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Pillars or Pandoras?

West Bank.

The news is dominated by celebrations for a UN observer state. But it has only been a week since Gaza’s nightmare. The tiny densely populated city that really did experience ‘Pillar of Clouds’ as the Bible narrated  – God protecting the Children of Israel by striking terror in the hearts of Egyptians. For a full week Israel acted as God and striking terror by rains of bombs. This military operation caused immense human suffering with more than 200 killed, more than 1000 maimed bodies and immeasurable traumatised children, parents, teachers, doctors, nurses and ambulance workers. These are all too valuable for the ‘ceasefire’ to be considered a victory; most actually thought the staged fireworks were a bit tasteless.

Those against the Palestine bid argued that it is a provocation towards Israel and won’t bring peace closer. None of them mentioned that only a week earlier we actually saw the greatest way to repudiate peace and disrupt ‘returning to negotiations’. It is therefore good to remember how this started because this had little to do with defence against Hamas rockets. First there was the killing of several children in October but soon after the outrageous assassination of Hamas commander al-Jabari tipped the scale. By killing him, the architect of a new truce who had also assured the release of the hostage soldier Gilad Shalit – Israel made sure to thwart the rapprochement between Hamas and Israel taking place behind the cameras. No matter how many UN facelifts there are, it confirmed that peace is not in its best interests and, if needed, will prevent it. To understand the implications we need to return to Israel’s original motives two weeks ago.

Underneath the visible aims this terrible war was also an exercise to move a pawn on the changing geographic chess board with two concrete objectives: to satisfy (domestic) electoral needs and to test the post-2011 waters. This should be understood in terms of possible regional responses as well as military intelligence about the Palestinian forces and (as if Gaza is a laboratory) the need to test its own capacities. So now we all know that the Palestinian resistance forces have new Iranian Fajr 5 rockets and that Israel is blessed with its new anti-rocket version (Iron Dome). In the course of events Israel has not overthrown Hamas as it hoped. Even the Palestinian military capabilities remained largely intact. And if ‘morale’ is of any material significance, it achieved the opposite vis-a-vis Hamas. It prepared for a major ground offensive; army units with thousands of additional reservists were stand-by fervent to go in, but did not pursue. This reflects inconsistency between Israel’s pragmatic hawks (those thinking of a long-term survival) and fascist hawks (wanting to finish the job) in the top political echelons.

Although the focus has been on the (indeed, unprecedented) psychological local effect of rockets reaching Tel Aviv, it should not be overestimated. The rearranged region that shook the balance of power is what really mattered. Many of use hypothesized what a new Palestinian uprising, breaking out as part of a regional Intifada, could entail. But we didn’t really consider how a war would unfold in this new context but they now prove to be a game-changer. Israel is forced to realise what the reshuffles since the Arab revolutions mean.

Even though the new Egyptian government is far from revolutionary, its relations with Hamas are almost the opposite of Mubarak’s, neither is there an Omar Sulaiman. It certainly matters that Egyptian President Morsi has completely side-lined the PA (representing Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party) and treated Hanieh and Meshaal (Hamas) as the de-facto representative during the truce talks with Hilary Clinton and Israeli ministers. And Abbas must have wondered why none of the state-visits from Turkey, Libya, Egypt or Tunisia to Gaza bothered to even make a pit-stop in Ramallah to pay him a courtesy visit.

The over-enthusiasm during the UN celebrations in Ramallah last night can partly be explained through the war on Gaza as well. Israel’s addiction to war back-lashed for itself but also dragged the docile Abbas (the un-elected president) to whom the US and Israel sub-contracted the occupation in the West Bank with it.

But the grassroots responses in the West Bank demonstrated is what made the PA forces more nervous. Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu expected the war on Gaza to have such an impact here, signifying a local reshuffling inside Palestine as well. Pillar of Cloud became Pandora’s Box in the West Bank. The local and regional shifts work in tandem now. The combination of both means Israel cannot afford the same disregard. The limit of the threshold changed.

Protests in the West Bank

The enormous protests in the West Bank were a relief for many and testimony of the internally changing dynamics that seems to slowly move away from the paralyzing splits between Gaza and West Bank.There is a section in society which, unlike their older siblings or parents, are much less burdened by the sense of defeat that has been numbing the traditional parties since the end of the Second Intifada. Secondly, they are much more susceptible to the impact of other Arab revolts. Conspiracy theories about the Arab revolutions are still thriving among a section of the Palestinian left but it also seems to made way for a new empowerment. A generation for who the crippling Hamas-Fatah divide is beginning to erode and that might itself become a new critical-mass. As attested in all the Arab uprisings since 2011, the youths become a crucial factor particularly when they manage to pull other sections with them while pushing the limits.

Whereas self-confidence among ordinary Palestinians was low due to the traumatic split – and an overall sense of collective defeat – an important psychological reverse is ensuing. Anger over appalling role of the PA (with Mubarak) during of Cast Lead was accumulating for a while and is now being expressed with more stamina to make up for the reluctance then. The PA security forces could hardly control them and it seemed they did not dare either knowing it might provoke dissidence amongst much broader sections.

I have seen the shift up-close during protests in several places, including Nablus, the largest city of Palestine nick-named Jabal al-Nar (Mountain of Fire) in the previous Intifada’s for a reason. Palestinians protested on their campus (like here at An Najah); crossed into Israeli settlements; confronted soldiers at checkpoints. I saw a young man at Howara checkpoint – one of the stone-throwers that did not managed to escape – blindfolded and his hands tied behind his back surrounded by seven soldiers, his nervous moves showed he was unable to grasp the situation. It is remarkable that after years of decline, as if second-nature, many returned to a practice and style of protest that was considered part of the past. The message of the youth in 2008 was ‘solidarity’ for Gaza but is now much more part of a unified anti-colonial sentiment against Israel.

Unannounced raids have taken place during which young activists are lifted from their bedsat dawn in a coordinated operation across West Bank villages or arrested by undercover agents during protests.By pounding on Gaza Israel wanted to show its muscles to all Palestinians but instead was answered with a kind of rebellion it had not seen since the Second (Al Aqsa) intifada.

The inevitable result is that the West Bank has its own funerals – therefore more protests and confrontations with occupation forces -thus in turn more deaths. Such was the case during the funeral of Rushdi Tamimi in Nabi Saleh, shot by soldiers during clashes. Usually we hear the descriptions afterwards but this time the fatal moment was, coincidently, filmed by his sister who happened to be at the same protest and kept filming throughout. He died of his wounds in the hospital, in the extraordinary video we see him kissing his mother’s hands and telling her everything will be fine. These human tragedies and examples of struggle, hidden behind abstract numbers, are being document and shared on Facebook and Twitter. They don’t only show us exciting scenes: if we look closely we can detect a determination because Palestinians in the West Bank didn’t feel that the scale is tipping.

This is also true for Gaza, the resistance last week was more than the sum of Hamas. More militant groups are assembling on the fringes, boosted by the recent steadfast and unified resistance. The recent reconciliation gestures are a further testimony that things cannot stay as they were and the cry for unity is being heard. The fragile ceasefire will only temporarily halt the massacres but this eruption of protest has set a new vitality in motion and thus it is doubtful that things will go back to the abnormal ‘normal’.

Of course there is a chance this will dissipate. We can see that happening now. The UN state-bid has been a way for Abbas to regain popular legitimacy since last year and he needs it more than ever so he will squeeze it as much as he can. But it may not be as easy as he wishes. This has been a very traumatic week for many West Bank cities (many students have not come to class, some are searching for their arrested brothers, sisters or friends, some are mourning) and it will probably continue to be so after the balloons and posters for the UN-bid have flown away and deafening sounds about this ‘historic achievement’ fades.

Miriyam Aouragh is a researcher and lecturer in Oriental and Middle East Studies at Oxford University. She is currently living and working in Palestine.

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