Palestinian President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad pray in Ramallah last month. (Mohamad Torokman / Courtesy Reuters)
With anti-American unrest spreading through the Muslim world and an ongoing crisis unfolding in Syria, one might be forgiven for missing the wave of Palestinian protests that swept through the Israeli-occupied West Bank this month. The uprising virtually paralyzed life in Palestinian cities, with scenes reminiscent of the first intifada: burning tires, shuttered shops, and general strikes punctuated by occasional clashes between rock-throwing Palestinian youths and uniformed security forces. What began as a relatively limited display of anger over soaring prices and unpaid salaries soon became, as the Associated Press put it, “the largest show of popular discontent with the Palestinian Authority [PA] in its 18-year existence.” The intensity of the protests has subsided in recent days, but the sentiments behind them will persist, plaguing Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and U.S. policy toward the region.
For ten straight days, starting on September 5, thousands of Palestinians, upset over rising food and fuel prices and the PA’s inability to pay government salaries, took to the streets to demand the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. These initial demonstrations were exploited by members of Fatah, PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ faction, with the aim of sidelining Abbas’ longtime rival and perhaps winning concessions from Israel and the PA’s foreign donors. But the protests quickly took on a life of their own, spreading to cities across the West Bank and eventually leading to demands for the ouster of Abbas, too.
In a bid to shore up the crisis, Fayyad relented and agreed to rescind planned price increases and promised to pay salaries. Israel consented to transfer in advance some of the Palestinian tax revenue it collects, and the European Union pledged to pitch in more money to the cash-strapped PA. These measures, along with the regional controversy over a crudely made anti-Islam video that also sparked protests by Palestinians, seem to have dampened the intensity of the anti-PA demonstrations for now.
Since late 2010, when popular uprisings began to shake the Arab world from Tunisia to Bahrain, analysts have predicted that a “Palestinian Spring” was imminent. But most protests in the Palestinian territories have petered out. Today, the question is not if protests will resume but when, and whether Palestinians’ outrage will remain focused on their leaders, or, as many Israelis fear, metastasize into a dreaded third intifada directed at the Israeli occupation. Either way, this month’s unrest is only the latest sign of a much deeper crisis that threatens not only the PA but also the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace and a two-state solution. The resentment Palestinians feel toward their inept and dysfunctional government institutions cannot be separated from the now-moribund peace process that brought those institutions into existence.
On the surface, the Palestinian protests have borne a strong resemblance to those of the Arab Spring. As in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and other countries in the region, citizens took to the streets to demand economic growth and accountability for the repeated failings of their leaders. Unlike any of these other countries, however, the PA exists as only part of the structure of a 45-year-old military occupation. It has neither an army nor sovereignty over its territory. Meanwhile, its institutions, which remain almost entirely dependent on foreign aid, lack legitimacy. Abbas’ term has technically expired, and the Palestinian parliament has not convened in five years. All this, while the authority itself remains politically and geographically divided between the Fatah-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, a weakness solidified by U.S., Israeli, and international opposition to any internal reconciliation between the two factions. In short, Palestinians have few reasons to hope and many to rebel.
So it should come as no surprise that Palestinian protests of the last several years have not coalesced around a single, coherent message. In February 2011, thousands gathered in the streets of Ramallah and Gaza City to demand an end to the debilitating division between Hamas and Fatah. In the weeks and months that followed, protests shifted back to Israel and the occupation. They included mass marches both inside and outside of Palestine, demonstrations on behalf of the dozens of Palestinian hunger strikers and other political prisoners detained in Israeli jails, and protests against the prospect of a return to failed peace negotiations with Israel.
This month’s demonstrations have had similarly broad goals. In addition to demanding the resignation of key PA figures, some Palestinian demonstrators have also been calling for nullifying the 1994 Paris Protocol, which left Israel in control of most aspects of the Palestinian economy, and even the 1993 Oslo accords, which created the PA and laid the foundation for the last 20 years of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Outsiders may see little connection among rising prices, internal political division, and an economic agreement with Israel. But to Palestinians, these grievances are one and the same: All stem from a peace process that has not only failed to bring about their long-promised independence but has actually prolonged Israel's occupation and weakened Palestinian institutions. The same U.S.-led process that has overseen the failed negotiations has allowed Israel to continue expanding settlements on Palestinian land and prevented the reunification of the two halves of the PA. So whereas Tunisians, Egyptians, and Bahrainis had to bear the brunt of one corrupt, abusive, and ineffective government, the Palestinians face what amounts to three separate regimes: their own inept and dysfunctional leadership, a repressive and all-consuming Israeli occupation, and a deeply flawed peace process.
This helps explain why the current protesters have focused so much of their ire on Fayyad, someone with a reputation for being a clean, transparent administrator and who is widely respected in Israel and the West. Indeed, the true source of Palestinian anger has little to do with corruption or bad governance; rather, it stems from a sense that both the authority Fayyad represents and the process that created it have nothing left to offer.
One of the key lessons of the peace process going back to the Oslo accords, and one that U.S. policymakers have yet to internalize, is that democracy promotion and institution building will not work if the Palestinians are not given basic freedom or control. An elected parliament is no good if it cannot convene. An economic growth plan for Palestine is of little value when 60 percent of the West Bank cannot be accessed or developed and remains under exclusively Israeli control for the benefit of 500,000 Israeli settlers. Since both the Oslo process and its Palestinian offshoot known as “Fayyadism” have run their course, it was only natural that the process would turn in on itself.
Although today’s challenge is directed at the Palestinian leadership, none of this bodes well for the United States or Israel. The collapse of the PA, although not yet imminent, would create a dangerous security vacuum in the West Bank and almost certainly spell the end of the two-state solution, if it is not already dead. A rapid infusion of cash from the international community and Israel may buy the PA some time, but it cannot kick the can down the road forever -- especially if a recently released World Bank report is right that a more severe fiscal crisis will take root if donor countries fail to act swiftly.
Even if the PA manages to hobble along for a few more months or years, a weak and divided Palestinian leadership with questionable domestic legitimacy will be in no position to negotiate a comprehensive agreement with Israel or make that agreement stick. This week’s mass arrests of Hamas activists, carried out in the wake of the protests, speaks to the PA leadership’s deep sense of insecurity.
If the United States and the rest of the international community truly want to promote democracy and build Palestinian institutions, they should start by allowing the Palestinians to rebuild their fractured political leadership. As a first step, Washington should show a willingness to work with -- or at least not hinder -- last year’s reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas, while enlisting the support of regional actors, particularly Egypt. The formation of an interim government of independents and technocrats not affiliated with either faction but approved by both would advance the cause of Palestinian unity while avoiding the legal and political complications posed by a government that includes Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel. Forming a technocratic government could help lay the groundwork for a new political leadership built around a reformed and reconstituted Palestine Liberation Organization, which remains the diplomatic and political address of Palestinians worldwide.