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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Year in review: What now for the Palestinians?

At the dawn of 2018, the Palestinians have never felt more alone in the world.

Supporters of the Fatah movement hold up a portrait of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during a rally in Gaza City on December 31, 2017, marking the 53rd anniversary of the creation of the political party. Mahmud Hams / AFP
Supporters of the Fatah movement hold up a portrait of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during a rally in Gaza City on December 31, 2017, marking the 53rd anniversary of the creation of the political party. Mahmud Hams / AFP

When US president Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 6, many Palestinians saw it as an admission of what they had long believed to be true: that the US-led peace process favours Israel at the Palestinians’ expense. It was a moment of clarity that brought with it a profound sense of isolation.

Palestinians now feel that they have been utterly deserted, and not only by the Americans. The Arab governments that once championed the Palestinian cause mustered strong words against Mr Trump’s declaration but have so far failed to take any meaningful action against it. The United Nations General Assembly resolution on December 21 to reject the US decision on Jerusalem was cold comfort to the average Palestinian, who saw no change on the ground.

Perhaps most painfully, Palestinians feel hung out to dry by their leader who promised to liberate them — and the majority want him out.

A poll conducted after Mr Trump’s announcement found that 70 per cent — the highest percentage ever — of the Palestinian public wants Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to resign.

“It is clear that the public doesn’t believe its own leadership has credibility and it doesn’t trust its own leadership to do the right thing,” said Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, which conducted the poll.

The sense of betrayal is so acute that Palestinians for the most part refused to heed Mr Abbas’s call to protest in the streets against Mr Trump’s Jerusalem declaration. Mr Abbas called for three “days of rage”, but the demonstrations were relatively small, with a few thousand people involved in clashes in the West Bank and Gaza on the Friday after the announcement. Small protests in Jerusalem were dispersed by Israeli forces.

“The public doesn’t want to go out in the streets just because Abbas said so,” said Mr Shikaki.

Even so, the protests have continued and some of them have turned deadly. At least 13 Palestinians have been killed so far, 10 by Israeli forces in clashes. One was killed as he stabbed a border police officer and two Hamas fighters were killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza. Since the start of the unrest, Gaza and Israel have been trading rocket fire. Hamas leaders have called for a third Intifada, and overall Palestinian support for an armed uprising is growing, according to Mr Shikaki’s poll.

In the most high-profile fatality thus far, Ibrahim Abu Thuraya, a double amputee, was killed on December 15 during a demonstration in Gaza. According to media reports, he had given interviews saying he lost his legs in a 2008 Israeli air strike. He was a well-known activist, and his funeral was attended by thousands.

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An internal investigation by the Israeli military reported that no order was given to direct live fire at Abu Thuraya, and it was not possible to determine how he died. However, Palestinian medical records state that he died from a bullet to the head, according to an Associated Press report, which also said witnesses saw no shots fired from the Palestinian side.

Palestinians are living with a “real sense of abandonment”, said Diana Buttu, a former Palestinian negotiator and analyst. Looking back, Ms Buttu called 2017 a year of “reckoning” for the Palestinians, when both the American leadership’s intentions and the Palestinian leadership’s limitations were made exceptionally clear.

Mr Trump, who campaigned with the support of evangelical Christians and hawkish Israel advocates, was sworn into office last January amid high hopes on the part of the Israeli right.

Israel’s settlement leaders in particular were looking forward to a change from the attitude of the previous US administration of Barack Obama, which regularly castigated Israel for building in the territory Palestinians claim for a future state. Settlers and their advocates saw an ally in Mr Trump’s choice for US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who helped to raise funds for Beit El, a Jewish settlement outside Ramallah.

As if on cue, just four days after Mr Trump entered the presidency, Israel announced its intention to build 2,500 new homes in the West Bank. This time, the US administration remained mum. Later, the White House offered a tepid response, saying that while the administration did not consider settlements an “impediment to peace” — a position that broke with decades of US foreign policy — expanding settlements beyond their existing borders “may not be helpful” to finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.

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In November, the Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now warned that Israel had taken a “quantum leap” towards a de facto annexation of the West Bank. It said Israel had accelerated the pace of settlement construction — with more than 6,700 units advanced during 2017 — to the point that a two-state solution might no longer be viable. On December 31, a committee of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party voted in favour of a resolution to effectively annex the West Bank.

By the time Mr Trump made his first diplomatic trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories in May, Ms Buttu believes the US president had already made “perfectly clear” his antipathy towards the Palestinian cause. Yet Mr Abbas “bent over backwards for Trump, welcoming him and being the good Palestinian Authority leader”, she said. While Mr Abbas may have wanted to project willingness to participate in a possible Trump peace push, his friendliness set the stage for the disappointment Palestinians feel with their leader today.

Paradoxically, one of the Palestinians’ only successes of 2017, a short-lived popular protest over access to Al Aqsa mosque, may have added to their sense of isolation by the year’s end. The incident was sparked when three Palestinian gunmen ambushed a group of Israeli border police in Jerusalem’s Old City in July, killing two of them. The attackers fled to the pavilion that holds Al Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, where they were shot by Israeli police.

In response to the attack, Israel erected metal detectors outside the holy site, sparking one of the largest Palestinian protests in recent years. Palestinians boycotted the metal detectors, with thousands praying day after day on the streets of the Old City in an act of mass civil disobedience. After two weeks, Israel removed the metal detectors and scrapped a plan to install cameras at the site. At the time, it looked like the beginning of a new popular movement in Jerusalem. But such a movement failed to materialise.

Coming on the heels of the Al Aqsa protests, Mr Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel felt particularly devastating, said Ms Buttu. Even though the US president mentioned the Muslim connection to Al Aqsa mosque in his announcement, what Palestinians heard most clearly was his assertion that Jerusalem belonged to Israel. What was the meaning of the protest movement to protect their mosque if the American president could give away their city?

“There was a sense that we could do this, that as much as Israel could use its weaponry, people power was going to prevail — and it did prevail in the month of July,” Ms Buttu said. “Now it is like, what is the utility of people power when you have the likes of Trump? All that matters is not people power but actual power.”

Another supposed Palestinian success of 2017, the reconciliation between the West Bank-based Fatah leadership and Hamas in Gaza, remains in murky territory. While the Palestinian Authority has taken over the border crossings in Gaza, there are signs that the agreement is faltering on several key matters, including the role of Hamas’s armed wing.

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Although Palestinian frustration with the PA leadership is at an all-time high after the Trump announcement, and Mr Abbas has made statements ruling out America’s involvement in the peace process, it is not at all clear that he would walk away from an American plan should he be presented with one.

“I can’t see the Palestinian side disengaging from an American effort unless they have an alternative player who can have the kind of influence on both sides that the Americans have,” said Mr Shikaki.

So far, such a player does not exist. And that’s why 2018 will not necessarily look much different from 2017 for the Palestinians.

Mr Shikaki spelt out two starkly different scenarios for Palestinians this year. In one, the Americans return with a reasonable proposal, overcoming Palestinian suspicion to engage them with the Israelis in negotiations that could lead to a lasting solution. In the other, Palestinian frustration with the Trump resolution snowballs and turns on Mr Abbas and his security services, which are widely criticised for co-operating with Israel to stop attacks on its citizens. This second scenario could trigger more deadly violence in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

“Which one is more likely?” Mr Shikaki asked. “Neither is likely, but I can’t rule out both. More probably the scenario is the status quo, somewhere between the two.”