Peter Beaumont in Ramallah
Palestinian officials are warning that the occupied West Bank risks being plunged into chaos next year, with no sign of three months of violence coming to an end and support growing among Palestinians for the current wave of attacks on Israelis.
The warnings that the status quo is untenable follow recent comments by both senior US figures and the Israeli military that the risk of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is in danger of increasing in the coming months.
A growing vacuum of political leadership on both sides is prompting renewed discussion of a series of troubling scenarios, including a collapse of the Palestinian Authority and a sudden or more gradual escalation of violence.
The PA’s potential collapse has been raised by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, and was discussed recently at a special Israeli cabinet meeting.
“The risk is total chaos,” said one Palestinian official in a bleak assessment, suggesting that the path to further escalation appeared more obvious than international engagement to mediate an end to the recent bloodshed. “It won’t happen tomorrow but it is also not so very far away.”
The renewed concern over the trajectory of present tensions has emerged as attacks by Palestinians on Israelis have settled into an almost daily routine, prompting Israel to announce this week that it is to deploy two new army battalions on the West Bank.
Since 1 October, a combination of almost daily attacks by Palestinians and clashes with Israeli soldiers have killed 117 on the Palestinian side, 21 Israelis, an American and an Eritrean, while thousands more have been injured. Many of the Palestinians killed have been attackers, while others have been shot dead by Israeli security forces during clashes.
With no hint of a respite, Palestinian leaders now appear trapped in a catch-22 situation over the continuing violence, which they neither lead nor feel able to fully condone or disavow.
With the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s strategy to internationalise the Palestinian issue at the UN apparently at an impasse, senior leaders seem to have been caught out by the changing context in the region – now dominated by concern over the rise of Islamic State – paired with the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw from mediation efforts.
And while attempts by the Palestinian security forces to prevent violence worsening have so far been largely successful, some fear privately that in the longer term members of the security forces might themselves become disaffected.
Speaking recently to an audience of journalists and diplomats in Bethlehem, Mohammed Shtayyeh, head of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction and a former negotiator close to Abbas, articulated an official formulation increasingly under threat from events.
“The Fatah political programme adopted in 2009 called for massive popular resistance. We are fully engaged in this popular resistance. [But] we are not asking people to carry knives because we don’t want our children to die.”
Referring to the tensions between wider Palestinian society and the Palestinian leadership, he added: “The question for our leadership and for President Abbas is: how long can we maintain the situation on the ground?”
It is a question that has been asked increasingly in recent months. At the heart of the problem for Abbas is the growing tension between the wider Palestinian society and the Palestinian leadership.
That dynamic was starkly underlined by the latest opinion survey released earlier this week by the leading Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki. It showed that fewer than a third of Palestinians believed the current situation would stay at the present level or diminish. Instead, the researchers observed “a growing majority supporting return to an armed intifada; and a growing majority continues to reject the two-state solution”.
While support for Abbas himself has not worsened, according to the latest polling 65% would still like him to resign. An increasing number back Hamas, which the polls suggest would win if elections were held today, with only the imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti posing a potential challenge to the Islamist group.
“There is no doubt the whole Abbas decade is coming to an end,” Shikaki told the Guardian last week. “The Palestinian public is questioning not just the strategy vis-a-vis Israel and the peace process, but questioning Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.
“There is no doubt what we are seeing is a president who single handedly created the status quo after the second intifada and who is now not only at a loss [over what to do] but also has nothing to show for his strategy. His threat to dismantle Oslo [1993 peace agreements] is a reflection of his own disillusionment and the fact he lost legitimacy in ability to lead.
“Today it’s not clear whether he will be able do anything to stem the tide or if he will have to follow the public, particularly the most important sector – the youth behind most of the instability.”
A sense of the disconnect was given by Abbas himself this month. “We cannot ask the youth: ‘Why did you start it?’ They aren’t stupid, the youth gave up hope for a two-state solution. They’ve checked and understood that it’s not logically possible, that our state doesn’t exist because of settlements and checkpoints, and so despair began to take hold of them.”
Abbas’s strategy, however, has been to articulate once again demands already rejected by Israel, including the release of prisoners and a freeze on settlement building.
Jibril Rajoub, a former Palestinian security head and now leader of the Palestinian Football Association, is another figure who remains close to Abbas.
Like Shtayyeh, he insists that Palestinian society should pursue a policy of non-violent resistance but cannot disavow those behind the current wave of attacks, instead arguing that Palestinians need to be patient.
“For me those people [behind the attacks] are victims, victims,” he said. Rajoub encapsulates the Palestinian leadership’s difficulty in insisting on a strategy of non-violence while also seeking to explain the attacks. “Non-violence cannot come from one side. It needs to come from both sides not one. It’s a reaction.
“I think the situation is very complicated,” he added. “The feeling of losing hope has started to infiltrate the political spectrum, from left to right, from the grassroots to the old men.”
That picture is confirmed by Shikaki’s research, which since September has shown a sharp convergence of support for violence between the so-called Oslo generation aged 18-25 and Palestinians over 50. Both groups are now polling in favour at over 60%.
If Rajoub is not alone in voicing his frustration, what is clear too is that the febrile mood is multiplying divisions inside the PLO and Fatah at a critical time and at all levels, between senior figures advocating different approaches and between the old guard and a younger generation.
“There is an ongoing debate and there is a lot of internal criticism,” said one official familiar with the internal conversations that have been taking place in recent weeks and months, seeing some kind of crisis as inevitable regardless of what the Palestinian leadership decides.
“I think you are going to have a big crisis if PLO central council decisions aren’t implemented,” he said referring to long-threatened moves including ending security cooperation with Israel.
“And you may also have a crisis if they are implemented. People reject Oslo. But they also have to live. They want hospitals working and schools and the jobs provided by the Palestinian Authority even if they are bad jobs. Most people I know say they don’t like Oslo but they can’t describe an alternative.”