Restive but not rebellious, the missed Palestinian Spring

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Why haven’t the Palestinians joined the Arab uprisings, or more broadly what Zbigniew Brzezinski has called “the global political awakening” which has gone as far as Chile and Brazil? A common explanation is that the scars of the Second Intifada have not healed and Palestinians (who are traditionally keen to political mobilization) are wary to start something that might bring only more bloodshed and make their lives even more miserable.

Part of the answer, though, is that the Palestinian territories did witness protest movements over the past two years although none brought about regime change: the youth mobilization in Gaza and the West Bank on March 15, 2011 had national unity, rather than regime change, at its heart and was one of the reasons for the Cairo agreement on reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah - which is still very far from being implemented. While Egyptians, Tunisians or Yemenis were intent on getting rid of their leaders, Palestinians seemed to focus on making the existing system work.

Something that partly resembled the Arab Springs did in fact occur in late August and September 2012, which were periods of large mobilization in the West Bank, ignited by rising fuel prices and VAT increases. These demonstrators ended up questioning the leadership of then Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and eventually also the Paris Protocol, namely the annex of the Oslo Accords which regulates economic relations with Israel. Fayyad thus became the sacrificial lamb that the Fatah leadership offered to public opinion in order to survive in power. Thus, dissatisfaction toward the current leaders has so far failed to turn into a large scale movement.

An additional reason behind the missed “Palestinian Spring” is that Palestinians live in a peculiar environment where a large part of their daily lives is determined not just by the Authority that sits in Ramallah, but also by Israel which still controls both civilian and military affairs in 59% of the West Bank (Area C, as it is labeled under the Oslo Accords) and has military control over another fifth of the territory, namely Area B. The occupation is in turn used as a very convenient foil by the Palestinian leadership in order to dump some of its responsibilities. As a result, part of the energy that elsewhere has been directed toward local rulers is devoted to contrasting the Israeli occupation and, despite very low levels of popularity for the PA, statehood (rather than democratization) is still the number one priority for most Palestinians.

The occupation and the peace process that started in 1993 (whose effective death has never been acknowledged neither by the international community nor by the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah) have created a complex institutional and economic situation in which a large part of the population is dependent either on jobs provided by the PA or on the economics created by international aid, which accounts for about one fifth of the Palestinian GDP. Rising demand for consumer goods has been fueled either by these two sources or by high consumer credit which in turn has created a “debt trap”, a further driver of the relative political stability witnessed in the territories in the past five years.

Moreover, Palestinians mostly lack a political space in which their “Spring” would take place. As a result of combined action from the PLO/PA leadership and of EU regulations on funding for NGOs, the previously politicized Palestinian civil society (the main actor behind the First Intifada) has given way to fragmentation on the one hand and depoliticization on the other hand.

But even this is only part of the story. Even though no significant uprising has occurred yet in the West Bank and Gaza, these have been far from insulated from what has happened in the region: in fact, the regional dynamics have greatly impacted Palestinian politics.

First, Hamas has changed sides shifting from its alliance with the Assad regime in Damascus to a close relationship with Qatar and, to a lesser extent, Jordan (with both governments providing increased support). The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has momentarily given the Gaza government a new spin, only to further prove its diplomatic isolation when Mohamed Morsi was ousted in July and the new Egyptian junta started to crack down on Hamas’s main source of revenue, i.e. the underground tunnels through which most of the trade between the Strip and Egypt takes place. The Hamas leadership has thus called for a Third Intifada but so far this has produced no effect.

More generally, the Palestinians have suffered from their deteriorating ranking among regional priorities in light of the conflict in Syria (with its spillover on the neighborhood), the evolutions in the Egyptian transition and the ongoing conversation about the Iranian nuclear program. This has determined a decrease in donor aid and a consequent deterioration of the PA’s financial situation which makes the status quo even more unsustainable and the position of the leadership even more uncomfortable. Also, the prolonged paralysis  of the peace process has added fuel to the crisis of legitimacy facing the PLO and PA leadership - which happens to be in the hands of the same person: Mahmoud Abbas.

Regional actors that have traditionally been very active on the Palestinian scene - such as Egypt, Turkey and Qatar - are distracted either by domestic turmoil or by the conflict in Syria. Paradoxically, precisely as a way to score some points in a region that offered few opportunities for easy gains, American and EU policymakers have worked to kick start a new phase of the peace process with some minor help from a revision of the Arab Peace Initiative which provided regional backing to the PLO leadership.

Nevertheless, unless the two parties decide to surprise the world with a highly unlikely breakthrough, current negotiations have for the moment brought little change on the ground in the Territories. While lack of hope, disenchantment and disengagement prevail among the majority of Palestinians, new movements of non-violent “resistance” have sprung up locally. They still have produced little movement within the political elite, the only outlier with some hope of having some electoral impact being former independent presidential candidate Mustafa Bargouti. Unfortunately for him, there is little hope that elections will be held soon, pending an unlikely national reconciliation agreement on when and how to hold them. Meanwhile, the Israeli journalist Amos Harel has conflated the recent wave of individual murders of Israelis in the West Bank under the new category of “the Intifada of the individuals” where actions are undertaken by lone wolves without any group affiliation. Time will tell whether he anticipated a rising trend or just coined a catchphrase.

Ultimately, the regional dimension could prove to be the most dynamic aspect of the Palestinian scene. In the recent past, dealing with the Palestinian issue has been the only way emerging regional actors such as Qatar and Turkey have found to impress their competitors. The Arab press has speculated that Saudi Arabia could exact here its toll for what it perceives as an American betrayal on Syria. More positively, if the Middle East Peace Process seemed intractable, its complexity now pales in comparison to the conflict in Syria or the Egyptian transition. This will make it a good place to start if one wants to score some points as a regional power. Alternatively, someone in the Palestinian camp might devise a strategy that again puts this people at the center stage of regional politics.