BEITA, West Bank — Using laser pointers, burning tires, makeshift explosive devices, and noisy horns to torment residents of an illegal Jewish outpost, in a tactic borrowed from Gaza-based terror groups along the border fence with Israel, Palestinians in Beita say they have set themselves apart from others demonstrating against Israel’s West Bank policies.
In one incident, demonstrators burned a Star of David with a Nazi swastika within it. Palestinian protesters deemed the spectacle — roundly denounced on Israeli television as anti-Semitic — to be a way of comparing Israeli rule in the West Bank to Nazi Germany.
But beyond attention-grabbing tactics, protesters in the Palestinian town near Nablus insist their weeks-long campaign against the wildcat settlement of Evyatar is distinct for another reason.
They describe it as a grassroots movement, not inspired or directed by Fatah secularists who control the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, or their rivals from the Hamas terror group that runs the Gaza Strip.
“Here there is only one flag: that of Palestine. There are no factions,” Said Hamayel told AFP.
Fatah officials have occasionally shown up to provide symbolic support at the nightly protests, and some of those killed or wounded during violent clashes with Israelis have been Hamas activists. But local Palestinians say they have spearheaded the movement.
“We are doing from below what Palestinian leaders cannot do from above,” argued Hamayel, who said his 15-year-old son Mohammed was killed by Israeli army gunfire in a mid-June protest.
The army said it had opened fire to suppress rioters who posed a grave threat to troops.
The Beita protests broke out in May as a group of hardline settlers built a Jewish community on a nearby hilltop, without government approval.
In a controversial move, authorities struck a deal with settlers for their evacuation on July 2, while they promised to study the land to evaluate the prospect of eventual retroactive authorization.
Israeli troops stationed at Evyatar since the settlers left have faced ongoing protests from the people of Beita, who number about 12,500 and say the surrounding land belongs to them.
Israeli authorities have not yet determined who owns the plot, and are surveying the land over the next few months as part of the compromise which saw Evyatar’s residents leave the site. If Israel’s Defense Ministry determines that the land belongs to the state, it will be far easier to build an authorized Israeli settlement on the hilltop.
Meanwhile, the protests continue. More than 700 Palestinians have been injured and at least seven have been killed since the unrest erupted in May, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
Hamayel, who is still grieving the loss of his son, voiced pride in what he termed the Beita “model.”
“The Israelis want to stamp out our new form of popular resistance. They are afraid of it.”
He said the Beita movement stood in contrast to the PA, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, which “does nothing but issue statements” denouncing Israel’s West Bank policies.
Palestinian politics have been fractured since 2007, the year Hamas took over Gaza after Fatah refused to recognize the Islamists’ election win. Despite various reconciliation bids, bitter acrimony between the factions persists.
Fatah has remained entrenched in the West Bank, with Hamas running Gaza, but experts said events earlier this year altered sentiments among ordinary Palestinians.
Abbas canceled the first scheduled Palestinian elections in 15 years, as street rallies in support of Palestinians facing Israeli eviction in East Jerusalem gained momentum.
With tensions building in the Holy City and elsewhere, Israeli forces clashed with Palestinians at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount compound housing the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site. On May 10, Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem, citing its mandate to defend Al-Aqsa.
An 11-day Israel-Gaza conflict followed the Jerusalem rocket attack, with Hamas and other terror groups in the enclave launching thousands of munitions at the Jewish state, which in turn hit Gaza with hundreds of airstrikes.
The conflict and East Jerusalem protests revived a sense of common cause for young Palestinians that transcends allegiance to either Fatah or Hamas, said Jalaa Abu Arab, the 27-year-old editor of the Palestinian news site Dooz.
“For the first time in years the youth were not seeing themselves as victims anymore… there was the feeling that Palestinians were not just taking the fire and sitting, but rising and standing,” Abu Arab told AFP.
Young Palestinians have had enough with the “soft approach,” but that does not necessarily mean “they were in favor of Hamas,” he said.
Abu Arab referenced the death in Palestinian custody of Nizar Banat, a prominent critic of the PA, whose suspected killing by Palestinian security forces sparked protests.
Former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad called the current situation “unprecedented.”
“I don’t know how far we are from really becoming a real crisis. It might already be [one] and it should be looked at by the leadership as a crisis.”
Speaking to a small group of reporters, he called for “a change of direction, beginning by listening to people, in particular the young people who are very frustrated with the occupation and the promises of freedom that remain unfulfilled.”
With Hamas-Fatah reconciliation seemingly out of reach, and long-sought elections postponed indefinitely, Hamayel argued the “Beita model” could deliver change across the Palestinian territories.
“There are problems at the top, but here, on the ground, the Palestinians unite.”