West Bankers Are Growing Restless

By: Jacob Høigilt, Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies.

What is cooking in the West Bank?

Those who had hoped for renewed momentum in the Palestinian struggle against occupation in the wake of the Arab Spring were disappointed. Several news stories have been published where journalists and activists try to make sense of the failure to mobilize widely during 2011, and the mantra among all has been the Split: strong animosity between Fatah and Hamas, the West Bank and Gaza, makes it nearly impossible to mobilize for a unified struggle against occupation, the separation barrier and ever expanding settlements in the West Bank. For if one strives for a unified struggle, that means criticizing Fatah and Hamas for not being willing or able to reconcile – and it is difficult to get people to demonstrate against their self-appointed representatives when there is an occupying power that deserves their anger more than anyone else. Hence the paralysis in the Palestinian national movement.

But, lo and behold! – this fall was introduced with demonstrations, angry demonstrations, against the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank. Thousands of West Bankers have repeatedly broken the mental barrier it is to direct protest against fellow Palestinians instead of the Israeli occupier, and the protracted wave of strikes and protests deserves more attention than it has got in the international media.

The reason for the West Bankers’ anger is that prices are too high, wages too low and living conditions in general too harsh. Taxi and minibus drivers have blocked roads and students and unemployed youth have marched in the streets, demanding lower prices and job opportunities.

Why bother? There are hundreds of demonstrations in the West Bank each year. What is so special about these ones? Well, one interesting fact is that the demonstrations have gathered many more people than the usual anti-wall/anti-settlement/anti-normalization events, and that they have spread quickly; there have been demonstrations from Nablus in the north to Hebron in the south. In other words, the protests have shown that the issue of living costs has potential to mobilize massively. This is surely something Palestinian grassroots activists will keep in mind when they plan future protests.

Second, the demonstrations are explicitly critical to the Palestinian National Authority. This is significant because one of the main obstacles to mass mobilization previously has been people’s unwillingness to criticize their own government, given the greater evil of the Israeli occupation.

What makes this second point so important is that just such popular outbursts of anger are probably the most efficient way of getting internal Palestinian politics out of its current deadlock. After all, it was the March 15 movement that made both Fatah and Hamas feel sufficiently pressured to sit down for reconciliation talks (although they have come to nothing thus far). And as everybody knows, without some more constructive dynamics on the internal Palestinian political scene, prospects for a more assertive liberation struggle are rather dim.

Of course, protests such as these need not necessarily lead to soul-searching and new initiatives on the part of Fatah and the Palestinian National Authority. They might well go further down the path of authoritarianism in order to quell protests and protect their vested interests. But in any case, popular protest like the ones we have seen this fall are interesting harbingers of a population growing increasingly restless under the multiple strains of occupation, internal repression and deteriorating living conditions.