A Palestinian Spring

Here's what you need to know about the protests in the West Bank.


It has been a week of protest across the Middle East. Beginning in Egypt and Libya, then spreading to Yemen, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Sudan, angry crowds took to the streets to protest an anti-Islam film that few had likely ever seen. The protesters weren’t too fickle about their targets: They not only attacked U.S. missions in Cairo and Benghazi, but also set the German embassy in Sudan aflame and burned down a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Lebanon.

Amidst this furor, you might have missed a slew of protests that occurred for a more tangible reason. Protesters demonstrated across the West Bank earlier this week, prompting speculation that the Arab Spring has finally arrived in Palestine. In recent days, from Bethlehem to Hebron to Ramallah, the Palestinians have taken to the streets. Only this time, they’re not protesting against the Israeli occupation — they’re denouncing their own leaders.

As the Palestinian protests rage, here are eight things you need to know:

1.      It’s a rough economy. The protests first began as an angry response to a regional hike in fuel prices. But as the Washington Post notes, "the demonstrators are also upset about the costs of basic goods, including dairy products and cooking gas, which are also imported from Israel and sold at prices similar to those charged there, although the average income in the West Bank is far lower."

Palestinians feel squeezed economically. As one protest sign — creatively hung on a donkey — read: "Only in Palestine: The Gulf weather, Parisian prices, and Somali wages." Meanwhile, foreign aid has fallen significantly. As punishment for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s unilateral statehood bid at the United Nations, the United States has withheld $200 million in assistance. Arab states, meanwhile, have consistently failed to fulfill their pledges. As a result, the Palestinian Authority faces a financial crisis, with debts of $1.5 billion and a cash shortfall of $500 million.

These financial woes have forced the government to delay paying the salaries of some 153,000 civil servants on several occasions over the past few months. Add to this widespread charges of corruption and nepotism among the ruling elite, and you’ve got an unsustainable economic situation.

2.      It’s political. Economic issues notwithstanding, these protests are the product of political frustration. This has become abundantly apparent by recent protests against the Paris Protocol, an economic agreement signed as an annex to the Oslo Accords that tethers the Palestinian economy to Israel’s. In rejecting the agreement, despite very tangible benefits from economic cooperation with Israel, the Palestinians show how little hope they have in the Oslo framework.

Abbas, meanwhile, refuses to negotiate with the Israelis unless they institute a complete freeze on settlements — a step Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists is a non-starter. In lieu of diplomacy, the Palestinian leadership has vowed to revive its bid for statehood at the United Nations. However, this will likely yield only non-member observer status at best. In the meantime, the world has lost interest in the Palestinian cause, as the U.S. presidential elections, global economic jitters, and the threat of a nuclear Iran all take center stage.

But the Palestinians know their problems start at home. The split between the Fatah leadership in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza continues to undermine the very concept of Palestinian national identity. This internecine conflict has repeatedly prevented elections, leaving West Bankers keenly aware of the fact that their ossified and corrupt government is past its expiration date.

3.      The Palestinian Authority is in the crosshairs. This is the biggest domestic challenge the PA has faced in its 18 years of existence. Palestinians cannot ignore the fact that their quasi-government has squandered one opportunity after the next, from the Yasir Arafat’s failure to make peace with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the 2000 Camp David summit to the mysterious implosion of the 2008 talks between Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which could have also brought an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The PA was always supposed to be an interim body to pave the way for an actual Palestinian state. In the absence of a peace process, it has lost its raison d’être. That’s why some are calling for the PA to be dismantled. The PA’s economic and security cooperation with Israel, critics claim, only serves to benefit the Israelis. Of course, Israel provides a range of critical services to the PA — but this only underscores the fact that the governing body has yet to assume all the responsibilities of governing.

Mounting allegations of corruption have challenged the PA’s legitimacy long before its security forces began clashing with local residents. The ongoing protests are only making matters worse. Don’t forget that the PA was crafted in the image of an Arab autocracy — think Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt — not exactly the most revered form of government these days.

4.      Salam Fayyad is in trouble. One of the figures most closely associated with the PA is Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The former World Bank official, once a darling of the West for his efforts to combat corruption and increase transparency in Ramallah, has become an object of Palestinian ire. Protesters called for his resignation and chanted "Let’s go, Fayyad get out" on the streets during the recent round of demonstrations. On Sept. 8, an angry mob surrounded Fayyad’s entourage as he finished a radio interview in Ramallah, and on Sept. 10 protesters threw shoes at a poster of the premier.

Fayyad promised to step aside if there is a "real public demand" — but his departure would be a loss for the Palestinian movement. He is still among the PA’s best bets to enact political and economic reform. However, the fact that he is an independent who never joined Fatah has earned him many political foes — including Mahmoud Abbas. The fact that he has strong ties with the United States and Israel doesn’t exactly earn him street cred in Ramallah, either. Some Palestinians quietly speculate that Fatah figures are helping to organize anti-Fayyad rallies, as pro-Fatah elements have made their voices heard at a handful of demonstrations. Fatah central committee member Mohammed Shtayyeh and former PA intelligence chief Tawfiq Tirawi have reportedly egged on the protests.

5.      Mahmoud Abbas is in trouble, too. If Fatah figures are behind the anti-Fayyad protests, they’re playing with fire. If Fayyad goes, Abbas could be next. Protesters are already calling for the president’s resignation.

Abbas has tried to get out in front of the protests, declaring early on that "[t]he Palestinian Spring has begun." But his recent travel to India amidst this unrest underscores his utter lack of respect for public opinion. It’s worth noting that Abbas’s term officially expired in January 2009. In the age of the Arab Spring, leaders who cling to power past their sell-by dates have become a rare breed.

6.      Gaza is safe…for now. On Sept. 3, a young man in the Gaza Strip immolated himself, mimicking Tunisian produce merchant Mohammed Bouazizi, who set off the Arab Spring in late 2010. The Palestinian Maan News Agency quoted Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook as saying that the protests in the West Bank may soon spread to Gaza, but Hamas has since denied this. For the time being, however, Gaza appears insulated from the protests. Hamas, after all, draws no Western aid, and consequently has few qualms about crushing dissent.

Meanwhile, it’s safe to say the Islamist faction is watching the West Bank with bated breath. Ever since Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, its leaders have believed they are the rightful heirs to the Palestinian Authority. The current unrest, not to mention the assault on the PA’s leadership, would appear to vindicate the Islamist group.

7.      Nonviolence turns to violence. Much has been made of popular or non-violent resistance in recent years as a means of challenging Israel. As it turns out, the Palestinians are now employing these very tactics against the PA. While the first few days of protests were marked largely by transportation strikes and chanting crowds, some protesters have forgotten to channel the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In one demonstration on Sept. 10, Palestinians even smashed windows and attempted to storm a municipal building in Hebron before clashing with police. Eighty people were injured in those clashes. Imagine what could happen if protester violence instigated a determined crackdown by PA security forces. Can the Palestinian protesters maintain discipline?

8.      "Intrafada"… for now. With more protests planned throughout the West Bank, the Palestinian Spring shows no signs of abating. Although palpable anger against the Israelis is a common theme, the protests appear to be primarily aimed at the Palestinian Authority. This is, to borrow from analyst David Pollock, an "intrafada" — not an intifada against Israel.

Of course, that could change. If the Israeli military gets caught up in a clash that results in Palestinian casualties, it could quickly spark a new round of violence that could quickly get nasty.  

Would the PA leadership welcome the opportunity to unleash the angry crowds on Israel?  It certainly could create some breathing room for them by redirecting their rage elsewhere. Anger at Israel is the lowest common denominator on the Palestinian street. But that does not mean the people of the West Bank don’t want to put their own house in order. It might be a bit late in the day, but it’s still the Arab Spring.

Jonathan Schanzer is the senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @JSchanzer

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