By Noah Browning / Reuters
RAMALLAH: Popular uprisings have transformed the Middle East and North Africa in the past year, unseating four veteran autocrats and capturing the imagination of a generation of youths. But the protests have left Palestinians – long at the centre of the Arab world’s main political conflict – unmoved.
Dejected by lingering political divisions and exhausted by decades of mostly fruitless rebellion against Israel, they appear to have lost their appetite to take their fight for change up another level.
“There’s no revolution here because the government is less oppressive than in Egypt or Syria, and anyway it’s Israel that deserves our anger,” said Mahmoud Bisher, 20, a student from the West Bank city of Hebron.
“But we’re divided and there’s no coordination. This only serves the occupation’s interests,” he sighed, referring to the schism between the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the West Bank and the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.
Small protests waged weekly in some of the villages pressed up against Israeli settlements and a separation barrier in the West Bank are among the few outlets for popular frustration, attracting a regular group of dedicated demonstrators.
In Nabi Saleh, Fridays usually see a couple of dozen activists and children surge towards Israeli military positions waving banners and hurling stones, only to be quickly scattered by the advancing soldiers’ rubber bullets and tear gas.
“Resistance has been part of our strategy for more than 40 years,” village activist Faraj Tamimi said, flinching as a tear gas canister sailed low, crashing and hissing near his feet. A companion’s deft kick sent it back towards the Israelis to a roar of cheers from his friends.
“But after such a long time being suppressed by the Israelis, we get tired of confrontation all the time. The leaders could support us more and we hope protests like these become wider and will have more popular support,” he added.
There is no sign of that happening, however, even though the last Intifadas, or uprisings, remain fresh in people’s memories.
The first Intifada in the 1980s resulted in the Oslo interim peace accords, but that was seen by many Palestinians as an appallingly bad deal. The second Intifada resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Israelis and thousands of Palestinians between 2000-2005, and prompted Israel to erect a barrier in the West Bank.
A call to rise up again, issued last month by Fatah strongman Marwan Bargouthi – who is serving five life terms in an Israeli prison for murders he committed during the last Intifada – has pointedly failed to galvanize many Palestinians.
“They (the Intifadas) had limited political impact, and that’s why people haven’t repeated them,” said Rami Khoury of the American University of Beirut.
“The Palestinian leadership is directionless and as the occupation continues, civil society and independent groups have failed to provide much intellectual guidance to the people.”
Officially-sanctioned rallies for the “Global March to Jerusalem” last month attracted only modest numbers in the West Bank – after hours of Palestinian stone-throwing and Israeli firing of rubber bullets, life quickly returned to normal.
Unofficial demonstrations in the squares of Gaza City and Ramallah in the heady first days of the Arab uprisings calling for the estranged Hamas and Fatah factions to reconcile and unite also fizzled, in part due to tight police surveillance and arrests.
Efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a negotiated peace deal are equally moribund.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to resume direct talks unless there is a halt to all Jewish settlement building in the occupied territories – a pre-condition that Israel rejects.
Palestinian leaders had hoped to provide some kind of rejoinder to the Arab Spring. But they failed to overcome internal divisions or to achieve UN recognition of their statehood after a high-profile campaign stalled in the face of US opposition.
After any spring comes winter, and the scenes of death and destruction in Syria may also have discouraged those Palestinians eager to confront either their own leadership or the Israelis.
Rhetoric of resistance
Nervous about political discourse taking place outside its control, the PLO in the West Bank has discouraged independent protests while putting the rhetoric of resistance to work on its own faded image.
In Bi’lin, a flashpoint for community-based protests against Israeli settlements, a once-modest annual town meeting on popular resistance was mobbed this week by ruling Fatah party flags and government VIPs.
Foreign envoys and ageing international solidarity activists occupied the front rows, listening to translations of speeches on headphones, while uninterested-looking Palestinian youths mostly chatted among themselves.
“Peaceful resistance goes side by side with efforts to…found a state,” Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told the small gathering.
“This is the twin track of the political struggle conducted by the PLO – the single, legitimate representative for our people in all areas and forums,” he added.
Fayyad is an economist. He knows that the greatest challenge to his government’s institution-building drive may yet be curbing public sector unrest if dwindling foreign aid finally affects its ability to pay salaries.
The PA failed to pay civil servants salaries in full and on time on several occasions last year and is facing an even more difficult financial environment in 2012, with its budget deficit projected to exceed $1 billion.
“For 20 years after the peace accords, the Palestinian Authority has gone from concern for the collective to concern for itself, to stay in existence by collecting checks and paying salaries,” said Ibrahim Shikaki a lecturer at Al-Quds university and a youth organizer.
During Friday’s modest demonstration in Bil’in, resident Umm Samarra walked along a deserted path in her traditional dress and headscarf towards the Modi’in Illit settlement’s wall, as Israeli soldiers manning the ramparts with tear gas guns looked on.
Asked if she felt abandoned by the Palestinian leadership, she shrugged: “We don’t know if the authorities support us or not, and we organize ourselves. Me, I’ve protested here for six years and I’m as strong as any man.”