West Bank: Embers Under the Ashes

Abdelrahman Nassar
https://media.thecradle.co/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/26221254/Unknown-1-12.jpegLet down by the Palestinian Authority and decades of futile ‘peacemaking,’ Palestinians in the occupied West Bank are turning to Resistance as their only alternative. Photo Credit: The Cradle

Today, the West Bank is a “Sleeping Lion” about to awake from decades of lethargy. Its Palestinian youth now openly reject the Palestinian Authority and the treachery of Arab ‘peacemaking’ – so they’re taking the fight directly to the Israeli Occupation, on the street, using the ‘Gaza model’ of resistance.

The occupied West Bank may have been the last Palestinian region to join the massive popular uprising against the Sheikh Jarrah evictions back in May, but today, it remains the only area where resistance protests continue to flare up.

Seven days after the outbreak of clashes on the 7th of May 2021, West Bank involvement remained mild. The surprise came when Palestinians residing in the 1948 occupied lands rose up in defense of Al-Aqsa Mosque, mobilizing marches at first, then escalating to direct confrontations with Israeli forces. Next, the Gaza Strip’s resistance factions ignited a major battle, directly linking the fate of Jerusalem with Gaza for the first time since the end of the second intifada.

It was only on the 14th of May 2021, the ‘Friday of Rage,’ when the West Bank joined the fray. On this single day, more than 200 clash points ignited across the territory – confrontations that still break out daily, despite gradually dwindling to around 80, then 20, per day.

‘The Sleeping Lion’ – a phrase used by late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to describe the southern West Bank hotbed city of Hebron, is now just as fitting for the entire West Bank.

Before discussing the reasons for this West Bank dichotomy – first, its delayed reaction, then, its continued flare-ups – it must be noted that for the Israeli occupation army, which approaches the West Bank through a solely military and security prism, this new development represents a dilemma.

Although the number of armed Palestinian operations is much lower than during the 2000–2005 Al-Aqsa uprising (second intifada), the army has overnight become forcibly preoccupied with handling numerous confrontations on multiple fronts, while the Shin Bet-led Israeli security services operating in the West Bank obsess over “worst possible outcomes.”

None of the solutions recently presented to alleviate these escalations – US political-intelligence activity, the economic revival of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Egyptian initiative for resuming negotiations, or limited Israeli concessions – have succeeded in curbing the pessimism that dominates Israeli decision-making circles on the West Bank’s political resurgence. So the situation remains fraught with tension.

The latest example was the escape of six Palestinian captives from an Israeli prison, two of whom sought refuge in Jenin, the restive West Bank city often referred to as the ‘hornet’s nest’ by its occupiers. Because of its punishing history with Jenin, Israelis were forced to quash their normal impulse to charge right in, and had to instead turn to the Palestinian authorities for help, to protect against being sucked into yet another military quagmire in Jenin’s refugee camp, a Palestinian icon of resistance since 2002.

According to sources, the PA worked with Fatah leaders to convince the last two escapees, Ayham Nayef Kamamji and Munadel Nufayat, to leave the Jenin camp and head to the city in order to avoid a potential Israeli massacre against Palestinians in the camp. The two were captured by Israeli occupation forces shortly after that.

The West Bank delay, and its continued protests

Why was the West Bank late to join the resistance protests in May? And why do these protests continue to erupt there? It is first important to understand that the West Bank has not been a quiet spot in the past years, as the question seems to suggest.

On the contrary; since 2015, the embers that once lay under the ashes have ignited. At that time, Omar Dia Talahmeh, the budding, young engineer described as the trigger of Al-Quds intifada, was only 20 years old. Talahmeh supported the Resistance Axis and was a member of the Syria Support Committee inside Palestine. Many images were published of him carrying a photo of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. Perhaps taking an example from the operations of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon during the 1990s, Talahmeh prepared an ambush using small local devices known as ‘elbows’ against an Israeli patrol in Hebron, in which he was martyred. September 22 of this year marks the 6th anniversary of his martyrdom.

The fatal shooting of Talahmeh was swiftly followed by another. Talahmeh’s friend Muhannad Halabi, also 20 years old, was shot dead after he killed and wounded several Israeli occupation soldiers in Jerusalem, unleashing similar individual attacks that continue to this day.

Such acts of resistance peaked between 2015 and 2018, but decreased after 2019 due to the crackdown exercised by both the PA and Israeli intelligence.

After that, even the ‘deal of the century’ plans to annex the West Bank, proposed by former US President Donald Trump and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – a deal expected to re-ignite the West Bank – did not lead to the further acts of resistance expected by Israeli security services.

Everything changed in 2021. With President Joe Biden due to enter the White House, Netanyahu tried to maximize the fruits of Trump’s labor before he too lost power, leaving President Mahmoud Abbas and the PA fighting for their own survival.

Although there was a slight improvement in the official Palestinian discourse during those three intervening years, trust was completely lost between the new generation represented by Talahmeh and Halabi, on one hand, and the reputationally blemished political and economic ruling class of the PA, on the other. Indeed, today, one could argue that there are literally no points of convergence between the PA’s discourse and what these young Palestinians think.

Nevertheless, the PA still benefits from an environment of fear prevailing among most older generations – the Oslo and pre-Oslo generations – who saw a series of failures in the second intifada that has forestalled them from repeating the experience.

The fear factor may provide an answer to the two questions above. The West Bank’s delay in joining the protests was due to the older generation’s fear of repeating mistakes and reaping the same dead-end results. The ongoing protest flare-ups, on the other hand, are due to the fact that those who lead today’s confrontations are unafflicted by that pessimism.

Washington tries to save Ramallah

The Cradle interviewed several Fatah cadres in West Bank cities. Most of them reflected a deep discomfort with the behavior of Fatah’s leadership, and specifically that of the head of the PA, Palestinian armed forces, and PLO, Mahmoud Abbas, who exercises sole control over decision-making processes.

Abbas runs the political game in an archaic, obsolete way, some of them say. Others remember Arafat fondly, particularly during his last days when he returned to armed action. Those interviewed do not see any hope for change in the West Bank with Abbas at the helm. Instead, they see their 85-year old president as someone who, bizarrely, does not tire of “experimenting with the experimented,” a stance that has led to a series of resignations and dismissals, particularly among the Fatah Youth, the party’s student arm.

Many of these Fatah cadres see their movement losing too much ground to the increasingly popular Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, whose own strong resistance to and defiance of the occupation has become a beacon of inspiration to West Bank youth now willing to confront occupation forces.

The generation that is today facing the army with stones are mostly millennials, those who came of age in the 2000s. They have no organizational ties to either of the two Islamic movements, but insiders acknowledge that they draw their inspiration from the ‘Gaza model,’ as well as from the new armed confrontations emerging in Jenin, Tubas, and Salfit in the West Bank’s north.

Recent public opinion polls support the view of the Fatah cadres. The latest polls, conducted by Palestinian research centers at the request of the US, which also funded the surveys, confirm that both Fatah’s popularity and public support for the PA have plunged, and that Fatah would lose resoundingly if it runs in forthcoming elections. A few days ago, the West Bank-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research conducted a new poll revealing that 80 percent of Palestinian respondents want Abbas to leave, while 45 percent want Hamas to lead them.

The disparity in figures between this and the research center’s previous poll could be directly related to the killing of opposition activist Nizar Banat (from Hebron) during his detention by the PA. Two-thirds of today’s respondents believe that Banat’s death was intentional and support the subsequent anti-PA demonstrations that unleashed further crackdowns on West Bank Palestinians. Khalil Shikaki, the director of the research center, described the poll result as “the worst polling we’ve ever seen for the president. He has never been in such a bad situation as today.”

This development was picked up early on by the relevant US agencies, led by American envoy Hadi Amr who is of Palestinian origin, as well as by US security and intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA. They have been wary of Israeli intentions to let the PA collapse, especially during the Netanyahu era. Current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett seems entirely indifferent on this issue, while Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and, to some extent, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman appear more concerned about the consequences of allowing the PA to face its own fate.

The recent visit of Jordan’s King Abdullah to Washington and the phone calls of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi to President Joe Biden only reinforced those concerns.

A new approach was needed. Under pressure from Washington, Israel restored the PA’s functional security role to preserve Israel’s safety – if not its existence. But it would not reverse other debilitating policies, such as Israeli appropriation of Palestinian tax funds, the very cause of the economic crisis in Palestine right now. Instead, Israel maneuvered to compensate for the loss of vital Palestinian funds by introducing its own condition-based ‘loans’ and ‘aid’ to Ramallah.

Egypt, meanwhile, was busy trying to unite Abbas and Bennett together in a photo op that went nowhere because, according to sources in Cairo, Bennett insisted – during his Sharm El-Shiekh meeting with Sisi – on avoiding any gesture that might resemble a ‘political process.’ Bennett fears that even the hint of diplomatic chuminess with the PA’s leader might lead to his own overthrow by members of his government even further to his right. To his dismay, Defense Minister Gantz met publicly with Abbas, violating Bennett’s decision to keep the meetings with Abbas secret, while the latter, quite unaffectedly, expressed his desire to meet with Foreign Minister Lapid next.

West Bank youth choose ‘resistance’

In any case, the emerging realities in the West Bank have required both the PA and Israel to maintain some calm and buy themselves more time. But will these plans succeed, or will they face the same fate as the ‘deal of the century?’ The answer to this question begins and ends with a cursory look at what takes place in the West Bank on a daily basis: confrontation erupts regularly because Israel insists on forging ahead with its illegal settlement projects, disrupting real Palestinian lives each day. These are the issues to which the ‘new generation’ are responding, and they are now calling this ‘the Gaza model’ of protests.

One of the tactics of the Gaza model has become known as ‘night confusion,’ which works to prevent the establishment of any new settlement outpost, employed especially in Jbeil Sobeih, in the northern town of Beita in Nablus.

This is a generation that is beginning to use new tactics with the same old tools – stones, Molotov cocktails, and explosive ‘elbows’ – to confuse and disrupt the occupation army’s operations.

To Palestine’s youth, Abbas and his political proposals expired a long time ago, and Washington and Tel Aviv have offered little beyond ‘rescue measures’ that fall far short of any genuine ‘political process’ able to satisfy Palestinian national aspirations. Instead, young Palestinians have only witnessed the dead-on-arrival ‘deal of the century,’ so have given up entirely on foreign-made solutions being handed to them.

Officials of several local organizations who are in direct contact with the public also tell The Cradle that Palestinians have now completely lost confidence in the Gulf regimes – even in terms of humanitarian support – as a result of the Abraham Accords’ ‘normalization’ treachery and the subsequent exposure of those regimes with regard to Palestine.

These officials refer to statements made by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian early this month disclosing Iran’s intention to activate a ‘popular referendum’ proposal, presented years ago by the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Tehran has requested that the PA cooperate on advancing a United Nations resolution that addresses this ‘self-determination.’ How the PA reacts to this rare proposal will indicate whether it merely seeks to reinforce its power and wealth, or is prepared to bring resources and will to fight this battle.

Currently, the PA does not seem ready to deviate from the role assigned to it by western funders and the Israeli occupation. This suggest that the West Bank’s future may increasingly fall to the mood on the street, where plans can be hatched and decisions made; where settlement-building and occupation activities can be directly confronted; where populations can be rallied and organized. A vacuum in governance is a finite thing. People will eventually fill it.