Why Palestinians remain so quiet as Egyptians loudly rail against Mubarak

Hamas and the Palestinian Authority dispersed rallies supporting Egyptian protesters, but Palestinians don't seem eager to push back.

By , Correspondent

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    Israeli-Arab protesters hold a poster depicting Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak (r.), a Palestinian flag (c.) and a sign, which reads 'Honor and freedom are demanded for all Egyptians,' during a demonstration outside the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv, to show support for the people of Egypt on Feb. 1.
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Cries for President Hosni Mubarak's ouster in Egypt are being echoed in Jordan with antigovernment protests and a "day of rage" planned for Syria this Friday. But in the Palestinian territories, it's the silence that is most notable.

Part of that quiet is due to a rare common effort from the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip to suppress vocal support for Egyptian protesters. Both sides dispersed solidarity demonstrations that were planned for last Sunday and Monday.

The PA and Hamas both maintain close ties with the Egyptian government. Mr. Mubarak has been a key supporter in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that have involved the PA. Although Egypt has helped maintain the blockade on the Gaza Strip, Mubarak also turned a blind eye to the brisk tunnel trade under the Gazan-Egyptian border, and has allowed aid into the strip. Further, Mubarak has attempted to mend the rift between the Gaza-based Hamas and Fatah, which rules the West Bank.

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"[The Gazans] don’t want to get into a bad relationship with the Egyptian regime," says Sameeh Hammoudeh, a political scientist at Birzeit University. "Egypt can really harm them if they close the border, if they close everything and prevent the Gazans from getting what they need through the tunnels in Sinai."

Still, there have been some calls online for Egyptian-like protests in Gaza, where more than 7,000 people have joined a Facebook page calling for an anti-Hamas rally planned for Feb. 11. Another 1,100 people have joined a page "Against the corrupt Zionist Fatah government."

But the bigger factor in preventing protests from breaking out in the Palestinian territories appears to be a sense that a protest – either against the Palestinian leadership or against Israel – will not bring about any positive change.

To be sure, Palestinians are no strangers to protest. In the first intifada, or uprising, which began in 1987, they demanded an end to Israeli rule with general strikes and demonstrations. The second intifada, which began in 2000, was notorious for suicide bombings and other violent attacks in Israel.

"The previous experience with intifadas did not bring any good," says Mr. Hammoudeh. "[The Palestinians] didn’t get a state, they didn’t get rid of the Israeli occupation, and, on the contrary, their economic situation and their lives went backward."

Hammoudeh also doubted the Palestinians' desire to retire Mr. Abbas, who enjoys close relations with Mubarak. "If they change Abbas with another man, what can this leader do? What power does he have?" he asks. "The real master, the real occupier is Israel."

Ghassan Khatib, spokesman for the Abbas government, likewise said Israeli settlement expansion is "definitely undermining the position and credibility of the Palestinian Authority."

But between dissatisfaction and action is apparently a wide gulf. In the Shuafat Refugee Camp in Jerusalem Wednesday, Yasser Kiswane says Israel would make life miserable for protesters. "They will close the fence and shut down all the checkpoints," says the computer salesman.

"Watching the protests, my memories return of the intifada," says Ikhlas Mimi as she was walking with her friend down a commercial street lined with soggy piles of garbage. But if there were a protest, she says, she would not go because she has small children.

Eyad Abu Mayala, a taxi driver, wonders what a demonstration would do. "Why do a protest? Against whom?" he asks. "We are under the Israeli occupation, but here we live better than in Egypt."

In what some viewed as a preemptive strike against potential protests, the PA announced Tuesday that it would soon hold long-overdue local elections. But Mr. Khatib said the announcement was planned before the protests erupted in Egypt.

Still, engineer Nabil Aweda says Abbas is a dictator "just like Mubarak."

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