On the brink of a third intifada

The West Bank tussle for power between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority could be one of several factors leading to an upsurge in violence.

ramallah 521 (photo credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters)
ramallah 521
(photo credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters)
Palestinian political and security observers predict that the eruption of a third Palestinian intifada on the West Bank is only a matter of time.
The deadlock in the peace process and the dire economic crisis that has hit the Palestinian Authority, which has been exacerbated by Israel’s decision to halt the transfer of taxes it collects in the wake of the Palestinian unilateral drive for recognition at the UN, have all led to mounting frustrations that are feeding fears that the West Bank could be about to explode.
A public opinion poll conducted by the Palestinian Jerusalem Media and Communication Center two weeks after November’s Gaza mini-war with Israel, and published on December 20, showed a significant rise in supporters of armed resistance. A majority of 70.6 percent believed that Hamas was the winning side during the war in Gaza, leading to a rise in Hamas’s popularity in the West Bank, and to support of the resumption of armed resistance, which 32.6 percent said they supported.
A senior PA security official, who refused to be named, tells The Jerusalem Report that West Bankers were becoming more and more frustrated as they began to realize that the “Hamas government, which lives under siege, is capable of paying the salaries of its employees, including the security services, but the PA, which has adopted the path of peace and nonviolence, cannot.” The source adds, “What should our people on the West Bank understand when they see that Israel concluded a cease-fire with Hamas, which rained Iranian rockets on them, while the PA, which adopted the peaceful path, is ignored and punished? This could really lead to the eruption of a third intifada, which our security forces would not be able to stop,” he concludes.
Major General Adnan Damiri, the spokesperson of the PA security services, tells The Report that Israel’s seizure of funds due to the PA has had a “catastrophic impact on the Palestinian people. ” A survey conducted by Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) between December 13-15 revealed that 27 percent of Palestinians on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip believe that poverty and unemployment are the major problems affecting them, even more than the continuation of the Israeli occupation, expansion of settlements and the absence of national unity between Fatah and Hamas.
The West Bank has witnessed several demonstrations in the past few months against the rise in the cost of living, while the PA has come under heavy criticism for failing to pay on time 174,000 public employees, due to Israel’s seizure of the tax collection money earmarked for the PA.
During the protests anger was directed against both the PA and Israel, although the PA has tried hard to divert this anger against Israel.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s recent triumph in obtaining overwhelming support for Palestinian non-member observer status at the UN has boosted the morale of West Bankers and given them a feeling of victory; but it is somewhat of an empty victory that requires concrete steps to make it a reality.
In the absence of visionary leadership, some security officials fear that the non-violent protests, which have been backed by the PA over the past couple of years, could erupt into widespread violence.
Hamas’s success in firing rockets that reached the center of Israel and set off air-raid sirens in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv increased support in the West Bank for the radical movement, deepening concern among PA security forces.
Abbas was quoted on December 22 as saying that if the ongoing pressure continues, then he is going to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, while PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad called in mid-December for an economic intifada, based on a boycott of Israeli goods.
Abbas has reportedly threatened to disband the nine US-financed National Security Battalions trained in Jordan. This could lead to some of them drifting to the open arms of Hamas or the Islamic Jihad.
Making a fragile situation even worse is the fact that some 28,000 PA security personnel in the West Bank did not get their November salaries, receiving on December 23 only half the money due to them.
A senior PA security source, who spoke to The Report on conditions of anonymity, claims that even the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) is predicting eruptions of violence in the West Bank. His theory is that following Israel’s general election on January 22, the next government could shift even further to the right and might welcome an explosive situation in the West Bank to avoid being coerced into negotiations by international pressure.
On December 14, violent clashes took place between protesters and dozens of Palestinian riot police in Bab Zawya (on the border between H1 and H2, which is under Israeli security control) in Hebron following the end of a Hamas rally to mark its 25th anniversary. Earlier, dozens of Palestinians accosted IDF troops during the rally.
The PA security services on the West Bank are preparing for the worst in light of the deadlock in the peace process, the economic crisis, as well as Hamas’s growing strength, but as yet there is no change in their operational orders.
“Right now there is no change in the orders and instructions regarding maintenance of security in the West Bank, and no deterioration of discipline among the PA security forces,” Major General Hazim Attallah, the Chief of the Palestinian Police, tells The Report, “but I am concerned about the effects of the shortage of money, equipment, arms and ammunition on our security forces.”
“Palestinian security officers have had their salaries delayed, so why should they stop Palestinians from throwing stones against Israelis?” says a senior PA security official, who preferred not to be named.
“There is no motive at all for them to do so,” he adds.
The difference between the second intifada that erupted in late September 2000 and a third intifada that may erupt now is that Yasser Arafat hoped it could be used as a tactic to improve his negotiating stance, but a third intifada could lead to the downfall of the PA.
PA security sources believe that it is in Hamas’s interest is to upset the security situation in the West Bank to show that the PA control is weak on order to pave the way for Hamas to wrest control of the West Bank; preferably through elections.
Hamas leaders in Gaza and elsewhere were greatly encouraged by the West Bank demonstrations in solidarity with Hamas during the IDF’s November Operation Pillar of Defense against rockets from Gaza. The Hamas leaders have called for an intifada to liberate the West Bank from Israeli occupation.
But sources in Ramallah see these Hamas declarations as part of their plan to dominate the West Bank.
During recent reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas, under Egyptian auspices, Hamas insisted reconciliation with Fatah must be conditioned on a complete halt in security coordination with Israel.
The mid-December poll by Khalil Shikaki’s PCPSR found that 48 percent of the electorate in both the West Bank and Gaza would vote for Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh if Palestinian elections were to be held, as opposed to 45 percent for current President Abbas.
The PA security services on the West Bank have recently intensified their covert operations to monitor any significant changes in Hamas money movements and are watching to see if Hamas sleeper cells are being readied to launch another cycle of violence.
“The PA security services are very concerned that Hamas operatives could infiltrate non-violent protests in the West Bank to generate violence and chaos, as they tried in Hebron when they attacked a PA police station in September,” a senior PA security source tells The Report.