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Echoes of the Past

Palestine in Protest

by PATRICK O. STRICKLAND

Jaffa.

At first glance, it may appear that the demonstrations which alighted across the West Bank on 05 September were routine. Weekly demonstrations, sit-ins, marches, hunger strikes, and graffiti are only a small fraction of the vast reserve of strategic means of rebellion regularly employed by Palestinians. Indeed, the notion of resistance itself has been absorbed as an integral component of society. It is, after all, the 45th year of life under the coerced tutelage of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

The demonstrators who flooded into streets across the occupied territories on Wednesday, however, did not deem Israel as the only barrier standing between them and self-determination. After years of vile corruption and inept incompetency, the Palestinian leadership is being called into question: neither armed struggle nor peace negotiations have achieved the long overdue liberation of millions of Palestinians living under military occupation or in imposed exile.

After Hamas, the Gaza-based Islamist party, dominated parliamentary elections in 2006, immense pressure from Israel and its Western backers, coupled alongside the threat of cutting off all funding, prompted Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to dismiss democratically-elected Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh. Despite that his Third Way Party received a piddling three percent of the overall votes, Salam Fayyad, a former World Bank economist, was illegally installed in Haniyeh’s place.

Fighting ensued which led to the division which persists today: Abbas’s Fatah party dominates the West Bank, while Hamas controls the Gaza Strip.

Once assuming the office of Prime Minister in 2007, Fayyad immediately announced his initiative to build an independent economy through focusing on the development of the Palestinian private sector. If enacted alongside close cooperation with Israel on security matters, Fayyad argued, it would be impossible for Israel to prevent the declaration of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank by 2011. (The Gaza Strip was ostensibly left to be sorted out after independence.)

The results have surpassed disastrous. The Palestinian economy remains wholly dependent on Israel and has developed a dangerous addiction to foreign aid, which comes with all the restrictions that Western financier governments choose to tie to it.

A horrifying 80 percent of Palestinian exports go to Israel. Purchasing power is lower than it was in 2005—at the tail end of an intifada that toppled the economy—and, once adjusted, barely hovers above that of Sudan and Yemen, neither of which are countries characterized by their economic prosperity. 70 percent of employed West Bank Palestinians survive on unreliable hourly wages, and 25 percent work for the PA, which hasn’t been able to deliver paychecks on time or in full for over a year now.

Meanwhile, living costs have soared. Fuel prices are roughly three times more than in the United States, and housing and food costs are almost the same as in Israel.

Grievances, in other words, have been boiling under the surface for a long while. To make matters worse, with no political progress having been made in years and the rapid expansion of Israeli settlements rendering the two-state solution less viable each day, self-determination seems as distant as ever. Now rage has boiled over and spilled into the streets of cities, villages, and refugee camps across the occupied territories—people want to shake the shackles of the PA as well as Israel.

“The Palestinian Spring has begun, and we are in line with what the people say and what they want,” announced President Abbas to a meeting of Arab League ministers in Cairo, displaying just how out of line the political elite is.

As Fayyad’s economic policies largely ignored the agricultural sector, swaths of people desperate for employment have migrated to cities like Ramallah from the rural countryside, most of which falls within the 60 percent of the West Bank under complete Israeli control (Area C). These dubious economics are accelerating Israel’s process of ethnically cleansing Area C by further concentrating Palestinians into small, semi-sovereign pockets that are best described as Bantustans.

Already withering in the absence of a democratic mandate, the Palestinian street tossed out the last semblances of trust in the PA in July. Hundreds of youth amassed in Ramallah to protest President Abbas’s decision to meet with Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former military commander and Defense Minister with a sinister record of human rights abuses. Before the march even began, PA security forces beat, dragged, and arrested several people.

The systematic violence of Israel’s occupation, it seems, has been outsourced to the PA itself.

Hamas has scarcely done a more convincing job in the besieged Gaza Strip. Their inability to stabilize the security situation has provided Israel with ample pretexts to repeatedly shower the territory with bombs that generally claim several civilian lives for every alleged militant killed. Furthermore, a recent UN report concluded that Gaza will be “unlivable” by 2020.

On Sunday, a teenager in Gaza, citing his family’s fickle financial position, died after dousing himself in gasoline and setting his body ablaze. On Wednesday, two self-immolators followed his lead, one in Ramallah and another in Hebron.

On Wednesday, distended streets and alleyways pumped thousands of Palestinians into the centers of cities and villages in every corner of the West Bank—Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Hebron, and Bethlehem, among others.

In Ramallah, drivers parked their taxis horizontally in the streets to barricade Al-Manara Square, the throbbing heart of the downtown area, paralyzing transportation and clogging the city’s main arteries. “I can’t fuel my car, so Fayyad can take it!” several reportedly chanted.

In Hebron, Bethlehem, and several villages, large crowds set tires ablaze and demanded the resignation of Fayyad and his colleagues in the Ramallah-based government.

It would perhaps be unwise to merely assume that these demonstrations will grow to the dimensions of the lengthy uprisings of the past, but that they bear all the markings of the First Intifada cannot be overlooked.

Wednesday’s demonstrations echoed the past: the same spirit which rallied masses in 1987 fueled demonstrators across the West Bank this week. The First Intifada was as much as a revolution against an out of touch leadership as it was against Israel.

Many Palestinians no longer see their leadership—neither Fatah nor Hamas—as capable of achieving results that exceed the purely cosmetic. Both parties allowed the desire for hegemony within a system of often petty party politics to eclipse the long term goal of liberation.

When outraged demonstrators set both tires and their own bodies ablaze in defiance, they were also burning down the immense post-Oslo illusion that was self-governance. Writing of the First Intifada, Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani penned chilling lines which come to mind again: “Ah, generation of betrayal, of surrogate and indecent men, generation of leftovers, we’ll be swept away—never mind the slow pace of history—by children bearing rocks.”

Patrick O. Strickland is a freelance journalist living and traveling on both sides of the Green Line in Israel and Palestine.