Changing course, Fatah officials call for Palestinian protests against Israel

After years of muting Palestinian rhetoric of 'popular resistance,' senior officials in Fatah, which governs the West Bank, are calling for protests against Israel's settlement expansion and construction of its separation barrier.

Majdi Mohammed/AP
Palestinian demonstrators wave Palestinian and Fatah flags during a protest next to Ofer military prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah, Wednesday. Some 200 Palestinians protested outside an Israeli jail on Wednesday against the arrest of a Palestinian official earlier this week.

Senior officials in Fatah, the mainstream faction of the PLO, have for several years taken a backseat approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- leaving negotiations to a few leaders at the top and demonstrations to the grass-roots activists on the street.

Now something is changing. This week, for the first time in years, senior members of the Fatah Central Committee – who provide a political backbone for Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas – called for an escalation of popular protests against symbols of Israeli occupation in the West Bank: the construction of the separation barrier as well as settlements. Moreover, veteran Fatah heavyweights came out to the protests, which resulted in the arrest a Fatah Central Committee member, Abbas Zaki, along with 10 other Palestinians.

The increased involvement, top Fatah officials say, is a result of what Palestinians say is an decrease in faith in restarting peace talks, and an increase in what Palestinians see as provocative Israeli actions on the ground.

"It's appropriate for the Fatah leadership to lead a new phase of popular resistance, because Fatah has motivated the masses to resist the Israeli occupation since the movement's inception in 1965," says Jibril Rajoub, a member of the Fatah Central Committee and a former West Bank chief of security for the PA. "We led the resistance during the first intifada, and have also engaged in negotiations. However, when negotiations have not been fruitful, it's only natural that the Palestinian leadership and people have opted for resistance."

Fatah higher-ups note that at the Sixth General Assembly of Fatah, held in Bethlehem last August, members endorsed the option of using "popular resistance" as a means of confronting Israel as part of a revised party platform. The decision to do so met with much concern in Israel, for which Fatah has been an on-again, off-again peace partner since the two reached their historic Oslo Peace Accords in 1993. What Palestinians dub resistance, Israelis call violence.

Despite the decision last year, sporadic protests since then have mostly been limited to teenage boys or college-age men. In addition, there are longstanding weekly protests in the Palestinian villages of Bilin and Nilin, two West Bank locales that are being affected by the ongoing construction of the separation barrier, which in more populated areas is a wall and in more rural areas is a guarded fence. These protests each Friday have sometimes resulted in casualties among local Palestinians and international activists. But they are rarely attended by well-known Fatah figures.

Growing protest attendance

That may be changing. On Tuesday, senior Fatah members met and declared that they would "be visible at all the popular struggle sites." Even PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, an independent, attended a "Land Day" demonstration on Tuesday, Palestinian media reported.

Waleed Asaf, a Fatah member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, says that recent Israeli actions in East Jerusalem have been rallying Palestinian opinion. Israel announce last month that it plans to expand housing developments for Jews in East Jerusalem, in primarily Arab areas that Palestinians claim as their future capital. The UN does not recognize East Jerusalem, which Israel seized from Jordan in 1967, as Israel's.

"The Fatah Movement has called for a strong wave of popular resistance in order to combat the Israeli plans in Jerusalem," says Mr. Asaf. "Since the Fatah Convention, the Central Committee has vowed to lead the people – politically and in the street – toward national salvation."

Mr. Zaki's arrest on Sunday represented the first time a top-ranking Fatah official was arrested by Israel since the first intifada (1987-93). It prompted protests outside the Ofer Prison. On Wednesday, in a protest attended by about 200 Palestinians, three Israeli border policemen were injured when demonstrators tried to break through a checkpoint to reach the prison. On Thursday afternoon, Zaki was released.

Fatah's actions are helping to garner new credibility with the young generation of the party, which has sometimes been disappointed by the negotiations-only approach taken by Abbas. Despite his stance, there have been no functional peace negotiations since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office a year ago, nor was much headway made under his predecessor, Ehud Olmert. US attempts to get the parties to come together – or more specifically, to come close enough for proximity talks to take place – have still not yielded fruit.

"We are not against negotiations, but the best strategy that Fatah can have right now is to pursue logical negotiations along with popular resistance," says Moheeb Awad, a 40-something PLC member who describes himself as part of the young generation of Fatah leaders. "However, at this point, the Israelis are not giving us any opportunity to resume negotiations because of their settlement policy."

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