BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- The fierce clashes that have swept the occupied West Bank over the past week have revealed a contradiction in the Palestinian Authority’s claim to represent the Palestinian people.
While President Mahmoud Abbas has called for a political solution through “peaceful means and nothing else,” a poll last month showed that most Palestinians now view an armed intifada, or uprising, as the only route to change.
“The future is black,” said Layla, a resident of al-Azzeh refugee camp in Bethlehem, where large numbers of youths have clashed with Israeli soldiers in recent days.
She can recall the devastation of the last intifada -- which most Palestinians believe achieved little -- but said a new uprising was now the only means to end Israel’s nearly 50-year military occupation.
“If there was leadership, there would be no intifada,” she said, “But there is no leadership.”
For many Palestinians, the PA is not only ineffective, but a body actively seeking to prevent change.
One local civil servant told Ma’an: “To achieve our national goals, we should raise an intifada against the Palestinian Authority, because they are the hand of Israel.”
“Achieving that would be a big victory -- an earthquake for Israel.”
He said that many Palestinians were slowly recognizing the PA is an “obstacle to freedom, that they are traitors,” although he added that most with such views were “living underground.”
An Israeli border guard fires a tear gas canister during clashes with Palestinian youths at the main entrance of the West Bank city of Bethlehem on September 21, 2015. (AFP/Musa Al-Shaer/File)
PA security forces have had a thin presence during the latest clashes, but Israeli security experts remain confident the PA’s close security coordination with Israel will be pivotal to preventing the outbreak of a sustained uprising.
“There remains a mechanism for coordination and for consultation,” said Mark Heller, a security analyst in Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.
As long as Abbas remains in power, Heller said, he will act to prevent the outbreak of an intifada because he is convinced that a breakdown of law and order would be harmful for Palestinians.
Yoram Schweitzer, another expert at the Israeli research institute, agreed that security coordination was “crucial” to preventing a sustained uprising.
He said that Abbas continues to exercise a high degree of authority over PA security forces, which he believes “are more consolidated now than they have ever been.”
For the moment, they are standing back from the clashes, in a bid to give Palestinian protesters “an outlet to rage and resentment,” he said.
But ultimately, if it seemed they were crossing “a certain line” -- in which the protesters began to harm Israelis -- the PA would step in to prevent a further escalation.
‘The rabbit and the lion’
Palestinian youths stand during a lull in clashes with Israeli forces between Azzeh and Aida refugee camps in Bethlehem on Oct. 6. (MaanImages/Emily Mulder)
Many working under the PA -- the largest employer in the occupied Palestinian territory -- continue to support its strategy of applying pressure on Israel internationally, while remaining non-confrontational at home, even coordinating on security.
Another civil servant told Ma’an that it was not for Palestinians to decide whether to carry out an intifada, but a decision to be made by the Palestinian leadership.
He said only “radicals” and religious extremists sought an intifada -- those interested in chaos and the destruction of the PA.
That the PA's employees are members of Palestinian society has often -- though not always -- served to restrain them from acting forcefully against Palestinian protesters.
According to the analyst Schweitzer, while the PA regularly detains members of Islamic Jihad and Hamas as part of its security coordination with Israel, they choose to hold “conversations” with members of Fatah and issue “warnings.”
An intelligence official in Bethlehem confirmed there had been a number of these “conversations” since the most recent clashes began, with the PA seeking to persuade members of their own communities of the folly of violent protest.
“You should understand that there’s the weak side and the strong side, the rabbit and the lion,” the intelligence official told Ma’an.
“We are the rabbit. The rabbit must give one of its children to the lion if it means it can survive.”
‘Peace is hopeless’
A masked Palestinian youth kicks a garbage container during clashes with Israeli forces on September 21, 2015 at the main entrance of the West Bank city of Bethlehem. (AFP/Musa al-Shaer/File)
Irrespective of politics, many of an older generation have expressed weariness at the prospect of a third intifada after the last proved so ineffective.
This is the chief reason Israeli analyst Heller believes there is little “immediate” risk of a sustained uprising. “Adults still have vivid memories of how things happened before,” he said.
However, with more than half the Palestinian population under the age of 20, experience may not deter as many as he would think.
One resident of Azzeh camp, Fadi, told Ma’an that he feared frustration was pushing many of the younger generation away from Fatah’s non-confrontational stance to what he believed to be the more aggressive position of Hamas, or even the Islamic State group.
The youths that took to Bethlehem’s streets to clash with Israeli soldiers were eager for an uprising and openly scorned the efforts of the PA.
“All of the people now are with an intifada,” a local university student told Ma’an, “only the president is against it.”
“Leadership?” said another student, Tareq. “We don’t care about leaders. We will be the leaders.”
“Peace is hopeless,” said yet another student, Salah al-Din.
He said that while Abbas might stand against an intifada, the rest of the PA would ultimately join -- “because they are of the people.”Some names have been changed.