Lacking popular legitimacy amongst Palestinians, de-facto control in Gaza and dependent on American and European aid to stay afloat, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas is without a base to find strength in as he officially remains in a negotiations process that most of his constituents view skeptically.
As a result, the continued series of PA concessions illustrates the context of the August 31 settler assassinations, intended to derail talks before they began. Although these attacks were carried out by Hamas’ military wings, they received support from a wide coalition spanning the Palestinian political spectrum, including leftist PLO factions like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
However, this approach to derailment is different in reason and context to Hamas’ suicide bombing campaign of the Oslo period, which sought to send the message that the PLO lacked a monopoly on resistance. This target – against Hebron settler communities, especially known for violence and cruelty to Palestinians – was one of broad appeal, stating that resistance can still be mustered despite the continuous Israeli and PA security force crackdowns in the West Bank.
Although tit-for-tat internal reprisal and repression between PA forces in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza colors PA West Bank repression, it does not explain the depth of the crackdown which again climaxed during the lead up and commencement to negotiations. Even before the assassinations, a public meeting in Ramallah of civil society and political organizations opposing the talks, primarily from the Palestinian left, was infiltrated by PA general intelligence and violently dispersed before it could get underway.
Following the settler assassinations, PA forces swept through the West Bank arresting hundreds suspected of involvement with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a move condemned by the Palestinian human rights organization, Al Haq. On the night of the assassinations, PA forces reportedly entered the Deheisha refugee camp – regularly invaded by Israeli forces and one of the few remaining PFLP stronghold camps – shooting. Clashes with residents throwing stones then ensued and 13 people connected to the Popular Front were later arrested by the PA. The website Electronic Intifada has reported that the PFLP in the camp has since decided to move political activities underground and PA forces now patrol the camp, painting over gratified PFLP, Hamas and anti-negotiations slogans.
“The PA problem is their program matches Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” former Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades leader turned cultural activist with Jenin’s Freedom Theatre, Zakaria Zubeidi says, referring to the largest US military aid recipients in the Middle East after Israel. “They are all beholden,” he continues, contending that Iran sets Hamas’ program. Formerly topping Israel’s assassination list, Zubeidi says he gave up armed resistance after the internal split which he believes set back the Palestinian struggle 50 years. “The Palestinian yard is now empty of resistance,” he adds, overlooking the Jenin refugee camp from his porch – which was an Israeli army lookout point during the last Intifada.
In the West Bank it has been more than a two-year process of blanket Israeli repression followed by PA security force clean up and behind-the-scenes debilitating of resistance. A prime example is the town of Ni’lin – located near the 1967 green line and waging popular demonstrations since 2008 against Israeli land annexation stemming from the Wall. Once a forceful and broad struggle that was an example for national unity, it now faces consistently shrinking participation.
“When [the Israelis] kill five people, shoot 45 with live ammunition and arrest 150, people start to ask who will look after my family if I go to jail or am killed,” says Ni’lin resident Saeed Ibrahim Amira, a young man who spent four and half months in an Israeli jail for activism against the Wall. According to Amira, the PA has also fallen short in supporting those injured by Israeli soldiers and done nothing to deal with spiraling unemployment stemming from denials of work permits to Israel for town residents because of the anti-Wall campaign. As the wall construction was completed, unity began to break down and in June PA general intelligence began summoning residents suspected of Hamas affiliation and then arresting 15, including people involved in the popular struggle.
Like Ni’lin and Deheisha, Jenin has also experienced the impact of duel Israeli and PA force presence, starting in 2008 with an unpopular mass policing operation in the city and refugee camp. Yet, when the Israeli army enters, the PA security forces disappear from sight (as they do across the West Bank). “The PA come in and [have a] ‘peaceful’ occupation of the camp. Since this started, Zakariah [Zubeidi] and the resistance has been losing power,” says Mustafa Staiti, a local resident who grew up in the refugee camp and now lives in the city. “People are not close with the PA and most people are skeptical about the negotiations,” he adds contending that Fatah’s internal resistance was broken at its last conference in Bethlehem.
With Israelis clearly looking to use these negotiations as cover for expanding occupation – as all governments since Rabin have done – the PA presence can only be that of an unpopular authority openly embracing its only remaining source of marginal power: Israel and the US. Where an ability to convince Palestinians that this style of talks will lead to freedom has failed, a systematic campaign to break resistance so the status quo can continue has emerged.