Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
How the disappearance of three Israeli boys in the West Bank is upending Palestinian politics.
RAMALLAH — If there was ever any question about the Palestinian public’s feelings about recent Israeli military operations in the West Bank, those were resolved in the predawn hours of Sunday morning, June 22.
Israeli forces carried out a raid only steps from a Palestinian Authority (PA) police station in the center of Ramallah. Pictures showed Israeli soldiers parked in front of the building, as Palestinian police officers peered helplessly out of windows above them. After the army left, groups of Palestinians turned on the PA police to punish them for their powerlessness in the face of the occupation forces. A crowd stoned the police station and smashed the windows on the cars parked outside.
The PA police were less hesitant to respond to their countrymen: They responded with live fire to drive the crowd away. When morning broke, dumpsters lining the city’s main shopping district were still ablaze and large rocks carpeted the streets from the clashes hours before.
The early morning riot in Ramallah was the latest manifestation of the conflict tearing Palestinians apart — just eight weeks after they were supposed to become united.
The latest Palestinian political tumult began nearly two weeks ago when three Israelis who attended a yeshiva in the sprawling Gush Etzion settlement went missing in the West Bank. Israeli officials blame Hamas, the Islamist movement that is one of Palestine’s two main political factions, for the alleged kidnapping. That it came on the heels of the April 23 reconciliation agreement between Hamas and its rival Fatah, a deal that was seven years in the works and was supposed to pave the way for a more effective Palestinian government, was red meat to Israeli critics of the deal who say that Hamas is a terrorist group. The fallout from the disappearances — and Israel’s violent crackdown — threatens to upend both Palestinian politics and relations with Israel.
In a June 18 speech to Arab dignitaries at the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Saudi Arabia, PA President Mahmoud Abbas accused the assailants behind the alleged kidnapping of a conspiracy. "The truth is that whoever carried out this action wants to destroy us," Abbas said. "That is why we will speak to him differently and take a different position toward him, whoever it is … because we cannot tolerate such acts."Abbas also said security coordination with the Israelis was "in our interest … to protect our own people."
A Hamas spokesman condemned Abbas’s comments, saying they were "based on the Zionist narrative." But even some in the president’s own faction chafe at PA policies.
"The leadership talks about reason and logic, but where is the reason and logic in living under occupation without resisting?" said Mohammed Abu El Nasr, a Fatah youth activist. "There is something wrong with the leadership’s conflict management and its focus on peaceful resolution."
If Israeli allegations that Hamas is behind the disappearances are true, then the Islamist party has room to regain some of the clout it lost in the past couple of years by calling for another high-profile prisoner exchange. Moreover, they’ll have boxed in the PA and its security forces, which, composed largely of Fatah loyalists, risk looking like collaborators with the occupation. And the conflict between the two groups could spiral into a crisis that plays into the Israeli government’s hopes by unraveling the unity agreement.
Since June 12, the Israeli army has killed at least four Palestinians and arrested more than 470 others in an operation dubbed Brother’s Keeper. The targeting of Hamas has been especially brutal, and is putting a serious strain on the recent Hamas-Fatah détente. The speaker and 10 members of the now-defunct parliament in which Hamas enjoys a majority have been arrested, as have at least 50 of the 1,027 Palestinians released in 2011 in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas in 2006.
The upper echelons of Hamas’s West Bank political leadership are currently all incarcerated, including founding member Hassan Yousef. The Gaza Strip, where Hamas dominates political life, has been pounded by Israeli air raids. Even in Israeli prisons, members of the Islamist party are being punished by a slew of tougher living conditions that include a ban on family visits. Hamas has not claimed responsibility for what Israeli authorities allege is a kidnapping, but it has warned that there will be reprisals if the crackdown continues.
The stated goals of Israel’s military operation have not only been to find the three missing teens; Hamas’s West Bank infrastructure is also the target. "We have a goal," said the Israeli army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, "to find these three boys and bring them home and to damage Hamas as much as possible." Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said that the true test of Abbas’s comments in Saudi Arabia will be whether or not he divorces Hamas.
"The Israelis tried to prevent [the unity government] from the beginning," said Ghassan Al Khatib, the vice president of Birzeit University. "And now they are taking advantage of this incident to abort this national unity by all means."
The limits of Palestinian unity came into stark view on June 20 when PA forces violently dispersed a Hamas-organized demonstration in Hebron supporting Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike, beating both protestors and journalists. The PA’s heavy-handed methods even prompted local media outlets to boycott all government events for three days.
In April, it seemed Palestinians were finally on the verge of putting a historical end to seven long years of infighting, which left the Gaza Strip and West Bank not only geographically but also politically isolated from each other. The unveiling of an independent government composed of technocrats and led by current Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah was supposed to usher in parliamentary and presidential elections within six months. But no sooner had the ministers been sworn-in than the three Israelis went missing and the military operation ensued.
Israel’s crackdown on Hamas — and the PA’s cooperation in it — casts doubts on Fatah’s initial claims of dedication to the reconciliation agreement with its old Islamist foe. The coordination efforts are condemned unanimously by Hamas members and supporters, who have gone as far as to call them a "disgrace" and "a crime punishable by law," under the Cairo Agreement, the initial reconciliation pact signed by the two parties in 2012.
At the leadership level, Abbas’s confidantes have defended the PA’s course of action thus far. Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told Reuters last Friday that there would be no Third Intifada on Abbas’ watch. Those at the party’s second tier, meanwhile, are lashing out against Israel’s military incursions in the West Bank without criticizing their party’s leadership. But at the grassroots — the party’s Revolutionary Council, lower-level members, and local activists — dissatisfaction is growing.
"These are the people who are not really happy with the political leadership’s statements, and who felt that the concessions are very high and have weakened the credibility of the Fatah movement in the eyes of the public," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, who heads the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, an independent East Jerusalem-based institute.
The Palestinian public longs for a coherent political strategy, something lacking from their leadership’s agenda for some time. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the international representative body of the Palestinians, announced in November 2012 it would take its liberation struggle to international forums upon their ascendance to a non-member observer seat at the U.N.’s General Assembly. But since then, they have been largely reluctant to join other international organizations apart from the largely symbolic signing of a slew of treaties and conventions on April 1. Most importantly, Abbas has refused to make good on his threat that Israelis fear the most: approaching the International Criminal Court to ask the prosecutor to investigate Israel for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
"The leadership does not care about the average man’s reaction," Abdul Hadi said. "From day one, Abbas said, ‘This is my policy. I was elected to end the Intifada. I will not allow another one.’ Some people say this shakes his credibility in the eyes of the public. He does not pay attention to that. He’s not Arafat, he’s not a leader; he is a representative for a mission."
After nine months of failed peace talks with Israel, with expanding settlements in the West Bank, and now a large-scale closure and assault, a security relationship with Israel is becoming increasingly unpopular. But for the PA, maintaining security cooperation with Israel is essential. Without it, EU and U.S. aid money and political support would end, recalling not-so-distant memories of the PA’s previous ill-fated attempt at unity governance in 2006-2007. Following a boycott by international donors due to Hamas’s presence in the government, the PA was left unable to pay salaries. Since one-third of all Palestinians in the West Bank are employed by the PA, many were subjected to extreme economic hardship.
But this time around things are different, with the actors making sure to not violate any of their Western donors’ stipulations with their unaffiliated caretaker government. Even the United States expressed a willingness to test the new unity government, encouraging restraint and continued security coordination last week with State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki stating that the United States was "encouraged by President Abbas’s strong statement to the Arab and Islamic foreign ministers today in Saudi Arabia."
"The fundamentals of Abbas’s position are correct," said Al Khatib, himself a former government spokesman. "This kidnapping does not serve our national interests. "What [the president] is saying, is we should try to prevent a return to violence and I think he speaks for the silent majority of the Palestinian people."
But not everyone agrees.
Last Friday, the mood was somber in Qalandiya refugee camp, outside Ramallah, as families reeled from an overnight military raid that left three young men critically wounded. Inside, homes were filled with smashed furniture and clothes were strewn across the floor after Israeli soldiers ransacked the area the previous night.
Nasim Mteir, a 28-year-old resident of the camp, said the army searched his parents’ and brother’s houses during the raid. "They tore up the place," he said. "Since Israel seems to be in charge anyway, why don’t we let it resume its responsibilities in the territories? Those who want liberation should not be concerned with political seats."