Palestinian support for military operations against Israel has registered its most significant jump in 10 years, spurred by the recent Gaza conflict, ongoing Israeli settlement expansion, and frustration over a peace process that has been essentially deadlocked for more than four years.
The percentage of Palestinians supporting such operations has reached 50.9 percent, up from 29.3 percent in January 2011.
The change in sentiment, together with a resurgent Hamas and an uptick in Israeli-Palestinian clashes in recent weeks, underscores the risks of a continued stalemate both for Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
“I think if the situation continues the way it is … the Palestinian people might rise in rebellion, similar to the rebellion being waged in the rest of the Arab countries,” says Shireen Qawasmi, a mother of three in Hebron with manicured nails and a faux fur wrap. “I will carry arms and be the first one to go and fight…. We are not war lovers, but when you see your children getting killed, and your land confiscated, you are forced to fight.”
As PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party today marks 48 years since the group’s founding – first as a guerrilla organization and later as a Western-backed political movement – Mr. Abbas has reaffirmed his party’s commitment to nonviolent means.
But in the wake of the November conflict between Israel and Hamas, he faces a serious challenge in persuading Palestinians that his model is better than Hamas’s militant approach. While Abbas got a boost from the recent United Nations vote, which recognized Palestine as a non-member state instead of just an observer, he is still seen as fighting an uphill battle.
“There has been a shift from negotiations to struggle against the [Israeli] occupation,” says Hassan Khresheh, deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, who lives in the West Bank city of Tulkarem. “[Palestinians] believe that negotiating for many years has given them nothing except more settlements and more settlers.”
Indeed, after nearly 20 years of negotiation with Israel, during which Israeli settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem roughly doubled to more than 550,000, Palestinians are increasingly questioning the value of talking with Israel. By contrast, most Palestinians saw Hamas – which targeted Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with missiles for the first time – as victorious in the recent conflict, since Israel refrained from a ground invasion and made significant concessions in the cease-fire talks.
“The public is comparing the diplomatic, peaceful negotiation approach of [Abbas] that has been actually taking us from bad to worse … with the violent approach of Hamas and Gaza, and they seem to be more attracted to the Gaza model rather than the West Bank model,” says Ghassan Khatib, former PA spokesman and founder of the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre, which conducted the recent poll showing an uptick in Palestinian support for military operations. (The poll was published Dec. 20 and can be found here.)
“This is a bigger fluctuation than anything we saw in the last 10 years,” Mr. Khatib says, though he adds that it’s too soon to tell whether it’s just a temporary spike or something more enduring.
Armed, masked men at Fatah rally
This week, undercover Israeli operations in Jenin and Tamoun sparked demonstrations in both places, injuring dozens of Palestinians. In addition, masked, armed men participated in a Fatah Day rally in Bethlehem’s Dheisheh refugee camp – something that hasn’t been seen in the West Bank for years. Their presence was reported by the Israeli news outlet YnetNews, which posted a video. Nasser al-Laham, editor of the Bethlehem-based Palestinian news agency Maan, confirmed the reports for the Monitor.
Mohammad Laham, a Fatah leader in Bethlehem, says he wasn’t present at the march but points to the tremendous economic pressure the PA is facing, particularly since Israel withheld tax revenues it collects on behalf of the PA, as one of the reasons for local discontent. Israel's move was seen as retaliation for Abbas’s UN bid, but Israel said the money was taken to offset PA debts for Israeli electricity services.
“There are a lot of crises coming together now – economic, political, and social, the financial crisis, the continuation of [Israeli] settlement and the absence of a horizon for the political process and of hope,” says Mr. Laham. “The continuation of this situation in Bethlehem, Nablus, or any other Palestinian city does not augur well.”
When asked whether this might translate into armed struggle, he replies simply: “All the possibilities are open.”
The JMCC poll distinguishes between military operations, such as Hamas’s campaign of firing missiles into Israel, with armed struggle, which would include things like suicide bombings. There was also an uptick in support for armed struggle, albeit to a more modest 32 percent.
Generation of liberation
Last month, the Israeli killing of a Palestinian teenager who reportedly had a fake gun sparked protests in Hebron, a Hamas stronghold and an area of particular friction with Israeli settlers. A previously unknown Palestinian militant group there, the National Unity Brigades, announced the start of a third intifada.
Prof. Mohammed Assad Ewaiwi, who teaches political science at Al Quds Open University in Hebron, dismisses it as an “unorganized, spontaneous group,” but says its existence expresses the level of upheaval and unrest following the Gaza conflict. “This group and others like it should be a message to the world that there is a readiness among Palestinians to engage in military conflict.”
His youngest students, at age 18, weren’t even alive when the historic Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993. The second intifada broke out when they were a mere six years old, and three more Israeli-Arab wars – Lebanon in 2006, Gaza in 2009, and 2012 – punctuated their youth.
Ali Najjar, an 18-year-old from a nearby refugee camp, advocates the two-pronged model espoused by the late Palestinian leader and Fatah founder Yasser Arafat, or Abu Ammar.
“There was an interest in the Palestinian issue during Arafat’s time – Abu Ammar carried a gun in one hand, an olive branch in the other hand,” he says, wearing only a thin jean jacket in the frigid classroom. “Therefore the whole world rose to help him.”
“In my view, what was taken by force will only be returned by force. Twenty years after Oslo, we haven’t gained one inch of Palestine,” he says, declaring his generation to be the one that will liberate Palestine. “Israel only understands the language of military language.”
'Jews should go back where they came from'
Many of these students support armed struggle as a way of regaining all of historic Palestine, not just a state alongside Israel.
“When you say ‘two-state solution,’ what state are you talking about?” asks Ayman Jawabreh, who wants to return to his family’s village near Lod. “I do not see it acceptable in any way for a group of people who have come from different parts of the world and based themselves in this country and call it their own…. In my opinion there is no Israeli state.”
Classmate Mohamed Abu Shkhdem shares a similar sentiment. “Jews should go back to where they came from,” he says. “I wonder why the international community has not, since the establishment of the PA, worked hard or in any serious way toward peace.”
The deal former President Bill Clinton clinched at the 2000 Camp David talks doesn't even register – Mr. Abu Shkhdem doesn’t remember it; he was nine years old.
Some of the students leave open the possibility for a peaceful solution to the conflict if Israel will honor the dignity of Palestinians and their right to be here, even though they say they believe that their people deserve more than what they would be given under a two-state solution.
“Israel has acted aggressively and unfairly toward Palestinians …. Therefore I see it fair that we should be the rulers and owners of historical Palestine – the whole thing,” says Abdul Moatti Albab. “I don’t see us living side by side with Israel, because they don’t want it. However, if they accept the two-state solution, I accept them.”
Israel has blamed Abbas for the deadlock in negotiations, since he has refused to come back to the table while Israeli settlements continue to expand. But in recent days Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also expressed reservations about engaging in negotiations with the PA, since Palestinian reconciliation could give Hamas – considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the US – more of a role in Palestinian affairs.
Hamas and its secular rival, Fatah, took a big step toward reconciliation today, with as many as 1 million Palestinians turning out at a Fatah rally in Gaza today – the first such event since Hamas violently ousted Fatah from the coastal territory in 2007.
Abbas, for his part, vowed in an interview yesterday to remove what is seen by some as a fig leaf for Israeli occupation by giving Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu full responsibility for the West Bank.
"I'll tell him, 'My dear friend, Mr. Netanyahu, I am inviting you to the Muqata [the PA presidential headquarters in Ramallah],” he told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Sit in the chair here instead of me, take the keys, and you will be responsible for the Palestinian Authority."
Correspondent Ben Lynfield contributed reporting.