Demonstrators descended Monday on this city's most famous traffic circle, Manara Square, which for years was a launching point of Palestinian protests against the Israeli occupation.
This time, however, the demonstrators were directing their ire against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Local leaders bellowed into the flag-waving crowd, accusing Mr. Abbas of capitulating to US and Israeli pressure. While frustration has been building for several weeks, the catalyst was the PA's decision late last week to delay a vote on the Goldstone report, the most comprehensive international investigation to date of Israeli conduct in the devastating Gaza war.
"This report was an opportunity to expose Israel's behavior," says protestor Omar Mansour, who traveled from Jenin to participate. "This postponement is embarrassing not just for Palestinians, but for everyone in the world who tried to help us attain justice. Even worse, the PA leadership put itself in this position at a time when there are no negotiations to save."
While the demonstration was small – several hundred men and women participated – Abbas faces a serious threat to his credibility and to his ability to enforce public compliance with any promises Palestinian negotiators make in renewed talks with Israel. Mr. Abbas's decision to ask the Palestinian Authority to delay a United Nations Human Rights Council vote on the recommendations of the Goldstone report has sparked widespread anger in the West Bank and Gaza.
"The extent of outrage over this is really tremendous," says Mamdouh Aker, the Commissioner-General of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights.
The anger appears to extend beyond the Palestinian territories. A day after criticizing the Palestinian Authority for backing down against Israel, Syria canceled an Abbas visit scheduled for Tuesday, reported the Associated Press in Damascus.
Abbas faces censure
The UN investigation, led by South African Judge Richard Goldstone, produced a 575-page document that says there is sufficient evidence that both the Israeli army and Hamas committed war crimes. But the report reserves the bulk of its criticism for Israel.
The UN Human Rights Council was set to approve the report's recommendations – which included asking the UN Security Council to refer war crimes cases to the International Criminal Court if either side failed to launch investigations into their alleged crimes within six months.
Israel has gone on a diplomatic offensive since the report's release in mid-September, challenging its credibility and saying it is full of bias and inaccuracies. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared last week that if the report were to be adopted and forwarded to the UN Security Council, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be plunged into a deep freeze.
Under pressure from both Jerusalem and Washington to give the peace process top priority, Abbas asked the Palestinian leadership at UN headquarters in Geneva to postpone a vote until the council next meets in March. Without Palestinian participation, other Arab and Muslim nations didn't press the matter further.
The deluge of censure that has emanated from almost all major Palestinian political factions since the decision led Mr. Abbas to announce on Sunday the creation of a committee to investigate his decision to postpone. But many Palestinians said that seemed to be an attempt to avoid taking responsibility.
"When we look at this issue, it seems that no one could have taken this decision but Abbas. He should accept responsibility and try to explain what happened," says Dr. Aker of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights.
Aker said that the three-member committee Abbas announced Sunday would only have teeth if it were run by an independent figure, preferably a judge. "It can't be headed by an insider. It should be headed by a judge and include a representative from the human rights community," he says.
The Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) met on Monday to discuss the issue. One of the members said the council had denounced the PA leadership's decision to postpone the Gaza report.
"What we see is that this opportunity to seek clarity on the events in Gaza has been deferred, and that makes it much more difficult to follow up," says Qais Abdul-Karim Abu Leila, a PLC member from Ramallah.
Hamas has issued perhaps the most stinging criticism of all. On Monday, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh accused Abbas of personally instructing his representative in Geneva to revoke the representative's demand that the Goldstone Report be adopted, and accused him of "betrayal" of his people. Haniyeh said that this was typical of the PA and that Palestinian unity talks would not succeed unless there was change in Ramallah.
Palestinian anger over Arafat-style diktats
The public anger over the delayed vote on the Goldstone report comes on the heels of other incidents in which Palestinians believe their leaders capitulated to external pressures. Foremost among these was Abbas' agreement to meet last month in New York with Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama at the UN General Assembly. Since then, indirect talks have continued in the US under the aegis of US Middle East envoy George Mitchell.
Abbas had initially vowed that neither of these would happen unless Israel agreed to a settlement freeze, which it has not.
"The first is that Abbas took the decision to participate in the trilateral summit in New York, and the second was breaking the promise not to conduct any negotiations with the Israelis until they agree to a settlement freeze," he says. Finally, he says, was the decision to postpone the Goldstone report. "This was against the will of the Palestinians. The Palestinian leadership needs to reevaluate the situation and regain trust with the Palestinian public."
Mr. Shaheen says there is a sense that PA decisionmaking does not include consultations with legislators or PLO bodies like the Fatah Central Committee, which was promised more influence at a party-wide conference in August.
"What's important here is that the decisionmaking is taking place outside the government," he says. "I'm afraid we're repeating the same patterns of the Arafat era, in which decisions were taken by one person. I think this is the core issue of the anger over the Goldstone report. There is a problem of taking decisions in the Palestinian Authority, and a feeling that Abbas is leaving the political establishment in the margins."