Critics say the Palestinian Authority fears confrontation with US and loss of desperately needed aid money
As Israel launched a wave of air strikes against Gaza on Tuesday, dubbing the operation “Protective Edge”, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas affirmed that Palestinians had “the right to defend themselves by all legitimate means”.
But critics wonder how Abbas’ PA can urge Palestinians to fight back while at the same time cracking down on peaceful rallies protesting Israel’s actions.
That concern was underscored Monday night when hundreds of demonstrators gathered in the large West Bank city of Hebron to vent their anger at Israel’s mounting aggression against Hamas-controlled Gaza. Protective Edge is reported so far to have killed at least 80 Palestinians and injured more than 600.
Responding to a call by Hamas, the protesters gathered outside the al-Haras mosque after evening prayers to march with placards through the city centre. But their path was blocked by ranks of Palestinian security forces.
Scuffles broke out, said Luma Khater, a newspaper columnist who witnessed the clash. Police beat the protesters with batons, while the demonstrators responded by throwing stones. Fifteen protesters were arrested and many injured.
“People are really angry at the moment, and their anger is directed at both Israel and the PA,” said Khater. “Many people now think of them as the same.”
An order from the Ramallah-based PA to its security forces to stand aside as the Israeli army raided West Bank cities and villages, following the abduction of three Israeli teenagers on June 12, has brought the criticism out into the open.
In an operation called Brother’s Keeper to find the youths, Israel raided more than 2,000 homes in the West Bank, arrested hundreds of Palestinians and killed at least eight. Hebron took the brunt, with Israel locking the city down for days, despite its being technically under full PA control.
The bodies of the Israelis were discovered nearly three weeks later in a shallow grave close to Hebron.
Khater said the Hebron police had made clear that all demonstrations were currently forbidden in the city.
“But if the killing in Gaza continues, there will be demonstrations whether the security forces allow them or not. And sooner or later, if the police keep behaving this way, the protesters will turn their anger on the PA.”
In part, Abbas’ difficulties spring from the Oslo accords, signed by the Palestinian leadership 20 years ago, which require the Palestinian and Israeli security forces to “coordinate” in the occupied territories.
In practice, say critics, that has meant Palestinian forces largely follow Israeli dictates and withdraw to their barracks when Israel wishes to enter Palestinian areas to make arrests.
In 2010 the PA’s reputation was dented by leaked cables that suggested Abbas had been warned in advance of Israel’s major attack on Gaza in late 2008 known as Cast Lead. The operation killed 1,400 Palestinians, including many civilians.
Mazin Qumsiyeh, a civil society leader in Bethlehem, said the Oslo accords had effectively turned the PA into a “security sub-contractor”.
“The job of the Palestinian security forces is to enforce the occupation on Israel’s behalf. People have increasingly come to understand that.”
In a sign of how unpopular such cooperation has become, crowds of Palestinian youths attacked a police station in Ramallah last month, during an incursion by the Israeli army. In unprecedented scenes, the youths shouted “Collaborators!” at the Palestinian police, attacked three police vehicles, and threw stones at the station as officers cowered inside.
Ghassan Khatib, a former PA minister who now teaches at Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah, said the events of the past weeks showed Abbas was “in trouble”.
“Israel used the raids to undermine him and the PA in the eyes of the Palestinian people,” he said. “They exposed him to a lot of internal criticism.”
Khatib said this was Israel’s retaliation for the failure in late April of US-sponsored peace talks, which collapsed after Israel refused to release a final batch of Palestinian prisoners. Abbas responded by applying to United Nations bodies for membership, over the objection of both Israel and Washington.
A PA official, who wished to remain anonymous because of the “extreme sensitivity” of the issue, said security coordination offered benefits. “We understand it’s not popular but it is a mechanism by which we can try to resolve security matters in ways that avoid a confrontation with Israel that could endanger our people.”
He noted that coordination helped Palestinians receive travel permits and other documents. “The reality is that without such coordination Israel would impose even more restrictions on Palestinian movement.”
But the cooperation has gone further than simply assisting the Israeli military in making arrests, as the crackdown on the Hebron rally demonstrated.
Following the gruesome murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir in East Jerusalem early this month, apparently by Jewish extremists in revenge for the killing of the Israeli teenagers, violent protests erupted in Jerusalem and Palestinian communities across Israel.
But the West Bank stayed largely quiet, as the Palestinian security forces prevented protests in cities there.
Khatib said: “The fear in the PA is that if the protests get out of control they could quickly escalate and drag the Palestinians into a new intifada with Israel. That is an era most Palestinians do not want to return to.”
But Samer Shtayyeh, a Jerusalem academic researching the PA’s role, said the deeper fear among Palestinian leaders was that protests could quickly turn against Abbas and the PA itself.
“The PA has become the chief obstacle to resisting the occupation, so if Palestinians oppose Israel they will have to turn on the PA too.”
The extent of Abbas’ troubles over security coordination came to the fore last week when leading members of his Fatah party were reported to have heavily criticised him at a Central Committee meeting.
According to the PA official, critics in Fatah fear that Abbas’ growing identification with the policy of security cooperation is harming the party politically and is strengthening Hamas.
Recent damaging comments by Abbas have added to their concerns. In May he described security coordination with Israel as “sacred”. He further upset Palestinians by stressing last month the need to help Israel in its hunt for the Israeli teenagers, adding that security coordination would avert an uprising that could “destroy us”.
In January, Mohammed Shtayyer, a former Palestinian negotiator, broke ranks to suggest that the PA could not continue in its present form. “It should change its function to a resistance authority and not one that provides services.”
Observers agree that Abbas is in a tight spot. The US has deemed security cooperation between Israel and the PA a vital component in “confidence building”. US officials have suggested it will be a prerequisite of any future peace agreement.
But if Israel is unwilling to make concessions to advance the peace process, argue Abbas’ critics, then the coordination policy simply becomes an obstacle to other forms of action to win Palestinians a state.
That was the apparent context for a leak last month of a secretly taped conversation in which Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, accused Abbas of being a “dictator”. He suggested that, to avoid a confrontation with the US, the Palestinian president had pursued futile peace negotiations rather than seek to bring Israel up on war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague.
In a sign that Abbas may have to concede ground to silence the criticism, he held a “crisis meeting” on Wednesday to consider signing an application to join the ICC.
That would bring him into a head-on confrontation with Israel and the US, something he has studiously avoided so far.
Qumsiyeh said Abbas dared not antagonise Washington because of fears about both the diplomatic repercussions and the loss of financial aid the PA and Fatah desperately need to pay the salaries of their supporters.
This appears to be the assessment of Israeli officials too.
In an interview with the Times of Israel newspaper last month, Shalom Harari, a former Arab affairs adviser in the Israeli defence ministry, said that Abbas’ “positive statements about cooperation with Israel boost his position with the Americans and the Europeans, which are the main contributors to the PA”.
He added: “One billion dollars a year of funding don’t make [Abbas] weaker, they make him stronger.”
The danger, however, is that the price of such cooperation may be collapse of the unity government, established last month in the wake of a long-awaited reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.
As Israel stepped up its air strikes on Gaza this week, Hamas called on the PA to "decide where they stand because this is the moment of truth".