Less than a month before President Obama is to visit Jerusalem and Ramallah, raising hopes he will help bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the peace table, some see the West Bank heading in a very different direction.
Many Palestinians say the accumulating pressures of Israeli occupation, an economic crisis, expanding Israeli settlements, and now the death of a Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail over the weekend could turn pockets of unrest into a widespread uprising.
“The issue of the prisoners is only one point that created this eruption,” said Sheikh Issa Jaradat, the former mayor of Sair, at the funeral for deceased prisoner Arafat Jaradat. People filled every rooftop, balcony, and open patch of grass surrounding the village square as Mr. Jaradat’s coffin was carried through the crowd, sparking fierce whistling and a few gunshots.
“The fact that so many people are here shows that this is not just about the suffering of Sair. The whole West Bank is suffering,” says the sheikh. “This could easily be the beginning of an intifada.”
Palestinians have blamed Jaradat’s death on Israeli torture, citing evidence from the autopsy, although Israel denies this and the final medical analysis has yet to be released.
But even before his death on Feb. 23, momentum had grown around the prisoner issue, with four prisoners on a hunger strike. On Saturday, clashes erupted between Palestinian villagers and settlers in the village of Qusra, near Nablus, and Palestinians clashed with Israeli soldiers in Hebron the following day, sparking a flurry of Israeli media reports about a brewing intifada. Some 4,500 prisoners launched a 24-hour hunger strike yesterday in solidarity with Jaradat.
A new intifada will hurt us: poll
Some Palestinians see a third uprising as the only way to fight back against an Israeli military occupation and grab the attention of the international community, which many feel has largely forgotten Palestinians since they committed to finding a peaceful solution.
Some 32 percent of Palestinians support an intifada, according to a poll by Arab World for Research & Development published Feb. 21, before Jaradat’s death. A strong majority of 65 percent oppose a new intifada, however, with 41 percent of respondents saying it will hurt the Palestinian cause.
Indeed, such an uprising could work against Palestinian interests in several ways. It could bolster Israel’s argument that it has no partner for peace, enabling it to continue expanding settlements in the West Bank unfettered by negotiations. It could also provide Israeli justification for maintaining or increasing checkpoints, arrests, and administrative detention in the name of security.
That has led some to surmise that Israel may be intentionally stirring up unrest rather than trying to contain it – although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday transferred $100 million in tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in what some saw as an attempt to ease the situation.
“I don’t believe Israeli is worried. I believe they would like another confrontation,” says Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club and a prominent Fatah member, who is skeptical of the potential for a full-blown intifada before Fatah and Hamas reconcile. “But if we have reconciliation and we begin planning our steps together, then maybe Netanyahu will be worried about any Palestinian reaction or a new intifada.”
A house divided cannot protest?
The prisoner issue, which resonates with all Palestinians, could provide the common cause needed to bring Fatah and Hamas back together. Mr. Fares says that both Fatah and Hamas are united in wanting to save the life of the four prisoners on a hunger strike – one of whom, Samer Issawi, is said to be in critical condition after an on again, off again strike that began more than 200 days ago. He is one of a number of Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for captured soldier Gilad Shalit, only to be rearrested in what Palestinians say is a violation of the deal.
Umm Abdullah, a Hamas supporter in Ramallah whose husband, Jamil Tawil, was jailed last month for the fourteenth time, says she and other Hamas supporters would like to join demonstrations over the prisoner issue but are afraid that Palestinian AuPA) intelligence sources will report them to the Israelis. She describes the PA as “spies to the enemy” – Israel. Both she and her daughter have also spent time in jail and don't want to give the Israelis any reason to rearrest them.
“We are being scrutinized, we are being watched in every sense,” she says, sitting by a portrait of her nephew, who carried out a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 2001. “Therefore, reconciliation can’t take place without confidence-building measures.”
‘This is a strong message to Obama’
At the funeral today for Jaradat in Sair, just outside of Hebron, supporters of the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Brigades chanted, “Let the olive branch fall and let the weapon always lead to victory…. Let Tel Aviv be set on fire.”
Even as a rival cluster of Hamas supporters tried to out-chant the group, others insisted Palestinians were united in their fight against Israel.
“Besides Fatah, besides Hamas, we the people of Palestine are all united in challenging the occupation,” said Rami Hijjah, a business student and student council member at Polytechnic University in Hebron who says he hopes “we all will follow [Jaradat] as martyrs.”
“Palestine will not be liberated until we all sacrifice and feed its soil with our blood,” he said, surrounded by fellow student council members. “We have to continue this escalation of our protest…. My generation will not stay quiet.”
Few protesters interviewed expressed any hope that Mr. Obama would be willing or able to improve the situation when he visits next month. One referred to Israel as America’s “spoiled child.” But at least some felt they were conveying an important message to him and other world leaders.
“The whole world has given us a deaf ear instead of an open ear and an open eye,” says Sheikh Jaradat. “I feel this is a strong message to Obama and all the world: Look, we do not accept this miserable situation … and the injustices committed against our people.”