Palestinian Moves Reshape Attitudes

27 September 2011

RAMALLAH, West Bank—The Palestinian bid for United Nations statehood, whatever its outcome, is already helping reshape Palestinian attitudes to expect less of negotiations—which most feel have failed to deliver after nearly two decades—and embrace a more confrontational stance toward Israel.

That could mean challenging Israel using boycotts, demonstrations and international diplomatic forums more aggressively—ideas that are gaining currency among young Palestinians. In a year when peaceful demonstrations have radically altered the political landscape of the Arab world, they increasingly embrace notions of nonviolent resistance.

Still, many observers say that tensions are building in the Palestinian areas—especially in the West Bank, where Jewish settlements continue to grow and chafe against Palestinian communities. Even peaceful confrontations, they worry, could escalate and set off another round of violence.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, has stressed that the U.N. bid won’t substitute for negotiations or replace the existing framework for working toward a two-state solution laid out in the Oslo agreement that has guided Israeli-Palestinian relations for two decades. But many Palestinians, especially youths who make up the majority of the population, see the U.N. bid as something else: a sharp break with a peace process and the beginning of a new era.
They want their leadership to actively challenge Israel for sovereignty over the West Bank, though not necessarily through an armed struggle. “We’re hoping to have a state. Checkpoints should be dismantled. Palestinians will patrol where Israelis do now,” said Ahmed Aqtish, a 24-year-old mechanic.
Those sorts of soaring expectations almost certainly won’t be met in the coming months, though, and could cause problems for Mr. Abbas and the Palestinian leadership now that they have returned home from New York. Young Palestinians, long the foot soldiers of the Palestinian cause, have become disenchanted with their aging leadership.
That has grown as the protests across the Arab world have played out. Mr. Abbas’s Fatah movement, as well as the militant group Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip, are both losing support, according to Khalil Shikaki, head of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Quarterly polling that the center has conducted since March shows that young adults are “essentially abandoning Fatah and Hamas,” he said.
Young people have gotten behind Mr. Abbas’s statehood push, elevating his popularity for now. Mr. Abbas returned to cheering crowds in the West Bank on Sunday, and the Palestinian Authority called a public holiday and released children from schools to welcome him back.
Mr. Abbas and the Palestinian leadership began planning for, and talking up, the statehood bid months ago. On Friday he formally submitted a request for the U.N.’s security council to take up the issue. It could take weeks to come up for a vote at the council, where it has almost no chance of success. That’s because the U.S. has promised to veto the measure, saying the Palestinians should negotiate directly with Israel and not involve the U.N.
Mr. Abbas also could choose to ask the U.N.’s General Assembly to elevate the status of the Palestinians to that of an observers state, recognition that has a much better chance of being granted but that would have almost no immediate impact on the lives of Palestinians.
Mr. Abbas sees the bid as a way to pressure the Israelis in negotiations within the Oslo framework, a process that the current leadership started and has a huge stake in continuing. But for much of the younger generation, it has come to represent a defining moment, marking a sort of logical conclusion of the Oslo process. “They want him to put an end to Oslo,” said Mr. Shikaki. “The last thing Abbas wants to do is throw out Oslo.”
Yet even Mr. Abbas’s supporters say the U.N. move is born of a sense that time and support could be running out for the two-decade-old framework for negotiations and the Palestinian Authority that was created as part of that framework. “Our international situation is not sustainable,” said Ghassan Katib, a spokesman for the authority. “We’ve staked our reputations on a peace process that is going nowhere.”
Mr. Abbas may come under pressure to try a new direction that young Palestinians increasingly favor, nonviolent resistance, and advocate the sort of boycotts that were aimed at South Africa’s former apartheid government. Mr. Abbas mentioned nonviolent resistance in his speech to the U.N. on Friday.
Palestinian activists such as Mustafa Barghouti, a politician, have been working for years to rally support for a sustained campaign of nonviolent resistance. He believes support for nonviolence has also been bolstered by efforts to break the blockade that Israel has imposed on Gaza and a series of rallies in one Palestinian area that persuaded Israel to change the course of a security wall it constructed.
“We must make the cost of the occupation higher than the benefits,” for the Israelis, he said. Increasingly, Mr. Shikaki’s polling shows that young Palestinians are more impressed with what the Tahrir Square protests accomplished in Egypt and less enamored of the sort of violent struggle the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has championed. “Tahrir seems to be winning out, and Hezbollah is out of favor,” said Mr. Shikaki.
Still, Mr. Shikaki worries that without meaningful negotiations, a sustained campaign of nonviolent confrontation could easily slip into another spasm of violence, given the underlying tensions in the West Bank. That could happen because of violence by Israeli or Palestinian extremists, undisciplined protesters or a miscalculation by Israeli soldiers confronting the sort of nonviolent tactics they aren’t used to handling.

by Bill Spindle