Palestine Papers backlash? Protesters rally for Mahmoud Abbas at Al Jazeera office

Amid Palestine Papers revelations, Mahmoud Abbas got a rare show of public support, though some question if it was staged.

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    Palestinian police officers block the entrance to the Al Jazeera TV office, after protesters vandalized it, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Monday, Jan. 24. Protesters stormed the headquarters of the Al Jazeera television station infuriated over the leak of the so-called Palestine Papers.
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Protesters stormed the headquarters of the Al Jazeera television station in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday afternoon, infuriated over the leak of confidential documents that reveal Palestinian negotiators offered Israel big concessions during peace talks over the past decade.

The leak of the so-called Palestine Papers has embarrassed Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, but some 250 supporters rallied to his defense in today's demonstration.

“Al Jazeera is a Zionist channel!" protesters shouted as they ran up a set of stairs to reach the Qatar-based channel's seventh floor office. Shards of the door plaque, emblazoned with the channel’s logo, flew down the stairwell, torn apart by demonstrators.

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It was a rare show of public support for a beleaguered Mr. Abbas, although the apparent presence of Palestinian Liberation Organization officials and secret police in the crowd had some observers questioning the authenticity of the demonstrations and whether they truly reflected public sentiment.

A small group violently hammered the office door, smashed security cameras, and scrawled graffiti defamations of the TV channel on the walls. Others burned a Jewish flag with Al Jazeera's logo on it, while the words "Al Jazeera equals Jewish" were painted on the ground.

The documents, leaked Sunday, reveal that Palestinian negotiators have been willing to give Israel control over Jewish areas of the Old City; let Israel annex areas of East Jerusalem claimed by Palestinians as part of their future capital; and severely limit the number of Palestinian refugees allowed to return.

“They are lying, making problems for us,” a protester said of Al Jazeera's broadcasters. Mahmoud Elayan, who claimed to be one of the four organizers of the march, said: "This is an impulsive protest by angry Fatah supporters." (Fatah is the party of Abbas.)

The messages from the crowd mimicked the reaction of the Palestinian Authority to the documents earlier that day. Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) official Yasser Abed Rabbo described the Al Jazeera reports as “a theater of fabrication.”

Did PLO stage protest?

Most Palestinians, however, have expressed exasperation and anger with PLO chairman Abbas, with few coming to his defense.

“On Facebook, Twitter, and online blogs, Palestinians are going crazy criticizing Abbas and the Palestinian Authority,” says Palestinian journalist Mohammed Jaradat.

This sentiment was not reflected in today's protests, he says, nor has it been reflected in Palestinian newspapers, which have almost exclusively covered official condemnation of the leaks but with little explanation of their content. That, along with the presence of PLO officials, had some observers speculating that today's protests were staged.

“Many of the men here are from the preventative security forces. I recognize their faces,” said a senior Palestinian journalist pointing to the crowd banging down the Al Jazeera door. A plainclothes security official forced this reporter to delete a photo showing the faces of some of these protesters.

The Palestinian Authority has been reported to stifle past protests, as happened last week when it refused to grant permission for a rally to celebrate the government overthrow in Tunisia.

To Mr. Jaradat, the Palestinian journalist, the authority's strong hand is one reason why anti-Abbas protests did not also erupt today.

To other analysts, however, Palestinians held back because most remain supportive of Abbas.

“Most Palestinians are disappointed in the Palestinian leadership as a whole – both in Gaza and the West Bank, but they are still not ready for a revolt,” says Nabil Kukali, director of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion. "There is still hope that the PA might bring an end to the occupation."

Al Jazeera says the documents released Sunday are the first batch of 1,684 it will disclose in the coming days on the Middle East peace process.

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