x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Palestinian peace hopes low as talks resume

Expectations of progress in the peace process could not be lower as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators prepare to meet in the Jordanian capital today.

JERUSALEM // Expectations of progress in the peace process could not be lower as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators prepare to meet in the Jordanian capital today.

It will be their second meeting in a week but these are rare encounters since direct negotiations collapsed more than a year ago, when Israel refused to stop building Jewish settlements.

Still, the Palestinians' ageing leadership has continued with a two decades-old strategy of trying to end their conflict with Israel through negotiations.

"There is no alternative and this is a major crisis for us," said Majdi Malki, a professor of sociology at the West Bank's Birzeit University.

But that is not for a lack of trying. Palestinian civil society groups in recent years attempted to mount a campaign of unarmed resistance against Israel's occupation.

This has dovetailed with efforts to punish international entities complicit in aiding settlements and the separation barrier through the boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement.

The Palestinian leadership has also sought to break free from the Washington-sponsored framework of peace talks.

Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) , defied the administration of Barack Obama, the US president, in September when he began a bid for Palestinian statehood recognition at the United Nations.

Even Hamas, known for its suicide and rocket attacks, has tentatively thrown its weight behind non-violence against Israel.

But these developments have yet to gain traction, which Mr Malki said was as much a consequence of a hesitant Palestinian public as stonewalling by Washington and Israel's right wing, pro-settler government.

"Many Palestinians are too preoccupied with issues such as poverty, joblessness and insecurity," he said. "And they are reluctant to engage in confrontation because the suffering from the second intifada is still very much an issue for many of them."

Another problem is that Israel has jailed popular rivals to the current Palestinian leadership, such as Marwan Barghouti, a well-known Fatah figure who was convicted of murder and is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison.

Even so, Mr Malki and other observers said, the conditions for a popular backlash against the status quo are brewing. The benefits of the institution-building agenda of Salam Fayyad, the PA prime minister, have been exhausted as the hardships of occupation - settlement expansion, military violence, settler intimidation - worsen.

The public has grown frustrated at the stalled reconciliation agreement in May between Hamas and Fatah, which was spurred by large Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"There is a disengagement from the situation by the public currently, a sort of wait-and-see, because of what's happening in Egypt, Syria and the Arab world," said Zakaria Al Qaq, a political science lecturer at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem. "But if the situation is left unaddressed, there will be an explosion against not only the Israelis, but the entire system, and this includes the Palestinian leadership."

Failing to capitalise on this apparent void is Palestinian civil society, said Jeff Halper, an Israeli-American activist and the director of the Jerusalem-based Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. He described Palestinian activist leaders as "disconnected" and too "academic" to galvanise broader public support.

"The Palestinian civil society isn't taking a leadership role," he said, adding that there was "no urgency for them, and that's the problem, because there's this difference between the average guy on the street and the civil society and political leaders".

Some Palestinian activists acknowledge this failure but blame their dysfunctional political system, fractured by infighting and dominated by an "old guard" leadership considered too willing to compromise with Israel and out of tune with the Arab Spring.

Ayed Morrar, an activist in the West Bank village of Budrus, said Palestinians were reluctant to participate in widespread, non-violent demonstrations against Israel due to a lack of encouragement.

"Palestinians don't see a united strategy behind these demonstrations and, at the same time, the leadership is encouraging people to not get involved in the popular resistance," he said.

In some cases, the PA's security forces have prevented such demonstrations on behalf of the Israeli security establishment, he added.

In the meantime, Ghassan Khatib, a PA spokesperson, said Palestinians were willing to give the peace process "a chance". But he questioned the durability of this.

"It's difficult to predict the public's mood. We never predicted the intifada," he said of the first Palestinian uprising in 1987. "But then it happened."

hnaylor@thenational.ae


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