The Quiet Corner of the Mideast (Surprise)

June 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Helene Cooper

Washington — In the Arab democracy movement, there is a dog that has not yet barked. And whether or not it does — and how loudly — is causing a lot of heartburn among American policy makers.

Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans and Syrians gathered in their respective city squares and neighborhood streets to demand democratic rights, and the Western world cheered, if with varying degrees of diplomatic or military support. But by and large, so far, the Palestinians in the West Bank, who see Israel as the source of their grievances, have not.

Yet.

In part, this is because the Palestinians’ own leaders — elected, but weak — have another timetable in place, for a diplomatic campaign against Israel in the fall that turmoil on the ground could complicate. But some other prominent Palestinians are beginning to say that the moment of the Arab Spring offers a more urgent opportunity to join fellow Arabs in the streets. And that worries policy makers and experts here, as well as the political leaders in Hamas and Fatah, whose own authority could be undermined.

“If you’re looking for a game-changer, that would be it,” says Robert Malley, the program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. “At a time when the entire world, including President Obama, is applauding nonviolent popular protests from Cairo to Tehran, it would put Israel in an acute dilemma about how to react if tens of thousands of Palestinians started organizing protests in the West Bank, or marching on Israeli settlements or on Jerusalem demanding an end to the Israeli military occupation.”

Even more significantly, Mr. Malley said, “it would put the United States in an equally acute dilemma about how to react to Israel’s reaction.”

And it would box President Obama into a corner, penned in by his own words: on one side, that the democratic aspirations of people in the region must be heeded and that Palestinians deserve their own state, and on the other side, 44 years of American national policy that strongly sides with Israel on issues involving its security.

The biggest worry for Mr. Obama is that Israel would react with violence toward nonviolent Palestinian protesters in the West Bank. Last Sunday, Israeli forces fired at pro-Palestinian protesters on the Syrian frontier as they tried to breach the border for the second time in three weeks. The Syrian news agency SANA reported that 22 protesters were killed and more than 350 wounded; Israeli officials said that they had no information on casualties, but suggested that the Syrian figures were exaggerated.

Israeli and American officials both said those protests were instigated by Syria, in a move to draw attention away from the violent crackdown on its own democracy movement. By and large, there was not a huge outcry over Israel’s decision to fire on the protests, in part because of the role that Syria is believed to have played, and partly because the march on the border was viewed as a hostile and provocative action on a sovereign country with which Syria is still legally at war.But the West Bank is a whole different ballgame. This is the disputed territory captured in 1967, the land occupied by Israel after its three southern and eastern Arab neighbors united to fight it 44 years ago. It is the land that Israeli settlement blocks have since sprouted throughout, in an ever-growing reminder that the longer a peace deal remains elusive, the more the facts change on the ground. And now, Palestinians there have started to draw a direct line between the Arab Spring movement and their own push for an end to the Israeli occupation.

“You will see waves,” Mustafa Barghouti, a former Palestinian Authority presidential candidate and independent member of Parliament who has been critical in the past of the Fatah leadership, said in a telephone interview. “It’s already happening. We, the Palestinians, have inspired Arabs many times in the past, and now we’re getting inspired by them.”

On Sunday, a few hundred Palestinians in the West Bank tried to organize marches around the territory, but were stymied by the forces of both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, neither of which are eager to see widespread Palestinian democracy protests. That is in part because leaders of both Hamas, the militant Islamist organization that controls Gaza, and Fatah, the party that controls the Palestinian Authority, fear that a popular Palestinian uprising could upend their own authority in the West Bank and Gaza.

“We have been talking to the youth movement in Tunisia,” said a Palestinian activist in Ramallah who asked to be identified only by his initials, F. A., because he said he has been threatened by both the Palestinian Authority and by Israeli officials. “They are telling us how they did it, and when we tell them our situation, they say, ‘Wow, your situation is much more complicated.” ’ He said his house, in Ramallah, had had no running water this month, but he could see Israeli settlers in a nearby settlement enjoying the summer in their swimming pool. Because of such daily indignities, he said: “We will do this. Our time will come.”

In Israel, the political discourse in the past two weeks has centered on the increased fear that the Palestinians in the West Bank will join the Arab Spring movement. On Sunday, Aluf Benn, the influential Israeli editor at large for Haaretz wrote: “The nightmare scenario Israel has feared since its inception became real — that Palestinian refugees would simply start walking from their camps toward the border and would try to exercise their ‘right of return.’ ” Mr. Benn was referring to the Syrian border episodes, but many Middle East experts say that a West Bank uprising would actually be more seismic, for both Israel and the United States.

In Washington, Obama administration officials have been fretting about how the United States would respond. In many ways, Mr. Obama’s decision to come out in favor of Palestinian statehood based on Israel’s pre-1967 lines, with land swaps, stemmed from a desire at the White House to give both Palestinians and the world at large a place to park their grievances. That, they felt, might help forestall both a United Nations resolution in September recognizing a state of Palestine within the 1967 boundaries, and a popular uprising among Palestinians in the West Bank.

That such an uprising hasn’t happened yet, Mr. Barghouti and other Palestinians say, goes beyond the simple Hamas-and-Fatah-won’t-allow-it reasons. Palestinians in different West Bank cities are disconnected from each other, separated by Israeli checkpoints that don’t allow freedom of movement even within the territory. Israel’s security fence also inhibits movement among Palestinians.
Beyond that, Palestinians may be exhausted from the two intifadas — the second one, in the last decade, extremely violent — that ended with the Israeli construction of the security fence and the imposition of increasingly strict restrictions on movement throughout the West Bank.

But exhaustion from the violence may feed more nonviolent uprisings. “There is now a growing belief,” Mr. Barghouti said, “that nonviolence is the only form of struggle we should use. Or, at least, that it is the most effective form of struggle we should use.”

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