NEAR EAST REPORT AIPAC'S BIWEEKLY ON AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY

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Avi Issacharoff is the Palestinian and Arab affairs correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. He said that Palestinians in the West Bank are focused on improving their lives.

The Palestinian Street in the Run-up to September: An Interview with Avi Issacharoff

Tensions in the Middle East are mounting as the Palestinians persist in their campaign to attain recognition of statehood at the U.N. this September, Hamas and Fatah have signed a reconciliation deal, and the Arab Spring has turned into a summer filled with uncertainty. To learn more about how these developments are viewed on the Palestinian street, Near East Report asked Avi Issacharoff, the Palestinian and Arab Affairs correspondent for Israeli daily Haaretz, for his thoughts.

Near East Report: Describe what life is like for the average middle-class Palestinian family in the West Bank today.

Avi Issacharoff: The situation has changed dramatically since Hamas’ violent 2007 takeover of Gaza. The militias that were making people’s lives hell are gone from the streets of the West Bank. Today you have the PA [Palestinian Authority] security forces, traffic police and courts, and the level of crime has dropped dramatically.

Add to this the measures that have been taken by the Israeli authorities: removing checkpoints, which allows freer movement between the towns, and permitting some workers to enter Israel. All of this has created a much better environment for making money. The general feeling is that people in the West Bank today are focusing on how to improve their own lives.

The problem is that since July 1, the PA has been facing a fiscal crisis because of complications in transferring money from donor countries. This is mainly money that was promised by Arab countries to the PA. On July 1, [PA Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad paid his workers only half their salaries.

NER: How does this compare to the life of a middle-class family in Gaza?

AI: In the West Bank, it’s much more open culturally and socially. Let me give you some examples. At the beginning of July, there was a week of festivals in Ramallah. There was a theater festival, a dance festival with groups from all over the world, and a music festival, where they brought some very famous singers from the Arab world.

Two weeks ago, I was visiting Hebron to cover the chamber of commerce elections. There were thousands of people on the street, coming to vote. People were not talking about settlements or the Israeli army. They were only talking about how to improve business and how to improve the economic relations with Israel.

Such events cannot—and do not—take place in Hamas-controlled Gaza.

NER: To whom do people on the West Bank give credit for the current situation?

AI: Most of the credit is given to Salaam Fayyad, and also to [PA President] Mahmoud Abbas. When you have a prime minister who does not focus all day on “the Israelis did this, the Israelis did that,” but instead on building the foundation of a state, this is the message that the people get.

I’m sure that deep in their hearts the Palestinians understand that Israel took some steps on the ground in order to ease their lives. For example, Jenin today is completely open to the entrance of Arab Israeli civilians, who can freely get in and spend their money. There is a very famous hotel there, which has become a magnet for tourists.

Two years ago, if someone in Jenin, in the north of the West Bank, wanted to visit Hebron, on the southern edge of the West Bank, he couldn’t get out of Jenin. It was an enclave, and he needed to go through more than ten checkpoints. This would take half a day. Today, there is only one checkpoint between the cities, at Tapuach junction. Compared to a few years ago, it is a huge improvement.

NER: How would you describe the state of cooperation between the PA security forces and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)?

AI: I’ll give you two examples. Amir Peretz, the former head of the Labor party, had his car stolen a few weeks ago. He called the PA police, and after a few hours they found the car and brought it back.

Three weeks ago, I visited a small town named Salfit, ten minutes from Nablus. I was visiting with Colonel Avi Gil, the commander of the Ephraim division, who was invited by the Palestinian governor of Salfit to mark the occasion of his departure. They were telling jokes, laughing and trying to improve people’s lives. It’s such a strange reality, where we hear Abbas and Netanyahu throwing accusations at each other, but at the same time, on the ground level, the coordination is great. You see the way that two officers, one from the PA and one from Israel, have more than just professional relations, but personal relations.

NER: What is going to happen in September, after the U.N. vote? What is the likelihood of violent Palestinian attacks on Israel?

AI: The street isn’t there at this point. There is no spark to light the fire. People lack the bad energy that they had in 2000, just after the failed Camp David summit. They are completely focusing on their own lives, on the economy. When you meet ex-terrorists, they honestly say they are not going to take part in any violence against Israelis. The general feeling is that people are tired, and don’t want to go through another cycle of violence.

But we must remember that today it is very much in fashion to demonstrate in a more peaceful way. Probably immediately after September, we are going to have some marches, some Facebook pages that will call for a third intifada. Then, two to three days later, we will see on the streets hundreds, maybe thousands of people, calling for the Israelis to be thrown out of the West Bank.

The big question is, of course, how many people are going to participate? What are the people going to do? Are they going to use violence against the Israeli checkpoints or settlements, and how will the Israeli army react? I think that if we don’t see many Palestinian casualties, it will be over in 48-72 hours. If there are many casualties, this will bring more funerals, more antagonism, and then a new cycle of violence.

NER: What about Hamas in the West Bank? Could it affect the situation and play a role in any uprising?

AI: Hamas is really off the agenda in the West Bank. The PA is keeping them out of the picture. But they may try to start something in Gaza, because they understand that they are completely irrelevant on the West Bank, and it’s pretty embarrassing for them.

NER: What does the Palestinian street think of the recent Fatah-Hamas agreement?

AI: Everyone likes the idea, and it is very fashionable to talk about unity. This is why they ceremoniously signed an agreement, because they wanted to calm down public opinion. Abbas took the step because he didn’t have any other options when Hamas announced in May that they would sign a reconciliation agreement they had refused to sign since October 2009.

But, at the end of the day, nothing happened. Abbas is demanding that the next prime minister be Fayyad for two major reasons. One, he needs the internationally credible Fayyad for the continuation of international funding, for the White House and the E.U. The other reason is because he knew Hamas would say no. For him, it’s an almost perfect alibi not to implement the agreement, which he had a problem with because of pressure from Congress. Maybe after September there will be a unity government, but it is not very realistic.

NER: How do the Palestinians view the Arab Spring? To what extent might events on the ground in September be influenced by the Arab Spring?

AI: I am sure it will have some effect. First of all, it had an effect already, with the signing in Cairo of the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah – that was mainly because of the Arab Spring. I think you can see the effects all over, with the slogans that are being shouted at demonstrations in the West Bank, and the new atmosphere of popular resistance, marches and non-violence. In September we will see more of this.

It’s the young people, the ones who use Facebook and Twitter, who are running the demonstrations. It’s almost “cool” to be in the demonstrations. It’s a social event, a place to meet new people, and a chance for boys and girls to be together.

NER: Who are the possible successors to President Mahmoud Abbas?

AI: I don’t know who the successor will be. There are a few names that have been mentioned in Fatah, like Arafat’s nephew, [former PLO representative at the U.N.] Nasser al-Qudwa. Marwan Barghouti is irrelevant because he’s in jail. [Palestinian activist and former presidential candidate] Mustafa Barghouti is not a Fatah member and he’s very weak, and Salam Fayyad is likewise not part of Fatah. So I guess it is up to Fatah. Can they have as a candidate someone who’s not from their party and win, or insist on someone from Fatah and risk failure?
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