Abbas must decide how far to let the demonstrations go

With Palestinians of all factions taking to the streets in protest of Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem, the PA president holds the key

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian protesters burn pictures of US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in Gaza City, on December 7, 2017.  (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)
Palestinian protesters burn pictures of US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in Gaza City, on December 7, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

If there are no big surprises in the region – and there don’t appear to be any on the horizon — there are likely to be several stormy days over the weekend, and not because of the weather.

In fact, an improvement in the weather is likely to make the protests in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza — which began Thursday with a Fatah-organized general strike in Palestinian cities, and are likely to intensify on Friday — even more tempestuous.

A woman walks past closed shops in East Jerusalem as a general strike was called following US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, December 7, 2017. (Ahmad GHARABLI/AFP)

Thursday’s strike at schools, stores and businesses meant Palestinians, notably younger Palestinians, were free to take part in Fatah protests in the city centers. And from there it is a short path to the checkpoints with Israel.

The Palestinian Authority and Fatah are organizing the rallies in the city centers, but a key question is whether the Palestinian security services will stop demonstrators from reaching the potential flashpoints. In light of the Palestinian-Arab-Muslim consensus against US President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem, PA security may receive orders not to step in to block protesters on their way to the checkpoints, except, perhaps, to prevent the use of firearms.

This week marks 30 years since an IDF truck collided with a civilian car in Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, killing four Palestinians, which led to the outbreak of the First Intifada, also known as the stone-throwing intifada. Friday may see a repeat of some of those First Intifada-style confrontations but on a larger scale. This time Hamas is already calling for an intifada.

A very large number of people are expected to participate in protests Friday, with calls in the mosques to protect Jerusalem and the Temple Mount (or, as Trump called it, Haram al-Sharif) and nonstop broadcasting on Palestinian TV of clips showing past violence around Jerusalem.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses supporters during a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death, at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah,November 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

A small reminder – Ariel Sharon ascended the Temple Mount on Thursday, September 28, 2000, and nothing much happened right then. The explosion of violence took place immediately after prayers on Friday, September 29, when riots broke out on the Temple Mount, leading to police going up to the site, the deaths of 13 worshipers and the start of what become the Second Intifada.

The next test will be what happens after Friday. Will the momentum continue? How much energy does the Palestinian public have for yet another conflict?

Obviously much depends on Israeli security forces’ ability to contain the protests without too much bloodshed.

And much will depend, too, on how Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas chooses to act.

Israeli security forces fire tear gas to disperse Palestinians after clashes broke out at the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem’s Old City on July 27, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

In deep sea diving, nitrogen narcosis can cause symptoms of drunkenness. The deeper one dives, the greater the feeling of drunkenness. You lose your sense of orientation and your judgment, and sometimes get vertigo.

When Abbas began his diplomatic campaign against Trump’s decision, it is unlikely he imagined how successful he would be. He didn’t change Trump’s mind, but almost the entire Western and Muslim world — basically the whole world outside of Washington — has expressed clear support for the Palestinian leader. This success, in turn, gave rise to quite a few demands by the various Palestinian leaders and camps who wish to take over the leadership of Fatah from Abbas come the day — calls to announce the cancellation of the Oslo Accords, to renounce the political peace process, to return to a First Intifada kind of “struggle.” This last demand is being promoted by supporters of Marwan Barghouti, who is currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail for his role in murderous terror attacks during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s.

For his part, Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas political bureau, is calling on the Palestinians to mount an intifada to liberate Jerusalem. It is fascinating to see how, despite the ostensible reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah, Haniyeh and his movement are openly trying to take control of the campaign that began on Abbas’s desk.

Palestinians take part in a protest against US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in Gaza City, December 7, 2017. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP)

Abbas probably wants to mobilize the Palestinian public to take a belligerent line against the US and Israel, while making sure he doesn’t completely destroy everything. The problem is that the deeper this crisis gets, the more Abbas may fall prey to some of those deep sea diving symptoms — to take a more confrontational stand and try on the “freedom fighter” persona adopted by his predecessor Yassar Arafat. One can only hope that Abbas knows when to cut short the dive and hurry back to the surface.

In a discussion with a Palestinian official on Thursday morning, I got the clear impression that Fatah and the PA had not delved too deeply into the details of Trump’s speech. The US president’s decision to endorse a potential two-state solution, the decision to move the embassy in the long term not the short, and the clarification that the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem must be negotiated with no change to the status quo at the holy sites plainly did not interest him or his colleagues. When I asked him, in reference to the Palestinians’ unbridled opposition to Trump’s moves, “Where will this all lead?” he could not restrain himself. Citing Arafat’s notorious call to war, this official declared: “Millions of martyrs marching to Jerusalem.”

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