Last night marked the largest protest in nearly a decade at Qalandiya, a West Bank checkpoint between Ramallah and East Jerusalem turned charred symbol of resistance against the Israeli occupation. As many as 20,000 Palestinians from diverse backgrounds turned out, some even participating in wheelchairs.
Skirmishes also broke out in many Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, followed by protests across the West Bank today. At least six West Bank protesters have been killed in clashes with Israeli forces in the past 24 hours.
The next few days will determine whether these protests are likely to spiral into a full-fledged uprising. But what is already clear is that the growing popularity of Hamas’s model of resistance, as showcased in the Gaza conflict, has pressured Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to distance himself from his traditional emphasis on nonviolence and negotiation.
If Hamas is able to secure favorable cease-fire terms that improve the situation in Gaza, it is likely to gain even more clout among Palestinians in the West Bank.
“If [Hamas] improves their conditions, it will be an embarrassment to the politicians here, especially Abbas,” says a PA employee standing on the sidelines of a protest in Ramallah today. “After 20 years he couldn’t deliver anything and then Hamas may get something after this stand against Israel.”
Hamas popularity surges
A poll this week showed Hamas enjoying greater popularity than Fatah in the West Bank for the first time in years, with 31 percent saying it better represented their political views, as opposed to 23 percent for Fatah.
President Abbas, no doubt sensing that the zeitgeist was moving away from his usual tone of moderation, gave a strong speech praising “the forces of resistance that are fighting heroically against the occupying army that is committing crimes and slaughtering our compatriots.”
In Ramallah today, protesters said that the speech encouraged them to take to the streets, erasing the fears they had that PA security forces – who often work in coordination with the Israeli army – would shut down the protests.
When hundreds of Hamas protesters headed for an Israeli checkpoint on the outskirts of the city, green flags fluttering above them, they were blocked by a cordon of PA forces. But when they went around them on a side street, the PA men simply melted into a nearby neighborhood rather than trying to prevent what turned into a violent clash with Israeli forces, with shots ricocheting around the area.
“This last speech has contributed to the people rising in a more daring manner. The PA has suddenly changed its position toward Israel,” says a graduate student in economics who gives only his first name, Mahmoud. “It realizes every day that negotiations with Israel failed … and the resistance taking place in Gaza is providing a model to all Palestinians.”
As he speaks, a wailing ambulance speeds off from the protest, where dark plumes of smoke are billowing into the sky.
He’s one of a group of Hamas supporters heading back from the protest, some of whom debate whether Mr. Abbas’s shift was genuine.
“Abu Mazen put himself in the picture so no one would kick him out,” says one young man who refused to give his name.
“Better late than never,” responds another, Mohammed.
Some say a Gaza cease-fire within the next few days could put a lid on the protests, which if widened threaten to hurt the economy and risk a broad Israeli crackdown.
“If the war stopped now and all Palestinian demands were achieved, I think the population will stop the uprising and celebrate the victory,” says Farhat Asa’d, who works on Palestinian prisoner affairs.
Some see resistance as a key lever for achieving their demands, whether for this cease-fire or at the negotiating table for an eventual peace deal.
"If political leadership and military resistance cooperate, I think there is a good chance to achieve political gains,” says Dr. Nasser Abdul Karim, an economics professor at Bir Zeit University.
Citing 24 percent unemployment, 50 percent of salaries below the minimum wage, and reduced purchasing power, he refuted the oft-heard Israeli assertion that greater economic prosperity in the West Bank than in Gaza will make its people loath to rise up.
“Now we have reached a dead end so we have no choice but resistance,” he said.