestinians held a conference in Ramallah to discuss - and protest -- President Mahmoud Abbas's decision to travel to Washington to attend the talks. The Ramallah gathering, to be held at Ramallah's Protestant Club meeting house, had been meticulously planned by a prominent coalition of political activists that included Palestinian businessmen, acknowledged leaders in Palestinian civil society and respected leaders of Palestinian political parties. "This was to be an open forum, an assembly to debate and discuss," Munib al-Masri, the founder of the Palestine Forum and one of the meeting's organizers said in an interview from his home in Nablus. "Our intention was to exercise our right to assemble and debate. Tragically, that's not what happened."

As the crowd of  attendees (later estimated at between 250-300 people) began to gather at noon on Aug. 25, a group of about 100 non-uniformed officers from the Palestinian General Intelligence Service entered the hall carrying placards featuring Abbas's picture and shouting pro-Abbas slogans. Across the street, at the headquarters of Al Haq -- an independent human rights organization -- Shawan Jabarin, the organization's director (who had been invited to attend the meeting), heard of the commotion and decided to walk to the meeting hall. Jabarin described the scene: "This was going to be a large and important meeting," he said, "so there were already 200 to 300 people in the hall at noon. But it was clear they wouldn't be allowed to speak. The security people were shouting slogans, intimidating people. I saw a sign -- ‘Stop Supporting Iran.'"

On Aug. 25, one week prior to the opening of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, a group of Palestinians held a conference in Ramallah to discuss – and protest — President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to travel to Washington to attend the talks. The Ramallah gathering, to be held at Ramallah’s Protestant Club meeting house, had been meticulously planned by a prominent coalition of political activists that included Palestinian businessmen, acknowledged leaders in Palestinian civil society and respected leaders of Palestinian political parties. "This was to be an open forum, an assembly to debate and discuss," Munib al-Masri, the founder of the Palestine Forum and one of the meeting’s organizers said in an interview from his home in Nablus. "Our intention was to exercise our right to assemble and debate. Tragically, that’s not what happened."

As the crowd of  attendees (later estimated at between 250-300 people) began to gather at noon on Aug. 25, a group of about 100 non-uniformed officers from the Palestinian General Intelligence Service entered the hall carrying placards featuring Abbas’s picture and shouting pro-Abbas slogans. Across the street, at the headquarters of Al Haq — an independent human rights organization — Shawan Jabarin, the organization’s director (who had been invited to attend the meeting), heard of the commotion and decided to walk to the meeting hall. Jabarin described the scene: "This was going to be a large and important meeting," he said, "so there were already 200 to 300 people in the hall at noon. But it was clear they wouldn’t be allowed to speak. The security people were shouting slogans, intimidating people. I saw a sign — ‘Stop Supporting Iran.’"

Inside the hall, those disrupting the meeting (Israeli journalist Amira Hess described them in Haaretz as "young men of similar appearance — well-developed muscles, civilian clothes and stern facial expressions") began to shout down the first speaker, Dr. Mamdouh Al Aker, the director of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (PICCR). When Aker asked for a moment of silence "in memory of those who gave their lives for the Palestinian people and the Arab nation" he was whistled down and the crowd of young men began to shout in unison: "With our blood and our souls, we will redeem you, Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]." The young men, now a phalanx of intimidating muscle and anger, began to push and shove the attendees out of the building. "People were frightened and were pushed outside, shoved out by the security people," Al Haq’s Jabarin remembers. "It was outrageous, so I directed my staff to take pictures."

Mustafa Barghouti, the head of the Palestinian National Initiative (a leading and increasingly strong political movement inside Palestine) and one of the most prominent leaders scheduled to speak at the meeting was in the crowd as it was pushed out of the meeting house. He attempted to maintain order and separate the meeting’s attendees from the group disrupting the gathering. "People were pushed into the street," he remembers, "and that’s when the beatings began. It was very violent. The General Intelligence people were pushing people to the ground." On the street in front of the Protestant Club, meanwhile, members of the Al Haq staff began to document the incident. "We had a camera, one of my staff members had a camera," Jabarin says, "and we were trying to take pictures. But my staff member who had the camera was pushed down and the security official attempted to take the camera, to break it. This man was beating him and when one of my other staff members tried to help him, she was pushed to the ground and beaten. They got the camera."

Standing nearby, Bassam al-Salhi, general secretary of the Palestine Peoples’ Party (and a former candidate for president), also attempted to stop the beatings. "This was mob violence," he says. "But I thought that if we could somehow move up the street we could stop the confrontations." Facing continued harassment, the group decided to walk to a nearby park, but were prevented from doing so by the Ramallah police. "They didn’t participate in the violence," Salhi says of the police, "but they didn’t try to stop it either. Eventually, we had nowhere to go – so people just ran away. They had no choice." The leaders of the conference, meanwhile, decided to take their protest of the incident to the headquarters of Watan, a local television station. But when they appeared on camera, a vocal group of security officials shouted them down, waving their placards in front of the Watan cameras. Inevitably, perhaps, the continued intimidation of the speakers was successful – and the crowd at Watan dispersed.

***

While the disruption of the Ramallah meeting remained virtually unmentioned in the American media, its impact reverberated through Palestinian society, sparking broad-based outrage with Mahmoud Abbas and the security and intelligence services. "People lived in fear here before the incident," a Palestinian journalist says, "but after August 25 it’s much worse. If Abu Mazen’s goal was to destroy freedom of speech, he accomplished it." The Ramallah confrontation was only the most recent in a series of incidents aimed at circumscribing dissent — though it stands as undoubtedly the worst. "The oppression is by no means confined to groups like Hamas or Islamic Jihad," Munib al-Masri says. "The pressure is on the entire society. All the opposition is being targeted." While Masri might be expected to blame Abbas for the Aug. 25 incident, he is much more careful, citing his long-standing friendship with the Palestinian president — and his support for him after the death of Yasser Arafat: "I don’t know who planned this, or even whether it was planned," he says, "but if it happened without Abu Mazen’s approval, it means our president isn’t in charge of his own government. It means the security services are running amuck, that our society is out of control – that our democracy is dead."

Palestinians weren’t the only ones disturbed by the events in Ramallah. Within hours of the incident, Israeli intelligence officers — who make it their business to know what is going on inside of Palestinian society — reported the incident to their superiors. Their views made their way into the hands of Israeli journalists, policymakers, and mid-level government officials. The judgment of these reports has been universally damning: the Ramallah incident showed that the Palestinian president is increasingly "isolated," that questions are being raised about his "legitimacy," that the majority of Palestinians now "oppose his participation in peace talks" and, most disturbing "that the internal Palestinian arena has reached boiling point and is on the verge of disintegration." Bassam al-Salhi agrees. "This is like a slow burning fire," he says. "It will get worse." Mustafa Barghouti reinforces that view: "Palestine is a tinberbox," he says. "It won’t take much to set it off."

The Ramallah incident remains the front-and-center talk of the Palestinian street despite Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad’s public apology over the incident ("I called him and said, why are you apologizing – you didn’t do this," Bassam al-Salhi said), a pledge by Abbas that the incident would be investigated ("he said it, and we haven’t heard a word from him since," Munib al-Masri notes) and the August 31 killing of four settlers near Hebron by Hamas gunmen. Meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas in Washington, Barack O
bama characterized the Hebron as "a heinous crime," while State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley speculated that the attack was timed to coincide with the opening of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In fact, while the attack’s timing was not coincidental, it followed a series of highly publicized clashes in al-Buwayra, near Hebron, in which Israelis from the nearby settlements of Kyriat Arab and Harzina attacked Palestinian villages with clubs and set fire to their orchards. By the end of August, the attacks were widened to include Canadian and Danish "internationalists," who had come to protect al-Buwayra’s villagers.

The al-Buwayra incidents provided the foundation for the Hamas attack which (while condemned by the organizers of the Ramallah meeting), was seen as a "reprisal" by both Hebronites and the vast majority of Palestinians — who do not view settlers (many of whom are armed) as innocent civilians. Worse yet, at least for Mahmoud Abbas, a wave of warrantless mass arrests followed the Hebron killings — 300 in all. The sweep  was counterproductive; instead of reinforcing Abu Mazen’s claim to political strength, it had the effect of underscoring his weakness. "Why 300?" one Palestinian journalist asked. "Why not 296? Or 301? Why 300? Was there a list somewhere?" Al-Haq’s Jabarin provides a likely explanation: "I have no written evidence and no way of knowing," he says. "But my sense is that the Palestinian security services coordinate quite closely with both the Americans and Israelis on internal issues. It’s clear from the campaigns of arrest that that this is a way to keep them happy." The killing of four settlers was a terrible tragedy, but according to some Palestinians its aftermath exposed a key misunderstanding among Obama’s Middle East team. "You just don’t get it," a Palestinian official who serves as an intermediary to Hamas from Fatah explains. "Hamas didn’t kill the settlers because they wanted to stop the peace talks – they killed them because they want to be a part of the peace talks."  

The cumulative political impact of the breakup of the Aug. 25 Ramallah meeting — and the killing of the Hebron settlers just six days later — cannot be dismissed. While the actions of Mahmoud Abbas’s security services were intended to block the emergence of a united non-Hamas opposition to his rule, the two incidents have forged an unprecedented unity among disparate (and often feuding) political currents. The emerging consensus among the groups (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Palestine Peoples Party, the Palestinian National Initiative and a welter of NGO representatives, leaders of civil institutions, businessmen and respected independent voices), poses a challenge not simply to Mahmoud Abbas, but to the U.S. strategy for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Worse yet, the events of Aug. mean that Abu Mazen’s support among his own party (the mainline Fatah movement), is eroding. This is true even for those mainline older activists who founded and led the movement through four decades of strife. Seated in his home in Bethlehem, Salah Ta’amri, who fought with Fatah during the movement’s "Black September" in 1970 (and served as a member of the Palestinian parliament), remains one of Abu Mazen’s friends- – and one his fiercest critics. "This isn’t a government," he says, "it’s a clique." Recovering from a series of mini-strokes that landed him in a hospital in Amman, Ta’amri remains unbowed by his recent forced resignation as governor of his district — after he complained of corruption in the P.A.’s water ministry. But the Ramallah incident may well have marked a breaking point for a man who dedicated his life to the Palestinian cause. His words are filled with anger. Is Palestine becoming a police state? "No," he says emphatically. "It is not becoming a police state. It already is."

* * *

Of course, Palestine is not yet a state. The goal of the U.S.-initiated direct talks, like those of negotiations from 1991, has been to create that state.  President Obama, recognizing Abbas’ weakness, made a point of inviting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah to the talks, but that’s not enough. Now he must work to surround him with Palestinians.

Mark Perry is a military and political analyst and author of eight books, including Partners In Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace, and the recently released Talking To Terrorists. 

Mark Perry is a senior analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of 10 books on foreign policy and military history.

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