Palestine Radio reported at midnight between Thursday and Friday that “the occupation this afternoon suppressed a protest demonstration near the Ofer checkpoint,” west of Ramallah. The announcer did not report that an hour before, a battery of about 30 Palestinian police from the riot suppression unit blocked about 200 protesters who were marching in central Ramallah toward the settlement of Beit El as an expression of mourning over the victims in Gaza and anger over Israel’s military offensive. “If we were 6,000 protesters, the police would not be standing here,” someone said. Indeed, the story here is not the blocking of the protesters but why they are so few.
Over the past 10 days there have been a number of demonstrations in various cities as an expression of mourning and concern over Gaza. Almost every day young people take to the streets throughout the West Bank after the nighttime prayer and clash with soldiers. If tens of thousands more had wanted to demonstrate solidarity with Gaza by facing off against the army, they would have already found the ways to do so. It is not only “security coordination” that stops them.
The clashes, the injured and two people killed this week have been swallowed up by the scenes and reports from Gaza. The daily reports of Israel Defense Forces raids have also been swallowed up, along with the continued mass arrests in the West Bank, between 10 and 30 every day, 24 of whom are members of the Palestinian parliament from Hamas’ Change and Reform party. The number of those arrested since the kidnapping and murder of the Israeli teens has already exceeded 1,000. The Palestinians are convinced that most of those detained have nothing to do with the kidnapping and that these are mainly political arrests for purposes of intimidation and revenge.
In contrast to the hopes or expectations of quite a few people, the fire that broke out in East Jerusalem after the murder of the teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Jews, did not spread to the West Bank. There is a solid basis for the assumption that even if there had been a military escalation, the protests would not have crossed the separation wall.
In the heritage of the Palestinian people, as a people fighting for its independence for decades, protests are a lightning rod for the political and social mood. Through them, political discourse bursts out from closed rooms and computer screens to the public sphere. Protests are the natural democratic means to challenge the unnatural situation of life under foreign rule. Protests are a kind of public opinion survey, a means of raising consciousness and direct and unimpeded communication with the leaderships.
“Lack of faith” is the common explanation for why the demonstrations do not spread. A leftist activist who went to the demonstration Wednesday suggested that her daughter join her. The daughter – “much more extreme than I am,” according to her mother – refused. She said: “I don’t believe that the demonstrations will achieve anything and that the price we’ll pay for clashing with the soldiers – injured, dead – is worth it.” The Palestinian Authority and its agencies have a schizophrenic, confusing discourse: on the one hand speeches and denouncements of the occupation and on the other hand, habituation to its dictates. The PA’s official radio station is playing these days of military conflict militant music about martyrs and liberation, while the security agencies continue to oppress Hamas activists. On Wednesday night, members of the Preventive Security force stopped the Palestine Today TV channel from broadcasting live shots of Palestinian police forcibly breaking up a demonstration of young people in Jenin who were trying to reach the military checkpoint.
Such leadership does not inspire the faith that can lead an uprising if one breaks out. “For a popular struggle against the occupation, that people are talking about all the time, a strategy is needed, a plan and patience,” says Ifaf Ghatasheh, a member of the political bureau of the Palestinian People’s Party (formerly the Palestinian Communist Party). But there is no faith that the current leadership of the PLO, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, wants or is able to lay out such a strategy not now, and not without far-reaching changes that will take a long time.
Under Abbas, a style of authoritarian rule has been created, in which he makes decisions almost alone, without taking other positions in Fatah and the PLO into consideration and without consulting people who are more in tune with the public than the advisors around him, particularly intelligence chief Majid Faraj. If he would consult others, he would hear from some of them from the beginning of the escalation that on the one hand he should support Hamas’ demand for international guarantees for the ceasefire and on the other hand, he should talk about the obligation to avoid more bloodshed and destruction.
There is an outrageous contrast between Abbas’ role as a level-headed statesman who is discussing a ceasefire today, and the public disparagement of his abilities and the attitude to him as a tyrant. His logical and humane position and the great suffering must stop is perceived by many as another link in his policy of “subcontractor” for the occupation. This interpretation screams of a lack of faith.
Along with this goes a lack of faith in the entire political system, which is still torn by the rivalry and animosity between Hamas and Fatah, which has grown stronger over the past month. Fatah as a rule does not show solidarity with Gaza. Fatah cannot denounce Hamas rocket fire publicly because at this point the popular support for the rocket fire (especially as a symbol of Palestinian resilience in the face of Israeli power) is broad. Fatah cannot support the rocket fire openly because this will clash with Abbas’ position and will reveal that Hamas is indeed winning in the contest over who is a more patriotic, worthy and successful leader.
When the Palestinians have so many reasons for their lack of faith in their leadership, the geographical disconnect also affects the ability of the protests to spread. The Palestinian enclaves that Israel created in the West Bank and East Jerusalem experience the occupation differently, with varying degrees of severity. Thus the Israeli policy of suppression is expressed differently in each enclave. And responses to it develop in each enclave. Absent a strategy and faith in the leadership, the responses remain local and limited.