The disturbances throughout the West Bank in recent days, culminating in widespread demonstrations and the hunger strike of thousands of Palestinian prisoners during the past twenty-four hours, should surprise nobody. There has been a gradual yet systematic buildup of Palestinian discontent over the past few months – largely overlooked by Israelis and their government during the electoral season and its aftermath. Its culmination can no longer be ignored: either Israel (even in the midst of somewhat mindless coalition talks) takes immediate steps to eliminate the symptoms and deal with the causes of this disaffection or it will find itself on the brink of an abyss largely of its own making. It does not have the luxury to continue to deal interminably with the seemingly urgent at the expense of the single most important item on its agenda.
Ostensibly, the current unrest was spurred by the hunger strike of four Palestinian political detainees – most notably Samer Issawi who was released in the Gilad Schalit deal and placed once again in administrative detention without trial. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was the death of Arafat Jaradat, a young Palestinian protestor arrested during demonstrations over the weekend (the anniversary of the Baruch Goldstein massacre of Muslim prayers at the tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron on the eve of Purim in 1994).
The treatment of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails – as of December 2012 they numbered more than 4,500, of whom about 1,000 were detainees who were either awaiting trial or under administrative injunction, according to B’Tselem – has been a topic of particular contention in Israeli-Palestinian relations over the years. Human rights organizations estimate that one out every ten Palestinians has been in jail at one point or another. There is virtually no Palestinian in the West Bank who has not had a family member or a close friend imprisoned by Israel. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the treatment of these detainees is monitored closely in Palestinian society. Changes in the terms of detention – such as the withdrawal of study privileges in the wake of the United Nations General Assembly’s recognition of Palestine as a non-member state – inevitably arouse popular consternation.
When to this are added other punitive measures that have adversely affected conditions in the West Bank, such as the withholding of the transfer of tax monies to the Palestinian Authority for several months, the sense of repression has increased substantially. The deteriorating economic situation has been compounded by the decision to resume massive settlement construction, especially in and around Jerusalem. And to add more fuel to the fire, the ongoing activities of “Price Tag” settler hooliganism has interrupted daily life in many parts of the West Bank. The lack of a strong reaction to these actions by Israeli authorities has aroused further resentment throughout the area.
Popular Palestinian resistance to Israeli measures, mostly localized, has taken the form of demonstrations and increased confrontations with Israeli forces – sometimes leading to violent clashes between stone-throwers and soldiers. Too many incidents have been recorded in recent days. Palestinians and Israelis are in the midst of an escalating spiral which may, if not halted, lead to yet another round of widespread violence.
Unfortunately, official Israel has responded slowly and in a tiresomely predictable and unconstructive manner. Initially, the tendency of the outgoing Netanyahu government was to brush aside the warning signals and put the onus on Abu-Mazen and the Palestinian Authority (who studiously maintained law and order in the West Bank by beefing up Palestinian security forces with European and U.S. assistance during the past four years). Instructions to Israeli troops in the West Bank have been ambiguous, resulting in a growing number of shooting incidents. And now government spokespeople have stepped up the rhetoric against Palestinians, reminiscent of that used during the first and second intifadas. These knee-jerk reactions, however, contribute very little to calming what is fast becoming an explosive situation.
The immediate triggers for the present unease can and must be handled with moderation. Israel has nothing to lose by easing the conditions of Palestinian prisoners and ceasing the practice of creeping administrative detention (which it itself has acknowledged contravenes international conventions and Israeli law). The constant use of economic measures against the Palestinian Authority has to stop. Increased poverty and unemployment are a sure prescription for political unrest, especially amongst those who see no horizon for a better life and consequently have nothing to lose by expressing their anger and frustration. The decision to transfer withheld funds on Sunday is a step in the right direction. And, most significantly, Israel should, especially on the eve of the visit of President Obama next month, make a gesture on the settlement issue. If Benjamin Netanyahu really wants to convince the world that he is serious about accommodation with the Palestinians, nothing would be more convincing than an extended unilateral freeze on settlement construction.
Such moves would go a long way to reducing the protests and restoring a modicum of quiet. But dealing with the symptoms of the problem and not with its causes is akin to giving aspirin to a cancer patient. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict will not go away and, despite efforts to claim otherwise, it cannot be managed. It must be resolved now. Forty-six years of occupation have not created an acceptable reality either for Palestinians or for Israelis. No stability in the region can be achieved without actually working together to create a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.
From a Palestinian perspective the urgency is enormous. They are at wit’s end, having tried everything from negotiations to violence, from diplomacy to passive resistance – to no avail. During the past two decades Israel has not utilized the opportunities presented: when violence erupts it reverts to treating all Palestinians as terrorists; when quiet prevails it sees no reason to engage in serious talks. The result has been cycles of violence with receding prospects for changing a precarious and deteriorating status quo. The patience of the international community has reached its limit: there is a renewed determination in Washington and in European capitals to make every effort possible to bring about a peaceful end to the conflict now.
This is not simply a reiteration of familiar words or a repetition of well-worn phrases. The future of both peoples depends on finally coming to terms with the need for a just resolution to decades upon decades of enmity, injustice and violence that are destroying both societies and endangering the entire area.