The New Palestinian Realism

In a recent interview in Ramallah, Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad warned that the fragile calm that prevails between Israel and the Palestinian Authority could be shaken at any moment. Several recent incidents have underscored Fayyad’s concern. The killing of a Palestinian protester during a riot at the Qalandia refugee camp and the injury of several others during his funeral were among the most violent.

Fayyad seemed genuinely surprised and disturbed that the Palestinian issue is “more marginalized than ever” thanks to the attention being given to the Arab Spring. He noted that security cooperation with Israel was good but asked why these were no Israeli concessions regarding Palestinian “sheriff-like” security arrangements in the West Bank. These, he said, would not cost Israel anything and would strengthen the Palestinian Authority in practical and symbolic ways.

Fayyad expressed concerns that what he deemed Israeli violence toward nonviolent protesters at checkpoints and “settler violence” could spark a major incident. But other recent clashes have included a major incident of stone throwing down onto Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall and Christian tourists attempting to visit the Temple Mount, prompted by reports regarding an extremist Jewish website that called for Jews to exercise sovereignty over the area. A visiting group of U.S. Congressmen was also attacked by Palestinian stone throwers as they inspected vandalism at the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.

After the latest violence, Fayyad has warned ominously of a “new intifada,” a term that he carefully avoided during our interview with him only a week earlier. Fayyad’s frustration with Palestinian marginalization was palpable, but he refrained from commenting on the unity deal between Fatah and Hamas that would, if passed, remove him from his job.

The New Fayyad?
The Palestinian political scene and increasing tensions with Israel are leading Fayyad to more agitated language that seems out of character for the soft-spoken economist. When Israeli forces closed two Palestinian TV stations in Ramallah whose broadcasts had been interfering with transmissions at Ben Gurion Airport, Fayyad called the move “oppressive and monstrous,” alleging that it violated “all international laws.” It was not immediately clear which frequencies these stations were broadcasting on, but as far as international law goes, the Oslo agreements carefully specified which parts of the broadcast spectrum would be allocated to Israel and which to the Palestinian Authority.

Fayyad’s increasingly dire warning about another intifada track with Israeli intelligence estimates. A leaked Foreign Ministry report warned that the Palestinian Authority could unilaterally decide to launch another intifada or one could break out spontaneously as part of the Arab Spring phenomenon.

The Palestinian Authority is ratcheting up pressure on Israel from outside the West Bank. The International Conference on Jerusalem held recently in Doha repeated accusations that Israel was “Judaizing” Jerusalem from Arab and Muslim leaders, as well as Mahmoud Abbas. Even given Fayyad’s fears about Palestinian marginalization, mobilizing Arab and Muslim public opinion in this way is unlikely to help maintain calm.

Fayyad emphasized to us that European states had continued to maintain their donations to the Palestinian Authority despite their own financial crises. The construction throughout Ramallah testifies to the massive expansion of the Palestinian economy that has taken place thanks to that aid and thanks to Fayyad himself. But Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi also noted in an interview after the Doha conference, that following an Arab Summit in Sirte, Libya in 2010, Arab states had promised $500 million to combat “Judaization” of Jerusalem, only $37 million of which he claims was received.

Palestinians and the Arab Spring
The lack of international attention for the Palestinian cause noted by Fayyad also applies to Arab and Muslim states, but it is understandable. Consider the radical changes in the region in just the last few years. Sirte was Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown and the place he met his end. Today, it lies in ruins, along with the old Arab-nationalist system of strongmen who held disparate ethnic and religious states together. The emergence of the new Sunni-Shia divide and the rise of Islamists are profound challenges to the fragile gains that Fayyad has acheived.

In our interview, Fayyad spoke with a certain pride about the lack of any Palestinian protests comparable to those that have rocked the Arab world, that is to say, against the government. The clear implication was that the Palestinian Authority was avoiding the types of gross abuses of human and civil rights that have been widespread throughout the Arab world.

Fayyad seemed puzzled about Israel’s unwillingness to make security gestures in the West Bank. He also complained that nightly Israeli raids were undermining the Palestinian Authority and resulted in minimal security gains for Israel. This is difficult to assess, but Fayyad was certainly correct in stating that the Israeli public is largely unaware of these activities, or indeed the details of the security situation in the West Bank as whole.

To judge from discussions with Israeli officials and the media, Gaza, Hamas and the continuing low level of rocket fire are the immediate security preoccupations, along with general foreboding about the darkening Arab Spring. Fayyad’s sense of isolation is very real; with nearly eight thousand civilians already killed in Syria, it is clear that world attention has shifted away from the Palestinians and that, in a sense, the conflict with Israel has assumed a more realistic proportion.

The Palestinians are unaccustomed to having to compete for attention, and threats to the security situation are a strong line of argument. Indeed, Fayyad stressed to us that he had made precisely the same points earlier that morning to the Swedish deputy foreign minister. As with many Palestinian warnings about violence, the danger is that there is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy at work, not from Fayyad himself in this case but from other Palestinian factions anxious to regain the spotlight by whatever means necessary.