international analysis and commentary

The hopes for an Arab Spring in Palestine


“There is a general disgust with existing leaders throughout the region,” points out Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies. “And Palestinians are no exception”. This mindset has found expression in growing protests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip against Fatah and Hamas respectively, leading both political forces to react with “cosmetic changes” such as the announcement of local elections by the Palestinian Authority  (PA) or the lifting of the ban on cinemas by Hamas. The PA, which so far failed to bring an end to the occupation, is now under pressure to deliver. In this context, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has recently been pushing forward his unilateral plan called “Ending the Occupation – Establishing the State”. It was an answer to US President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo, in which he stated that “now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people.”

In September of this year, Salam Fayyad will seek approval for a Palestinian state by the United Nations General Assembly. The PA urgently needs a success in this area, as the Arab Peace Initiative is in a cul-de-sac, the Road Map is entirely stalled, and settlement building is ongoing in the West Bank.

As the most recent public opinion poll released by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center (JMCC) confirms, a majority of Palestinians (62.2%) supports resuming peace negotiations only if Israel were to halt settlement expansion. Settlements cover at present more than 40% of the West Bank due to the extensive network of settler roads and restrictions on Palestinians accessing their own land.

Furthermore, with the fall of Mubarak the PA lost a central foreign policy pillar. “The key issue here,” clarifies Rabbani, “is that (President Mahmoud) Abbas has lost his main Arab regional ally and sponsor. Egyptian regional policy provided the umbrella under which the PA – which is not a major player, and certainly not one under Abbas – has been operating.” Nonetheless, many Palestinians believe that their position in negotiations with Israel is now strengthened, since they expect that democratically elected regimes will express solidarity with them. Mustafa Barghouti, leader of the reform party al-Mubadara, noted on Ramallah Online that the development in Egypt “can only help to readjust the balance of power in favor of the Palestinian cause, for a democratic Egypt can only be a supporter of the Palestinian people, rather than a mere mediator.” Egypt has been a cornerstone for American and Israeli foreign policy in the Middle East and might now question the parameters of the strategic alliance with Israel. The first signs of such a tendency were seen recently when the Egyptian government stopped the building of a wall on the Egypt-Gaza border and when Nabil el-Araby, the new Foreign Minister of Egypt, sharpened his tone towards Israel and demanded that the neighboring country pay increased gas prices; until the fall of Mubarak, according to the Egyptian press, Israel obtained Egyptian natural gas at below-market prices.

The spirit of the Arab Spring, which found its latest expressions in Syria and Jordan, is also influencing the hopes of the younger generation of Palestinians. Barghouti explained that “the revolutions of Egypt and Tunisia serve to remind the Palestinian people of their latent force and of the power of large-scale peaceful grassroots resistance.” The democratic aspirations of the youth movements have also opened another door, as they revealed a new face of the Arab world to the West. They have “shown to have hopes and ideals no different from the young people who helped bring about democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, Latin America and South, Southeast and East Asia,” Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi pointed out. For years, many Western academics claimed that the Arab world was “democracy resistant,” due to the fact that it was the only region in the world which had not been touched by what Samuel Huntington had termed the “third wave of democratization.” The Arab Spring, however, proved this perception wrong. As Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote in his essay Democracy as a Universal Value: “A country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy, rather, it has to become fit through democracy.”

Amjad Atallah, Executive Consulting Editor of Palestine Note, declared, “if you are an Arab, you have reason to be proud today, perhaps for the first time in a generation.” At the same time, Israelis fear that the increasing thrust to fight for freedom could bring about a renewed wave of terrorism, as the Jerusalem bus bombing of March 23, which killed one civilian and injured many others, seemed to confirm. A Third Intifada would certainly sweep away any last hopes for a different future, considering that the First and Second Intifada contributed to bringing the autocratic rule of the PA to the Palestinian people, the implementation of the separation fence, the enlargement of the settlements and a corrosive fratricidal war. In any case, public opinion now views the reconciliation of Palestinian factions as the most important domestic issue.

Palestinians now hope that the revolutions in the Middle East will not divert the focus of international media and public opinion away from the conflict. While the Arab Spring is giving new perspectives to the whole region, the situation in the Palestinian territories, and in some respects also inside Israel, is deteriorating day by day. This became evident recently with bloodshed in the Itamar settlement and with the killing of the Palestinian-Jewish filmmaker Juliano Mer-Khamis in Jenin, as well as of the Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni in Gaza. Also witnessed recently was a renewed eruption of violence with Hamas carrying out missile attacks and Israel launching air strikes – which killed several civilians in the Gaza Strip. It is a vicious cycle to which only a permanent ceasefire under international supervision could place an end. In a nutshell, as stated in the neo-Kantian motto which inspired Jewish philosopher Martin Buber: “Peace is possible because it is necessary”.