The same grievances—corruption, lack of trust in governing elites, and the breakdown of basic services—that have been driving thousands into the streets of Lebanon and Iraq also apply in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet Palestinians have been unable or unwilling to harness people against their own leaders in a sustained way. What does the absence of such protests say about the Palestinians and their politics? And is it only a matter of time, as journalist Hani Masri recently predicted, until the next wave of the Arab Spring arrives in Palestine?
It’s the occupation, stupid!
As corrupt, inefficient, and dysfunctional as Palestinians believe their leaders to be, getting rid of them has never been their top priority. It is intriguing, though, that the first intifada in December 1987 was in fact a revolt against both the occupation and the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), then operating not in the West Bank and Gaza, but in exile. Indeed, the PLO had to play catch-up to try to regain control of events on the ground. Still, among both the elite and the general public, the primary focus has been ending the occupation, not bringing about the end of their own governing regimes. At least, not yet. Given Mahmoud Abbas’s increasing unpopularity, that state of affairs is no longer guaranteed. But to date, Palestinian independence has been the single most compelling factor driving Palestinian tactics and strategy.
Palestinians face a unique challenge. Not only do they want to build self-governing institutions and win statehood, they must manage this within the severe constraints of Israeli occupation. There are few, if any, precedents in modern history for a people negotiating its way out of this kind of situation and building state institutions, let alone successfully establishing a state.
So although resentments about the lack of representation, corruption, economic mismanagement, and human rights simmer, the focus of Palestinian energy has been on Israel. As Hani Masri laments, “Palestine’s actual ruler is the occupying state, which attacks Palestine in its history, present and future”. This implicitly subordinates their own leaders’ transgressions to the burdens of occupation and allows Palestinian governing elites to redirect attention away from their own flaws and blunders. Focusing on transformational internal change, let alone the overthrow of governments, would also carry the very real risk of what the Washington Institute’s David Pollock calls an “intrafada”: internal factional conflict between Palestinians. This could not only easily divert attention from the independence struggle, but also divide an already badly fractured Palestinian national movement to their adversaries’ advantage.
A society divided by geography and politics
The prospects of a movement that might challenge the current Palestinian leadership or seek reforms for more effective, representative governance became even harder after Hamas’s 2007 takeover of Gaza and the ensuing bitter conflict between Fatah and Hamas. The PLO—the organizational embodiment of Palestinian nationalism—is seemingly hopelessly fractured. It has come to represent a kind of Noah’s ark where there seems to be two of everything: statelets, security services, governing structures, constitutions, and visions of where and what kind of political state Palestine should be.
After 2007, the physical separation of the West Bank and Gaza—always a constraint—became a deep political rift too. This undermined any coherent and unified national Palestinian strategy. Elections for a Palestinian parliament and president (last held in 2006 and 2005 respectively) were the one vehicle that might have legitimized leaders and a strategy. But the elections were held hostage to an intense Fatah-Hamas competition, which multiple efforts at unity failed to resolve. Whether a recent report that Fatah and Hamas have agreed to hold legislative and presidential elections in February 2020 is any more credible than previous promises over the years remains to be seen.
Fatah and Hamas may have been bitterly divided. But the Arab awakenings in other parts of the region united them in one regard: to repress, and, if possible, co-opt dissent in an effort to maintain their power.
Other than Israel’s occupation, the one factor limiting mass protests was the authoritarian presence of the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority and Hamas and their determination to prevent popular mobilization directed against them. The ground presence of these security forces—who were not present during the first intifada—and their power relative to grassroots protesters made any challenge to their authority extraordinarily difficult. Witness the brutal manner in which Hamas crushed protests in Gaza this past spring.
Since Fatah and Hamas blame one another for instigating the unrest, demonstrators were put in the untenable and fraught position of appearing to support one side or another. This left them vulnerable to accusations of undermining the ever-popular desire among the public for Palestinian unity.
Palestinians’ wariness stems from experience
So what of the future? Nine years into the Arab Spring, the tumult and transformation that swept the Arab world since a Tunisian fruit seller set himself ablaze has yet to produce anything close to the same impact in Palestine. The focus on Israeli occupation and the repressive and controlling presence of Hamas and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority have proven to be hugely constraining forces.
Add to that the Palestinian experience of uprisings and confrontations, especially the second intifada, which caused enormous destruction and death. Palestinians are understandably reluctant to embark on another unknown journey, particularly one that promises neither an end to the Israeli occupation nor a significant improvement in their day to day lives.
Indeed, looking at what the Arab spring has wrought in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt, Palestinians might be forgiven for not wanting one in their own backyard. As the first century historian Tacitus wrote: “The best day after the death of a bad emperor is always the first day.” The trajectory of the Arab Spring has tragically borne that out.
Still, politics and life are unpredictable. Deteriorating economic conditions, especially in Gaza where unemployment is running close to 47 percent; repressive government; corruption; and of course an Israeli occupation create the kind of desperate mix that might yet produce an explosion.
But most likely it will come in the form of a third uprising against Israel (still seen as highly unlikely now), not as a Palestinian Spring aimed at their own leaders, no matter how dysfunctional their governance. Any such uprising would be seen as a loss of confidence in Palestinian leaders, but the occupation would be the main focus. And there’s a simple reason why. As the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat quipped to me in a rare moment of candor: “You shouldn’t wait for revolutions in Palestine. Palestinians will always be angrier at the Israelis than they will ever be at me.” So far, Arafat’s been right on target.