Burning Down the Palestinian House
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to "suspend unilateral action" against Israel for some indefinite period of time. It is, his spokesman says, to "give a sufficient chance for [US Secretary of State John] Kerry's efforts to succeed." By this, Abbas apparently means he will not make any additional unilateral efforts in the UN or try to convince the International Criminal Court to take up action against Israel.
This is the functional equivalent of agreeing not to swing the wrecking ball after you've set the house on fire.
Last summer, Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group predicted - and justified - the emergence of a "third intifada" in the New York Times, blaming Israel for not reaching a deal with Abbas. It was odd timing because by summer 2012, Abbas had his hands full with angry Palestinians protesting just about everything except Israel. A wave of public discontent through the fall and into 2013 has been focused on police brutality, the cost of living, government-imposed austerity measures, and Abbas himself. Salam Fayyed, the unelected prime minister and a U.S. ally, was the focus of unhappiness over limited economic prospects. Pro-Abbas gangs have assaulted protesters, and journalists have been arrested and beaten. Palestinian officials even cracked down on Western activists supporting the protesters. "The involvement of Western nationals in protests against the Palestinian Authority is completely unacceptable," one official said. "We will be forced to cut off all ties with non-Palestinians who incite against the Palestinian leadership."
At some point, it was necessary for Abbas to turn that public anger away from his own shortcomings and toward Israel. After scaling back security cooperation with the IDF, in December, the PA authorized Friday post-mosque pro-Hamas rallies near IDF checkpoints in the West Bank. The rallies predictably turned into skirmishes. Tension between the IDF, Israel border police, and Palestinians has continued to escalate; Palestinians have been injured and Palestinian rock throwers left an Israeli infant in critical condition.
Back in January, the biggest fight was among Palestinian factions in the Balata refugee camp on the West Bank. According to The Times of Israel, "The PA security forces arrived… in the early morning to arrest [two men], leaders in Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigades, who were caught on camera by Israel's Channel 2 TV station on Thursday parading their weapons around the camp and firing into the air. They were protesting ill treatment by the PA." The arrest failed when camp residents burned tires to block the entrance. Around the same time, shots were fired at the Jenin governor – whose predecessor died of a heart attack after shots were fired at his home. There were protests in Ramallah over the PA's failure to pay salaries and over a PA decision not to collect money owed by refugee camp residents to the electric company (non-refugees wanted the payment amnesty, too).
So Abbas has been pouring anti-Israel gasoline on the passions to try to preserve his rule.
The fact that all of these were women was a not-so-subtle challenge to the Palestinian male psyche.
Abbas got the conflagration he sought. The death of Maysara Abu Hamdiya – complete with a phony picture purporting to show his arm handcuffed to a hospital bed, and lies about his lack of treatment for cancer – precipitated angry demonstrations in the West Bank, and two young men throwing firebombs at an Israeli police post have been killed. The riots and demonstrations will likely escalate, and an Israeli response is assured. Whether Abbas can stage-manage the demonstrations is less assured.
The tightrope Abbas walks, between Palestinians already unhappy with him for social, political and economic reasons, and those who will be more unhappy if he agrees to Israel's basic requirements for "end of conflict, end of claims," is one largely of his own making. The chances of success for the Kerry mission are dim – it will be remarkable if he can escape without having the Palestinian house collapse around him.
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