With little prospect of success on the reconciliation front with Hamas, and on the verge of bankruptcy, the Palestinian Authority has been instrumental in orchestrating the escalating series of popular demonstrations in recent weeks, held in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
According to one Israeli expert, the aim is to provoke a First Intifada-style popular uprising. “The PA is playing a double game,” said Hillel Frisch, who researches Palestinian politics at Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center. “With regards to battling Hamas, there’s coordination if not cooperation with Israel. But on the political front, the PA is trying to generate a popular intifada.”
The largest of the demonstrations, which have been building up steam in recent weeks, took place Thursday, when thousands of Palestinians demonstrated at the Beitunia military checkpoint near the Ofer Prison outside Ramallah.
Samer Issawi, who was sentenced to 26 years in prison for attempted murder and other crimes (he opened fire with an AK47 at an Israeli bus, fired at an Israeli car, and manufactured pipe bombs used in terror attacks) before being released as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap in 2011, has been on hunger strike at the jail for over 200 days. He is protesting his re-arrest by Israel, which claims he violated his terms of release (reportedly by leaving the Jerusalem area when barred from doing so). Issawi was sentenced to eight months in jail on Thursday; with time served, he is now slated to be freed next month — if he lives that long.
The most iconic of the four Palestinians on hunger strike, Issawi announced on Thursday that he had stopped drinking water; he has made similar announcements in past days too. He prepared the public for his death, demanding that “the occupation” not carry out an autopsy on him, and requesting that he be buried next to his brother.
The PA, facing mounting public pressure for its failure to produce tangible results in reconciliation talks with Hamas, and consistently unable to pay government employee salaries, has endorsed the public protest movement and encouraged it through active government participation.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad took part in a solidarity demonstration organized by the Ministry of Prisoner Affairs in El-Bireh, outside Ramallah, and accused Israel of placing the lives of the four men in jeopardy.
“The prisoner issue is an individual issue concerning every Palestinian. There is no Palestinian family without a member who has been arrested or imprisoned,” Fayyad said, calling the matter one of “national consensus.”
Minister of Prisoner Affairs Issa Qaraqe was less diplomatic on Wednesday, when he claimed that Israel was deliberately attempting to kill the hunger strikers.
The BESA Center’s Frisch said the PA’s involvement in the protest movement stems from an effort to avoid another armed intifada in the West Bank.
“The PA is incessantly searching for issues to mobilize the public,” Frisch said, without a resort to Second Intifada-style terrorism. “If it weren’t prisoners, the PA would find another issue. This is a highly planned, top-down mobilization.”
Frisch said the need to replace the armed struggle with a different — in this case relatively more benign — form of mobilization is known in academic literature as “the substitution effect.”
“Suicide attacks are too costly for Palestinian society, so the ‘resistance’ takes the form of rocket launches from the Gaza Strip, or nonviolent protests in the West Bank,” Frisch said.
But on Thursday, “nonviolent” seemed to be a relative term.
At the protest outside Ofer Prison, Palestinian demonstrators hurled stones at security forces and burned tires. One Israeli journalist was injured at the scene and taken to hospital.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas has praised the protests and Issawi’s hunger strike, calling them “an honorable example of our people’s struggle for freedom and independence.”
Yet, Frisch said, the protest movement lacks two essential components for success: an effective organizational framework and middle-ranking commanders. During the Second Intifada, with its relentless onslaught of suicide bombings at Israeli targets, Israel arrested 60-70 key field commanders belonging to all Palestinian factions, and decimated Fatah’s operational structures: the Tanzim and the Shabiba, or youth organization.
“”Violence can flare,” Frisch said, “but without organization and middle command it won’t persist.”
Shalom Harari, a former adviser on Arab affairs at Israel’s Defense Ministry, concurred with Frisch. With Palestinian reconciliation stuck due to conflicting ideologies and power struggles between Fatah and Hamas, Harari said, the PA is attempting to construct a “reconciliation substitute” on the grassroots level.
But the protests don’t only serve a domestic purpose, Harari added. The demonstrations also constituted an orchestrated attempt by the PA to fill “garbage time,” ahead of US President Barack Obama’s trip to the Middle East and the formation of a new Israeli government.
“The Arab World and the West are beginning to forget the Palestinian issue,” Harari said. “So the PA has decided to employ a policy of ‘soft violence,’ which isn’t necessarily so soft.”
Kadoura Fares, head of the Palestinian prisoner’s club, denied that the protest movement was anything but a popular expression of public outrage.
“The PA is neither supporting nor preventing the protests,” Fares said. “At this point, it can barely prevent its own collapse, so how can it direct this matter?”
Fares said that the protests erupted spontaneously when the Palestinian public realized that Arab and international pressure on Israel to release the prisoners bore no fruit. When Israel negotiated with Egypt and Hamas for the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, it was already planning to re-arrest a number of them, Fares claimed.
Israel has re-arrested 14 Palestinian prisoners, released as part of the Shalit deal in October 2011, for alleged violations.
“If Israel were to re-arrest the prisoners under court order for a real violation, there would be no protest,” Fares said. “But Israel refuses to disclose why they were arrested, and uses military orders. This is not a legal matter, but a purely political decision.”