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Reporter's Notebook

Jericho rally highlights PA’s efforts to wake up an apathetic Palestinian public

Ramallah officials scrape together a ‘successful’ demonstration against Israel’s annexation plans, as an oft-jailed Intifada figurehead issues a warning — to Israel and Abbas

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.

Thousands of Palestinians attend a rally against Israel's plan to annex parts of the West Bank, in the West Bank city of Jericho, June 22, 2020. (Flash90)
Thousands of Palestinians attend a rally against Israel's plan to annex parts of the West Bank, in the West Bank city of Jericho, June 22, 2020. (Flash90)

On Monday the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, and Fatah in particular, seemed to finally manage to awaken some spirit of protest in a Palestinian public largely apathetic to Israeli annexation plans.

After several unsuccessful attempts to organize rallies against Israel’s controversial bid to apply sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, several thousand Palestinians attended a Fatah anti-annexation demonstration in Jericho, despite intense heat, COVID-19 restrictions, and IDF forces that blocked entrances to the city to limit protests. Dozens of buses were delayed, their passengers were asked to leave, and many of them decided to walk to the rally on foot.

The rally’s organizer was Jibril Rajoub, former head of the Preventive Security Force in the West Bank, and a leading contender to succeed PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Rajoub has dropped off the radar for many Israelis, but he continues to demonstrate considerable skills when it comes to Palestinian politics. He remains one of Fatah’s most prominent members and has strongholds in his native Hebron, Bethlehem, and the southern West Bank.

It’s hard to gauge exactly how many people attended the rally: over 10,000 according to some, merely a few thousand according to others. At any rate, during these troubled pandemic times, when the Palestinian public is reluctant to take to the streets, the event was certainly a relative success for Rajoub and Fatah.

Top Fatah official Jibril Rajoub in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 6, 2018. (Flash90)

The operative word is “relative,” however. Thousands of those in attendance were in fact members of the Palestinian National Security Forces who had been asked to spend the night in Jericho and make sure the rally didn’t have any bald spots.

Still, the gathering showcased an organized transportation operation and an impressive list of VIPs, including dozens of Western diplomats, who came to express their sympathy with the anti-annexation struggle.

Palatable for an international audience

Realizing the public relations potential of the event, Rajoub and the other organizers created the atmosphere of a peace rally. UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov spoke and was applauded. Russian and Chinese representatives also made statements. Needless to say, there were no American officials in attendance.

The United Nations Middle East special envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on June 25, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

The list of speakers did not include controversial figures, such as any former security prisoners; rather it consisted mostly of victims of Israeli acts: These included a representative of the Dawabsha family, who were burned alive by Jewish terrorists; relatives of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was murdered by Jews in Jerusalem, and Rana al-Halak, mother of Iyad al-Halak, a man with autism who was shot dead in Jerusalem by Border Police officers. The mother talked about her son in tears and emphasized her desire for “Peace of the Brave.”

Rana, mother of Iyad Halak, 32, holds his photo at their home in East Jerusalem’s Wadi Joz, May 30, 2020 (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Organizers did everything they could to make the event successful, as well as palatable for an international audience. “It was better than expected,” Rajoub, the man of the evening, told The Times of Israel. He also claimed that no fewer than 90 buses and hundreds of cars had been denied access to the event by Israel.

“We have a strategy and a plan for every stage. Right now, we’re operating on the level of the people, generating a public outcry against annexation within the international community,” Rajoub said.

“We’ve already suspended security coordination with Israel and announced that we no longer recognize prior agreements. I can promise one thing: If Israel annexes parts of the West Bank, we’ve already reached a decision regarding our next steps. What steps, you’re asking? Let’s cross the bridge when we get to it,” he said.

According to Rajoub, the Palestinian public is not apathetic: “I invite you to come and see for yourself. We have no intention of bowing down before Israel or accepting its decisions.”

What’s the strategy?

Despite Rajoub’s upbeat mood, Fatah’s chief problem has been, and remains, the Palestinian public’s indifference. The Palestinian “street” refuses to take to the streets.

Even with the PA having stopped paying the salaries of some 200,000 employees, even in the face of potentially imminent annexation, a Third Intifada seem unlikely anytime soon.

A top Fatah official, speaking anonymously, told The Times of Israel: “At the end of the day, our successes will be measured in one way — by our strategic achievements. A national movement can’t be evaluated based on one or two demonstrations. Even if half a million people had attended the event in Jericho, the critical question still would have been: What’s the strategy? What’s the big plan?”

The official went on: “We’ve defined the settlements as a cancerous tumor in the heart of Palestine. How do we take action against this tumor? Do we take aspirin? A painkiller shot? We can’t ignore reality and simply stop after one or two demonstrations.

“There have been reports that Israel might freeze its annexation plans if the PA resumes peace negotiations,” the official went on. “So I’m asking [Abbas], ‘Why did you stop negotiations with Israel?’”

Relating a joke about a husband who assures his wife she has “a man in the house” to protect her from a nighttime thief, all the way up to her kidnapping by said thief, the official said Abbas was similarly impotent. “We have a man who ‘deals’ with it, even when his homeland is being kidnapped in plain sight,” he said bitterly.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 7, 2020. (Nasser Nasser/Pool/AFP)

The official, one of the movement’s most prominent members during the First Intifada and even on the eve of the Second, often gives interviews to various media outlets under his full name, and doesn’t hide his criticism of the PA. Nevertheless, this time, he preferred to speak anonymously.

“I don’t trust the current leadership,” he said. “That’s it. Do you want me to say this in Israeli media under my own name? Forget about it. Where do you think we are, in Switzerland? I’m not saying that out of fear, but there are things you don’t do.”

Thousands of Palestinians attend a rally against Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank, in the West Bank city of Jericho, June 22, 2020. (Flash90)

An Intifada warning, against Israel and the PA

Hussam Khader is known as one of the symbols of the First and Second Intifadas, who has been arrested dozens of times by Israel, convicted of helping to finance acts of terrorism, and was once expelled from the West Bank. A prominent Fatah member from Balata refugee camp near Nablus and a former parliament member, he has a gripe against Abbas, to say the least.

On March 5, Khader was arrested by PA officials due to a post he had published against the Palestinian leader on social networks, he said in an interview. “I published a message against Abbas. I called for the establishment of a medical committee that would examine his cognitive and cerebral condition. A few hours after the [COVID-19] state of emergency he declared took effect, hundreds of soldiers arrived at the camp and besieged my house. They came with machine guns, armored cars.”

Hussam Khader at Balata Refugee Camp, 2009 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Hussam Khader at Balata Refugee Camp, 2009 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Khader clarified who had raided his house. “I’m talking about PA — not Israeli — armed forces. Oslo Gangs. Why? Because I had written a post against [Abbas]. Members of the National Security Forces have broken into my house seven or eight times. They’ve fired shots at my car and threatened my family. What haven’t they done yet?

“So this time, they came to arrest me. I quickly went out of the house and turned myself in. I knew that if I waited, the camp’s youth would wake up and there would be a fight between armed residents of the camp and the National Security Forces. I’m a father. I didn’t want anyone to be hurt. But even after I went outside, someone fired shots at their armored cars.”

In early October 2000, this reporter visited Khader’s office in Balata. That day, a few prominent Tanzim members all came to the office — people who would go on to establish the Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the terrorist coalition responsible for dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers. The most well-known among them was Nasser Awais who, to a large extent, conceived of the idea of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, along with Marwan Barghouti’s assistant, Ahmad Barghouti.

Recalled Khader: “We talked to Marwan [Barghouti, who is serving multiple life terms in Israel jail for Second Intifada murders of Israelis] too, and told him, ‘We should start shooting Jews, and getting rid of the corruption in our houses.’ In other words, acting against the corrupt officials of the PA. Marwan was the one who said we shouldn’t act against our Palestinian brothers and insisted that we should focus on Israelis.

“That was our big mistake: instead of dealing with the occupation and corruption simultaneously, we didn’t do what we had to do with those people. Years later, I met many of them in jail: Marwan, Awais, Bazbaz, Abu Khdeir… I told myself, ‘What a mistake it was, we should have taken care of them.’”

Marwan Barghouti, file photo (Flash90)

“To me, there’s no difference between corruption and the occupation,” said Khader. “They’re one and the same. The members of ‘Oslo’s Financial Gang’ have ruined Palestinian society and acted against our interests. The Palestinian people have no confidence in them, because they have formed an alliance with the Israeli occupation. They’re selling our interests for VIP permits. In other words, they give Israel security in exchange for financial benefits. That’s the deal.

“For example, they don’t allow demonstrations to get closer to Israeli checkpoints. But eventually, they won’t be able to stop this. The street is like fire, and it will be kindled. For us, the corrupt people [in the PA leadership] are soldiers in service of the Israeli occupation, and the next Intifada will be against them as well.”

“The Palestinian people are determined to fight for their rights,” he warned, “and we should expect another Intifada, much more violent than anything that we have known. The people will not surrender and will not stop resisting. I visit schools and youth community centers. This new generation is like fire, and it will break out.”

It’s hard to determine the accuracy of Khader’s assessments and warnings, whether Rajoub is correct to claim that the public is not at all apathetic, and how the Palestinians may respond to Israeli annexation moves.

The current apparent apathy might be the outcome of a change of generations, and a certain degree of comfort to which West Bank residents have become accustomed. But if so, the PA seems to be taking the residents out of their comfort zone, including by no longer paying the salaries of its officials, who are a major economic engine in the West Bank.

Considering the recession that the pandemic has caused, which affects every Palestinian, it may be that this comfort doesn’t exist anymore.

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