In the West Bank, an intifada lurks beneath

Wednesday night’s firefight in Jenin exposed potentially explosive tensions in the refugee camps, making talks even more pressing

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.

Hundreds attend the funeral of three Palestinian men shot dead by Israeli troops in the Qalandiya refugee camp in the West Bank, Monday, August 26, 2013 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Hundreds attend the funeral of three Palestinian men shot dead by Israeli troops in the Qalandiya refugee camp in the West Bank, Monday, August 26, 2013 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Twenty-eight Palestinians have been killed by IDF fire in the West Bank since the beginning of the year, 13 of them since September, after the talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority began.

For the first time in years, the number of killed in the Gaza Strip is much lower, according to rights watchdog B’Tselem, than the figure in the West Bank.

This reality creates a somewhat complicated situation on the ground: a general sense of escalation that can spin out of control at any moment in the West Back. This is despite the fact that the negotiations between the sides continue regardless, and the economic situation is improved compared to the middle of the previous decade, and certainly better than Gaza.

But major sectors of the Palestinian public don’t feel this improvement and don’t believe in the political process. The lack of faith in the possibility of peace with Israel stems from the actions of both sides: senior Palestinian officials who are inciting against Israel, and the Netanyahu government, which not only continues to issue declarations disparaging the peace process but also builds settlements and tells the world about it, and also seems weak in the face of extremist Jewish violence against Palestinians.

Most of the Palestinian public, until now, has remainedapathetic to these developments — maybe because of the relative economic comfort, and maybe because of the general weariness stemming from intifadas and the lack of strategic leadership.

The potential for escalation comes instead from those places that don’t have the fancy restaurants of Ramallah or the small businesses that have opened in the cities of the West Bank: the villagers, residents of refugee camps, and the thousands of youths finishing their studies and not finding work. It is no coincidence that almost every Israeli action in the heart of a refugee camp ends with clashes and casualties.

This is what happened Wednesday night in Jenin, as well as in recent incidents in Qalandiya and Nablus. (The overnight Wed-Thurs incident in Qalqilya was different, as it involved a member of the Palestinian security forces.)

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Balata, the refugee camp near Nablus, just after the big storm. The streets were largely empty, and even the Jaffa Community Center in the camp decided not to hold its daily activities. A group of kids rehearsing for an upcoming play by Palestinian playwright and PFLP member Ghassan Kanafani arrived at the center anyway.

The center’s public relations director, Abdullah, 35, showed me the myriad activities that take place there, not trying to hide the center’s focus on the “right of return” to Israel demanded by descendants of Palestinian refugees. He explained that the situation in the camp was complicated: The PA’s organs operate in the camp occasionally, but the poverty and despair are worsening, and crime and drug use are rising in turn.

Abdullah’s approach, and the way he talked about Israel, sounded relatively pragmatic, maybe even moderate in comparison to the two youths who sat with us in the freezing room. One of them, Ahmad, only 16, emphasized, “We will return.” He was referring, of course, to the return “home” of refugee families originally from Jaffa, and he was adamant notwithstanding my “Israeli” and educated explanation that there is nowhere to return to, not to mention that even Israelis are struggling to buy homes in Jaffa because of the prices. “We will return,” he repeated.

For Ahmad and for his 19-year-old friend the “struggle” against Israel is not a dirty word, and there is nothing standing in the way of a third intifada. They sound exactly like the older residents of the camp did on the eve of the Second Intifada. Ahmad knows the story well; his father is Hussam Khader, one of the Fatah leaders in the area, and one of the masterminds of that intifada.

Despite the rise in the number of attempted attacks by Hamas in the West Bank, directed from Gaza, and the uncovering of cells that identify with the Salafi-Jihadi movement, it appears that Israeli and Palestinian security forces are dealing with this challenge rather well. It’s the unexpected and unknown that are currently threatening the relative, possibly false, quiet in the West Bank — “independent” terrorist attacks (such as those that resulted in the deaths of four soldiers since September), or a populist outbreak from the refugee camps, like the anger that spilled forth from them 26 years ago with the start of the first intifada.

It is easy for Israel to complain about the PA and its security services. Statements from politicians are heard repeatedly that “the PA is not doing anything.”

But the reality is quite different. The PA’s mechanisms are operating, achieving considerable successes in the war against the terrorist infrastructure, but, given the atmosphere in the West Bank, the continuation of their activities should not be taken for granted, and Wednesday night’s incident in Qalqilya can only sharpen the tension. The Palestinian public is not enamored, to say the least, of the PA’s attempts to arrest activists and militants in the refugee camps, and these operations become the focus of tension and conflict.

The two incidents within the past 24 hours come, surprisingly, against the backdrop of encouraging statements from Saeb Erekat, the head of the Palestinian negotiation team, who said Wednesday that the PA would agree to continue the talks after April, the intended end date, if the sides reached a framework agreement by that point. The hope is that by then, the two sides will actually succeed in achieving a political breakthrough, and, in the meantime, that the territories won’t catch fire once again.

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