Political Stagnation, Youth Frustration and the Recent Protests

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E.J. Nabi, Palestine

February 1, 2016

Since October 2015, Palestine has been gripped by a renewed wave of tensions and violence. While the American media has simplified these events to the series of stabbings, attempted stabbings and claimed stabbings carried out by Palestinians, the situation is visibly more complicated and varied. In fact, the last months have witnessed protests, demonstrations, declarations and other means of peaceful resistance, which have defined this outburst of fury.

An attempt to identify the causes underlying this wave of resistance, both violent and non-violent, has occupied politicians and analysts alike. The Netanyahu government and its adherents have repeatedly claimed that stabbings and violent attacks (they ignore nonviolent forms of resistance) are reflective of a genocidal fury among Palestinian youth, egged on by the "incitement" of cultural and political leadership. Logic, and a consideration of the larger context, dismisses this explanation as an oversimplification.

Other explanations for the protests have focused on the recent violence against Palestinians, carried out by extremist Israeli settlers and the Israeli army and police. The most frequently cited event is the triple murder by arson of the Dawabsheh family in the village of Duma in July 2015. Two settlers firebombed the family home of the Dawabshehs, killing a mother, father and 18-month old child. The failure of Israeli security to rapidly arrest those responsible, demolish their homes (the customary punishment for terrorists), or make committed progress in the investigation brought howls of outrage from Palestinians. The inaction and perceived indifference of Israel led to accusations that the Netanyahu government protects, and tacitly promotes, settlers' attempts to brutalize and dispossess Palestinians.

The second specific catalyst is the escalation of tension at the Temple Mount/al Haram al Sharif. In September, groups of extremist Jews began to conduct a series of provocative visits to the Temple Mount compound to pray. Under an existing agreement, Jewish prayer is forbidden at the compound and many Palestinians view these acts as an attempt to exert dominance over the site and instigate a partition similar to the division of the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. Palestinians in Jerusalem reacted with riots and protests, which were suppressed by Israeli police and soldiers, in some cases leading to damage of the Al Aqsa Mosque. In addition, two Palestinian groups dedicated to protecting the compound, Mourabitoon and Mourabitat, were banned by the Israeli government. The repeated provocations and confrontations led many Palestinians to fear that holy sites in the Old City, centered around al Haram al Sharif, were in jeopardy. Leaders and media echoed these concerns, warning that Israel was attempting to impose a new status quo.

I am in complete agreement that these causes are two of the primary factors that explain the recent wave of tension, protest and violence. In addition, I would offer the opinion that the catalysts are more systemic than current and recent events suggest. Even a casual observer can list such contributing factors: expansion of settlements, home demolitions and expulsions in Jerusalem, army and settler violence, stifled economic opportunity, the siege of Gaza, and the abuses and harassment Israel arbitrarily imposes, and agree they serve as daily reminders that Palestinians are prisoners in their own homes, aliens in their own country.

However, I want to identify one additional factor that is often overlooked: the political stagnation of Palestinian politics and the failure to achieve unity in the past year. In 2006, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) won legislative elections and attempted to form a government with the ruling leaders of the Movement to Liberate Palestine (Fatah) and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israel immediately declared this unacceptable, a sentiment echoed by the United States and European Union. Aid was cut, legitimacy withdrawn and the PA attempted to limp along, all the while facing internal divisions as old foes struggled to work together. In 2007, Fatah launched a coup aimed at expelling Hamas members of the government and destroying their power base in the Gaza Strip. The coup failed and though Hamas was defeated in the West Bank, Fatah was defeated in Gaza. The legislature was suspended and since 2007, Fatah and the PA have ruled in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.

Since 2007, efforts have been made to reunify the government, a process Palestinians refer to as "reconciliation." Various initiatives were launched, each one fruitless. However, in May 2014, a truly auspicious event occurred. Following a series of secret negotiations, Fatah and Hamas announced a new pact had been signed, often referred to as "The Beach Agreement." The agreement called for elections by December, while a new unity government would be established to facilitate the reintegration of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Infighting began almost immediately. Fatah and Hamas officials clashed over personnel, the combination of security forces, reconstruction after the 2014 Gaza War and administration of the Strip, in general. Israel did everything in its power to derail the resurrected rapport. The 2014 War on Gaza was Netanyahu's trump card, a wedge to drive between the leaders of the PA and Hamas. Israel got its wish; by 2015 the agreement that once looked so promising was stillborn.

The failure to achieve reconciliation is one of the cardinal causes underlying the current wave of protests. In the aftermath of 2014, the possibility that substantive change was at hand and the shameful chapter of division was finally being closed energized all Palestinians. A June 2014 poll, conducted by polling center Arab World for Research and Development (AWRAD), found that 63 percent of Palestinians were optimistic about the future. This was reflected in hopes for specific political reforms; 78 percent believed that all elements of reconciliation would be successful and 70 percent believed elections would be held within the six-month deadline. Most significantly, 76 percent declared they would participate in such elections, indicating a belief that political, social and economic aims could be achieved through democratic means.

History teaches that the most volatile periods for protest and resistance occur after hopes are raised and later unfulfilled, or completely dashed. By 2015, the latter described the Palestinian political situation. The unity government was derailed, all major reconciliation deadlines had been missed, Gaza was in ruins, and Fatah and Hamas returned to their usual pattern of trading blame. The optimism that the Beach Agreement would provide the first step in a national regeneration similar to the pre-2006 days was replaced by cynicism and skepticism of the ability of established political parties to produce change. By July 2015, an AWRAD poll showed 58 percent of Palestinians believing that Palestine was heading in the wrong direction.

A combination of these circumstances, developments and attitudes constitutes one of the central pillars of the current wave of demonstrations and protests by Palestinian youth. The failure of Hamas and Fatah to achieve reconciliation and, by extension, to serve as the leaders of the Palestinian people, stimulated cynicism, rejection and a sense of abandonment among youth. These young men and women constitute one of the most marginalized segments of Palestinian society, and the most powerless.

If power is the ability to effect change, and the ability to resist change imposed by others, then powerlessness, by extension, is the inability to effect change, and the inability to resist change being imposed. By this definition, Palestinian youth, abused by Israel, scorned by their own leaders, faced with the cruelties and failures of the previous months, experienced an acute recognition of powerlessness that triggered the subsequent reaction and protests.

Political parties are considered representative bodies, a definition that is reflective of their ability to influence change and resist change. In effect, their legitimacy derives from their ability to exercise power and achieve the goals of their members. The inability of Fatah and Hamas to achieve reconciliation and unification, the goal of the majority of Palestinians, eroded their legitimacy and led to a rejection by youth.

In sum, the inability of political parties to fulfill their rhetoric, or even succeed in the basic outline of their mandate, has incentivized youth, one of the most marginalized groups in Palestinian politics, to abandon a traditional trust and reliance on established actors and attempt to influence change by their own direct actions.

I want to conclude by allowing this isolated example of political stagnation to stand as a representative of a larger point. To borrow the words of Dr. King, we cannot allow our efforts to descend into exclusively anti-Israel activism, but rather a positive thrust for Palestine. As individuals committed to freedom and justice, our efforts are incomplete when they are consumed by refutation, protest and boycott. This constant negative pressure, even if it is justified, risks allowing Israel the escape of unilateral withdrawal, not bilateral conflict resolution. History provides numerous examples and powerful testimony of the inadequacy of unilateral withdrawal to stimulate peace, democracy and human rights.

In the current conflict, unilateral withdrawal will produce two states, but no peace. It is critical to dedicate ourselves to the cultivation of unity and democracy in Palestine, a civic process that will produce a united front, capable of resistance, devoted to representing all Palestinians. Only this front will be capable of leading the resistance, negotiating the peace and building the state.

The failure of any such body or leader to capture that spirit of positive resolution in the present day, and lead the country forward, is visible in the corpses of young men and women who die by the hand of an Israel increasingly resolved to kill them. As long as political stagnation and consequent youth frustration remain overlooked in the present wave of resistance and violence, nothing substantive will be resolved or achieved. The same cycle will continue to spin for the coming decades.

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