Watching and Waiting

Palestinians express their delight at the distress of Arab regimes; one reason for this could be the feeling that the Arab world has always ignored the Palestinian cause.

PA Rally 521 (photo credit: reuters)
PA Rally 521
(photo credit: reuters)
DURING RECENT VISITS TO EAST JERUSALEM IN the past few weeks, the recurring topic of conversation was, obviously, the events in the Arab world.
Everywhere, people that I know, people that I don’t know, young and old, traders, craftsmen and, of course, journalists are asking each other: “What do you think? What will happen in Egypt? Will Gaddafi manage to hold out? Will there be large-scale demonstrations in Jordan? Who’s next? Will the regimes in Yemen, Morocco, Bahrain, Syria and Saudi Arabia survive? Old friends from the Palestinian media say that they can’t recall such sleepless nights. They are enthralled day and night by the television screen as they switch from channel to channel. They all have satellite dishes on their rooftops, which allow them to pick up scores of Arab channels.
What was remarkable from day one of the protests in Tunisia was that I did not meet even one Palestinian who was saddened by the events. If here in Israel and most Western countries there were many expressions of anxiety due to the bloody nature of many of the responses to the mass protests, the resulting turmoil and the removal of rulers – not only were none of the Palestinians worried, there were expressions of joy and glee at each stage.
In the markets of the Old City near Damascus Gate, I heard passersby congratulating each other when they heard of the downfall and humiliation of the Arab leaders.
The phenomenon of Palestinians gloating when witnessing the distress of the Arab regimes could have been foreseen. The hatred the Palestinians feel toward Arab leaders is an old and familiar story. The reason is simple. Since the time of the British Mandate, the Palestinians have believed they could not contend on their own against the Jews and that they needed the support of their Arab brethren.
As the Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammad Amin al-Husseini tried to organize Arab countries and institutions against the Jews during the Mandate, so it continued after Israel’s independence in 1948 – and continues in fact to this day. The Palestinians have continually tried to cobble together, largely unsuccessfully, a broad Arab coalition against the State of Israel.
Among questions raised by Palestinians over the years were: “How can one explain the fact that more than 300 million Arabs, comprising dozens of states with large armies, vast oil wealth and most of the world’s energy reserves, cannot contend with Israel? How is this possible that with such massive financial and political power, a united front cannot be made against that tiny country, which has no natural resources to speak of? One of the generally accepted explanations among the Palestinian public is that they were forced to deal with decayed, corrupt, Westernserving states, whose only interest was to make money and protect their own regimes. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, for example, gained great popularity among his people when he repeatedly said that: “The Palestinian problem was created when the Arabs betrayed us.” That’s how he explained the Palestinian debacle, the nakba, when the Arab states gave up and signed armistice agreements with the Jewish state in 1949, following Israel’s War of Independence.
For decades this “betrayal” has constituted an open wound among the Palestinians. An Arab proverb explains why – when metal strikes wood, one hears no sound, but when metal strikes metal, you hear a great noise. The reason, according to the proverb, is that when metal strikes wood, it is striking a foreign object which is silent; but when metal strikes metal, it is striking its brother, and the brother cries out in pain. In other words, Israel is the enemy, and it is to be expected of the enemy to retaliate. But when your brother strikes you, that is a betrayal, which hurts much more.
On all the occasions of Palestinian suffering, from the 1948 war, the Six Day War, the IDF operations in Lebanon and in the West Bank, to “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza, it was always possible to hear similar cries and curses from the Palestinian street: “Where are the Arab leaders? Where are the kings, the presidents, who only know how to promise and prattle, but when we are struck, slaughtered, they will not lift a finger and remain silent?” It possible to see, on a practically weekly basis, caricatures of Arab leaders, wearing long robes like the Gulf oil princes, obese and waxing their mustaches, portrayed as despicable figure whose only care is for their lavish life of luxury.
A few days ago, at the residence of an acquaintance in East Jerusalem, I met a Palestinian history lecturer from Birzeit University.
This lecturer was angry at the hundreds of articles and opinion pieces in Israel and the West, which perceived the events in the Arab world as a result of modern technology, of Facebook and Twitter. He also contemptuously rejected critics whom he saw as finding fault with the Al- Jazeera television network.
He passionately explained that the events of the “Spring of Nations” in Europe in 1848, with their focal point in France, had similar origins throughout Europe; in Berlin, Frankfurt, Warsaw, Naples, Austro- Hungary and Switzerland – all this, without radio and television, telephones or the Internet. But you don’t have to go back 160 years in history.
In Europe of the 1930s there were many examples of fascist regimes, according to what was known at the time as the “fuehrer principle.”
During the 1950s there were military coups all over the Arab world. The revolutions of generals and colonels spread from Syria to Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Algeria, Yemen and Sudan – and all this transpired without the high-tech media.
Thus, it can be inferred that the precursor for the events that are spreading in large swathes of the world are complex social processes which have grown out of a plethora of financial, ideological and political motivations. New media play an important part, but certainly not the main part.
In contrast to the reaction on the street, it was no less interesting to observe the reaction of the Palestinian leadership, the heads of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, the reaction of Fatah and the reaction of the Hamas leadership in Gaza.
Against the backdrop of “business as usual” in Gaza, the embarrassment in Ramallah was even more poignant. The PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced the dissolution of the government and appointed a new government under Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad. The intention was to change the previous hue of government from technocrats to a coalition made up of various political factions under the leadership of Fatah. Abbas and his people, in coordination with Fayyad, understood that they now needed a more democratically flavored government that would win greater legitimacy and broader political support from the different parties.
SUBSEQUENTLY, FAYYAD INITIATED CONTACTS WITH various Palestinian factions. He even approached the Hamas movement and suggested creating a national unity government in the hope that such a move would facilitate national elections in all the Palestinian territories by the end of summer. Fayyad explained to the heads of Hamas that until that time, they could continue to control the Gaza Strip – tantamount to a temporary recognition by the Authority in Ramallah of the government in Gaza.
As part of his efforts to put together a new government, Fayyad decided to turn to the people directly for help. On his Facebook page, Fayyad asked the public to put forward the names of people worthy of serving in the new government. “Who in your opinion is reliable, experienced and has leadership qualities? Who can you see as filling the position of minister? Please give the name of the man, and his whereabouts,” Fayyad wrote in a PR effort to highlight the new democratic spirit wafting through the corridors of power in Ramallah. There was an immediate and substantial response to Fayyad’s initiative.
Concurrently, there were large demonstrations in the big Palestinian cities in the West Bank in mid-February. However, unlike the protests in other parts of the Arab world, these were not massive, spontaneous demonstrations against the ruling authority – but demonstrations organized by the PA. The gist of these rallies was the demand: “End the schism between Ramallah and Gaza.”
The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah understood full well that what has happened in Egypt has severely weakened their position vis-à-vis Hamas in Gaza. Whereas during the past two years the Mubarak administration in Cairo devoted much time and effort to pressuring Hamas to yield and reconcile with the PAin Ramallah, the authorities in Egypt now have more pressing and important matters to deal with. In other words, at least for the coming year, until the new Cairo regime finds its feet, the PAin Ramallah should not expect any Egyptian involvement.
Consequently, many spokespeople in Ramallah started issuing conciliatory statements towards Hamas. The secretary of the Palestinian executive committee, Yasser Abed Rabbo, one of the people closest to Abbas, asked Hamas to immediately embark on a dialogue with the PA.
Azzam Al-Ahmad, the head of the Fatah faction in the Palestinian parliament, said that Hamas’s reservations about the Egyptian-brokered reconciliation document, should be accepted. Up until now, he and his colleagues had demanded that Hamas accept the document in whole.
The Hamas leadership did not rush to respond. Initially, they denied any intention of participating in the general elections that Abbas wishes to hold at the end of the summer. Then they chose to remain silent. They are fully aware that while the Arab world is in the grips of a political earthquake, it is in their best interests to remain silent, and preserve the relative peace in Palestinian society. They are endeavoring to wait, and see how things will turn out, from Morocco in the west to the Emirates in the east.