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[Joel Brinkley] Palestinians sit out Arab Spring

RAMALLAH, West Bank ― Right now, Israeli authorities are battling hundreds of activists trying to fly into the country from Europe and the United States, in support of the Palestinian cause. Israel has jailed dozens of them and deported hundreds. They call it the “Flytilla”

In Greece, several ships carrying even more activists have been trying to set sail for the Gaza Strip, and on Tuesday Israel peacefully intercepted one of them that had set sail for Gaza. In recent weeks, hundreds of Arabs have clambered over border fences into Israel from Lebanon and Syria, all of them protesting in favor of Palestinians here in the West Bank and in Gaza.

But the world has not heard from one group, not even a whimper ― the Palestinians themselves. For decades, they served as a rousing example for the Arab street, fighting two intifadas against Israel that cost hundreds of lives on both sides.

Now, as the rest of the Arab world stands up to their dictators, here in the West Bank all is quiet. Ron Dermer, a senior advisor to the Israeli prime minister, told me: “Intelligence and security officials don’t see signs right now that the Palestinians are really interested” in staging demonstrations.

Imagine what could be if Palestinians, like their brothers in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, came together in mass peaceful protests day after day, marching in Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem ― maybe staging candlelight vigils in East Jerusalem. Israel may have the largest foreign press corps in the world, outside of Washington and Brussels, and in the current climate their photos would play on the front pages of most every newspaper in the world.

But talk to Palestinians, and the explanation for their relative inaction is surprising ― and quite moving.

“There are calls for demonstrations every day,” said Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, speaking to a visiting delegation of Americans and Europeans, sponsored by the German Marshall Fund. “But these are demonstrations against the government. The minute the Arab Spring began developing, we began getting demands from the people, and we welcome that.”

For the first time, Palestinians are making demands of their own leaders instead of blaming all of their woes on Israel. Sure, every Palestinian alive would still like to have his own state, and most probably wish Israel would disappear. But that is no longer the single controlling force in their lives. Israeli officials have not caught up with this.

“There’s a feeling in the air, fumes waiting to be ignited,” warned Naor Gilon, a deputy director general in the Foreign Ministry. “Violence may break out.”

“This could turn on a dime,” Dermer cautioned. But Palestinians dismiss that.

“For the first time, nonviolence is becoming an acceptable strategy,” said Khalil Shikaki, a respected Palestinian pollster. “It’s because of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria. People realize there’s a lot more to lose from violence.

So then, why don’t Palestinians hold mass nonviolent demonstrations? The truth is, given their bitter experience, neither side trusts the other ― or even their own people.

“I don’t want to see us slide back into violence, reach a flashpoint where kids are killed,” Fayyad said.

Gilon agreed. “I can’t see it staying peaceful for long. People want to defend themselves, protect their property.” And Shikaki added: “Israelis are not equipped to deal with nonviolence. People realize it would be a march to slaughter.”

But a more important reason is that Palestinians now have something to protect. For years now, Fayyad has been working “to get ready for statehood by building competent institutions of a state.” A massive building boom has transformed Ramallah into an impressive city. Streets are clean, schools improved, and trained police are on patrol. Economic growth has averaged about 8 percent for the last few years.

Palestinians have jobs and families. That, as much as anything else, may explain why they are not taking to the streets. But they have come out in smaller numbers to urge action from their own government. In March, for example, protestors demanded that the Palestinian Authority make up with Hamas, the Palestinian terror group that seized control of Gaza in 2007. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, quickly worked to make that happen, and in May the two signed a unity agreement.

It is foundering now and may never happen. But the Abbas/Fayyad government earned a respect from their people for making the effort. And under the new reality, Shikaki said, “If the youth feel” Abbas “is wavering,” they will take to the streets to tell him.

By Joel Brinkley

Joel Brinkley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, is the author of “Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a troubled Land.” ― Ed.

(Tribune Media Services)
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