The Arab Spring has made reporters understandably excitable at the first sign of popular discontent in the Arab world, especially in places previously unaffected by the revolutionary wave. And so the Associated Press report out of Hebron yesterday took the step of repeating for readers just how unprecedented the Palestinian anti-government protests were. It began with this sentence: “Palestinian demonstrators fed up with high prices and unpaid salaries shuttered shops, halted traffic with burning tires and clashed with riot police in demonstrations across the West Bank on Monday— the largest show of popular discontent with the Palestinian Authority in its 18-year existence.”
Seven paragraphs later, the reporters made explicit the comparison, and in an attempt to ward off the dismissal of the analogy repeated again the rarity factor at work here: “The unrest was reminiscent of the mass demonstrations of the Arab Spring that topped aging dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and sparked civil war in Syria. While there is no sign that the protests are approaching that level, they nonetheless are the largest show of popular discontent with the governing Palestinian Authority in its 18-year history.” Yes, the AP is right: the protests have reached unprecedented levels. But the more interesting aspects of the public unrest are not the parallels with the Arab Spring, but the contrasts.
First of all, as the AP story notes, some of the rioting was the outgrowth of what I’m sure had seemed like a brilliant idea to the Fatah party apparatchiks who hatched it. They wanted to stir up trouble against Salam Fayyad, the only Palestinian leader with good relations with the West, as part of the intra-party scheming that goes on inside the Palestinian Authority instead of governing. It turns out that most of the Fatah leaders are more corrupt than Fayyad, so the protesters soon aimed their fire more generally at the PA itself, including, but not limited to, Fayyad.
The Palestinians were also protesting recent tax hikes and the lack of living-wage jobs in the West Bank. Fatah party leaders passed the buck onto the international community for failing to follow through on donor funds the PA says it is owed. But what do they do with that money when it comes in? As I wrote recently, the money seems to fund Abbas’s lifestyle and that of his family, while a good chunk goes to paying terrorists. (Can you imagine the PA’s chutzpah in pocketing donor funds instead of passing it along to poor Palestinians, and then taxing those Palestinians?)
Meanwhile, in Gaza, Hamas is trying desperately not to laugh its face off. At the same time, they have big plans of their own. Jonathan Schanzer reports that Hamasniks are in secret talks with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi over the possibility of Gaza declaring independence. On paper, it seems to be slightly less crazy than one would think. Egypt would love the tax revenue and GDP boost from opening a legal trade route with Gaza, but they don’t love the idea of letting Israel off the hook. (It would be difficult to blame Israel for the “occupation” of a fully independent state.) Schanzer notes that Israelis might like the idea of being rid of Gaza once and for all–a real disengagement, this time—but are wary of the dangers of allowing Hamas free rein to import whatever it wants, which would likely include more advanced weaponry, not just cookies and cigarettes.
But there is one obstacle Hamas has not found a way around, and it would doom this project from the start: Hamas is still listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and others, making trade with the West illegal. One Hamasnik proposed a solution, and it is utterly ridiculous:
In hopes of avoiding sanctions or other roadblocks, unaffiliated businessmen in Gaza are now working to create an independent corporation to manage the Rafah crossing. According to a Gaza entrepreneur who wishes to remain anonymous, it is slated to be called the “Palestine Company for Free Trade Zone Area.”
Good luck with that. But while Gaza will not be seceding from the Palestinian territories just yet–for one thing, their troublemakers on the ground in Hebron will keep stoking the flames in hopes that one day Hamas can take over the entire West Bank as well–the detailed planning that has taken place demonstrates that Hamas still has other ways to expand its reach and influence. The Times of Israel reports that Egypt has agreed to allow Hamas to relocate its abroad-headquarters to Cairo.
Since Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Brotherhood now runs Egypt, increased ties between the two were inevitable. This entails a political challenge for the U.S. and probably a bit of a security challenge for Israel, but nobody stands to lose more than Abbas, whose government is asleep at the wheel and whose population is finally awake to the raw deal they’re getting.