Analysis: Why has the West Bank been quiet?

Many Palestinians here relate to the war in Gaza as if it were happening in another country.

jordan gaza protests 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
jordan gaza protests 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
A rally held here on Tuesday in solidarity with the Gaza Strip drew about 150 protesters. Similar demonstrations in other parts of the West Bank over the past 11 days have also attracted small numbers of Palestinians. As the demonstrators in this city's central Manara Square chanted slogans condemning Israel as a "Nazi state" and calling on the Arabs to severe their ties with Israel and on Fatah and Hamas to join forces, shopkeepers did not shut their businesses to participate in the rally. Nor did many passersby heed the protesters' appeal to join the rally. At the Stars & Bucks café overlooking the square, young men and women smoked water-pipes, sipped cappuccino and exchanged jokes, totally ignoring the protest and the graphic images broadcast on Al-Jazeera via an LCD screen hanging on the wall. The general atmosphere in this city was not different from other places in the West Bank. While the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians in the West Bank continue to express their full solidarity with their brethren in the Gaza Strip, they have not gone a step further by resorting to widespread violence against the IDF and settlers. In fact, the feeling here on Tuesday was that many Palestinians related to the war in Gaza as if it were happening in another country. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip have been separated for nearly two decades now. Most Palestinians living in the West Bank have never been to the Gaza Strip. Similarly, only a few Palestinians from the Gaza Strip have ever set foot in the West Bank. Even when there were no Israeli-imposed travel restrictions, there was almost no interaction between the two communities. Although they may be united politically, the Palestinians in each area have always had different traditions and attitudes. At times, relations between the two communities were strained following allegations that the West Bankers were "looking down" on their brothers in the Gaza Strip. When Yasser Arafat tried to bring policemen from the Gaza Strip into the West Bank after the signing of the Oslo Accords, many West Bankers protested, forcing him to send his men back home. Some Israeli and Palestinian security officials had expressed fear that the Palestinians in the West Bank would erupt into violence in response to the massive IDF operation. Their fears were based on the assessment that Hamas would try to open a new front in the West Bank so as to ease the pressure on the Gaza Strip. Last week, Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal openly urged the Palestinians in the West Bank to declare a "third intifada." Hamas supporters in the West Bank have also been trying to organize large protests, but to no avail. Since the beginning of the current IDF operation, only three Palestinians have been killed in clashes with IDF troops in the West Bank. Ironically, most of the violence and protests have been taking place in Israeli-controlled Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and in villages and cities within the Green Line, in the Galilee and Triangle. Palestinians said on Tuesday there were a number of reasons why the West Bankers have chosen so far to sit on the fence. One has to do with the tough measures imposed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's security forces in the West Bank. The PA has banned pro-Hamas rallies, and Palestinians who were caught carrying Hamas flags were either beaten or detained by Abbas's forces. The PA security forces have also been doing their utmost to prevent protesters from approaching IDF checkpoints and settlements. Demonstrators who tried to march toward soldiers and settlers in Hebron and in the Ramallah area over the past few days were dispersed by force by Abbas's policemen. This is in addition to the fact that the IDF has been waging a relentless crackdown on Hamas supporters and other radical groups in the West Bank over the past five years. Another reason behind the relative calm is attributed to the fact that some Palestinians blame Hamas for the latest cycle of violence. They are convinced that Hamas was responsible for the misery of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip because of its refusal to extend the cease-fire and its continued rocket attacks on Israel. It's also possible that the West Bankers today feel that they have more to lose by resorting to violence. Over the past two years, their economic situation has improved remarkably as the international community resumed financial aid to the PA. In contrast, the situation in the Gaza Strip ever since Hamas took full control over the area has only been deteriorating, on almost all levels. Moreover, there's the deterrence element, which seems to have kept many Palestinians in the West Bank at home. The massive air strikes and the high casualty toll in Gaza (more than 600 killed and nearly 3,000 wounded, according to Palestinian sources) have sent the message to the public that "the Jews have finally gone mad" and that this is not the proper time to mess with them. Finally, the West Bankers, like their brothers in the Strip, have once again been reminded of the sad fact that the Arab and Islamic governments don't really care that much about their plight. In the absence of strong backing from the Arabs and Muslim regimes, there is less motivation among the West Bankers to engage in another round of violence. But the relative calm in the West Bank does not necessarily mean that the Palestinians living there have become more moderate or that they are willing to accept almost anything that Israel offers. If anything, the war has, at least in the short-term, radicalized all Palestinians to a point where the talk about the resumption of peace talks sounds like a joke.