Has a "Palestinian Spring" really begun?


By Dr. Michael Milshtein​​ | July, 2021

Palestinian Flag
Image by hosny salah from Pixabay


The Palestinian system was up in arms recently over the death of Nizar Banat, a human rights activist from the Hebron area, who was arrested by the Palestinian security apparatuses after criticizing the Palestinian Authority. Banat was severely beaten while arrested, and subsequently died.


This incident caused a relatively unusual wave of public protest against the Palestinian Authority in various hubs across the West Bank, and particularly in Ramallah. The Palestinian security apparatuses treated the protestors with some aggression, leading to even greater criticism against Abu Mazen's government and their human rights violations.


As soon as the protest began, Hamas was seen trying to encourage and even spearhead it, painting it as an internal political Palestinian dispute - even though Banat himself was not a member of the organization, but an independent person affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP]). Hamas' efforts worried Fatah, whose activists were eager to defend Abu Mazen's regime. They held demonstrations of support, and issued public warnings whereby anyone who attempted to undermine the Ramallah government's stability would be dealt with very harshly.


The protest, accompanied by the slogan "the people want the regime toppled" (Al-Sha`ab Yurid Iskat al-Nidham) a "battle cry" commonly heard in all Arab Spring hubs - made some wonder whether it marked the beginning of a "Palestinian Spring". The backdrop for it was the public's severe criticism of the Palestinian security apparatuses – who became known as Shabiha or Baltagiya, the name given to the violent militia groups formed by the Syrian and Egyptian regimes – alongside expressions of discontent within the Palestinian leadership, such as one satellite party's announcement that it is resigning from the Palestinian government (the Palestinian Labor Minister also gave notice of his resignation, but it was not accepted).


The Banat affair reflects two powerful but opposing fundamental trends that coexist within the Palestinian Authority. While they pose a constant threat of destabilizing the existing order, they also demonstrate the strong internal restraints found within the Palestinian system, preventing it from slipping rapidly into the kind of revolution models prevalent throughout the Arab world over the past decade, and making the Palestinian Authority one of the only regional hubs that remains unaffected by the Arab Spring.


On the one hand, the strong alienation between most of the Palestinian public and the Palestinian Authority in general, and Abu Mazen in particular, was once again underscored. The majority of the public views the Palestinian government as being afflicted with corruption and nepotism, constantly and blatantly infringing upon human rights and democracy. The most recent manifestation of which was Abu Mazen's choice to refrain from holding the general elections scheduled for May 2021. A range of public opinion polls held over the past decade in the Palestinian system consistently reflect this zeitgeist, particularly the desire shared by most of the public that Abu Mazen step down from the position to which he has been holding on for 16 consecutive years.


On the other hand, these recent events seem to demonstrate the basic difficulty to execute a "Palestinian Spring". Although this protest was indeed relatively exceptional in terms of scope and characteristics, at its peak, it still only consisted of several thousand protestors across the West Bank who did not operate under a single framework and were not led by a single leader, therefore failing to reach the sort of "critical mass" that would threaten to destabilize the regime.


Moreover, the Palestinian security apparatuses and Fatah formed a united front in the pursuit of a shared goal when they realized the common threat, thereby signaling to the wider public that the regime was stable and prepared to fight for its survival.


From many aspects, the Banat affair strengthened the basic assumptions about the strategic reality in the West Bank that have been validated consistently for over a decade. As part of this framework, the dominance of both the regime's and public's desire to preserve the civil fabric of life as well as governmental stability is prominent, alongside the disinclination to spark a popular uprising across the board, or a violent wave directed at Israel or the Palestinian Authority. It remains true despite the numerous crises experienced by the Palestinian system, such as the powerful campaigns in the Gaza Strip, the ongoing stagnation in the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians effectively forming a rift between the two parties, the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in May 2018, and violent collisions between Jews and Arabs across the West Bank.


The "quiet formula" in the West Bank seems to be based on a collective underlying assumption prevalent among the Palestinian public whereby even though its situation is far from ideal, and although it is grappling with severe restrictions imposed on it by both Israel and the Palestinian government, the reality in which it is living is still better than that of the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, or compared to that in most of the Arab world.


The familiarity with the state of affairs in other regional arenas – and the ill fate of the revolutions that erupted there – alongside the collective memory of the outcomes of conflicts with Israel over the past twenty years, have created a clear understanding of the price of losing, as well as deterrence from getting fully on board of struggles domestically or against Israel.


An example of this notion was provided recently during Operation "Guardian of the Walls". The Campaign in the Gaza Strip was not accompanied by a wave of terror or broad public uprising in the West Bank as Hamas had hoped, and it was once again disappointed, much as it had been during Operation "Protective Edge" (July-August 2014).


From the Palestinian public's perspective, Abu Mazen's regime is far from ideal, and its legitimacy doubtful. however, it is still considered an asset in view of its ability to preserve, and even consistently improve, the civil fabric of life in the West Bank, as well as in light of the realization that any alternative that would develop in its stead – including that of Hamas taking over the region – could be worse. It could mostly pose a threat to the current reality in the area, which is perceived as the lesser of all evils - at least at present - continuing as it was. Thus, at a time when the peace agreement ship is seen as having sailed long ago, and resistance (Al-Muqawammah) is less than appealing, most Palestinians prefer to focus on the idea known as Bidna Nai`sh – "let live".


On those occasions when the public did go out to the streets in great numbers over the last decade, the reason was usually one of two: religious issues, especially following claims that the status quo on Temple Mount was infringed upon – an issue proven last May to lead to strong uprising even among Israeli Arab society; and economic issues, particularly pay cuts, prices rising, or employees in certain sectors suffering from a deterioration in conditions, which led to massive protests against the Palestinian government.


Nevertheless, the ongoing stability displayed this past decade in the West Bank must not lead to Israeli complacency. The "quiet formula", while proving itself when grappling with many challenges, still relies on foundations that could lead to rapid deterioration, namely: an acute economic crisis, especially following a similar crisis in Israel; any development on Temple Mount, which almost always serves as a trigger for violent eruptions; or the weight of the younger generation increasing, for its collective memory is shorter than that of their parents' generation, and it is therefore less affected by the memory of past traumas such as the Second Intifada.


Israel would do well to understand profoundly that the relative stability in the West Bank is a strategic asset that should not be taken for granted, but preserved and strengthened using various instruments, primarily expanding the financial support provided to the Palestinian Authority, improving the civil fabric of life in the West Bank, bolstering the Palestinian security apparatuses, and constantly thwarting any effort by Hamas to establish itself on any level.


Such a policy will not serve as a permanent solution in the Palestinian context, but could give Israel the opportunity to get through difficult crises in future – or, at the very least, minimize their implications – including the one expected to occur on "the morning after" Abu Mazen.




Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.



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