BANI NAIM, Occupied West Bank – The village of Bani Naim, near Hebron in the southern West Bank, was under curfew and sealed off by Israeli soldiers stationed in troop carriers and jeeps, as peace talks continued in Washington.
The only way IPS was able to enter was by taking a circuitous route over a dirt track through another village. Upon our entry, nervous Israeli soldiers pointed their guns and demanded identification.
The previous night had been fitful. During the early hours of the morning, dozens of Palestinian Authority (PA) jeeps, security vans, and police cars could be seen and heard racing up and down a main road leading to the PA’s main interrogation center in al-Bireh, bordering Ramallah, where political opponents are interrogated and tortured.
A shooting attack earlier by Hamas gunmen killed four Israeli settlers near the illegal Kiryat Arba settlement nearby. In a separate attack a day later, two other settlers were injured in a drive-by shooting near Ramallah in the central West Bank. Hamas claimed responsibility for this too.
Following the attacks, the PA launched one of its largest-ever arrest campaigns. Over 800 alleged Hamas sympathizers were locked up.
The attacks came soon after peace talks between PA and Israeli officials began in Washington. The timing of the attacks appears to have been a deliberate effort to derail the talks and embarrass a weak and unpopular PA.
The PA reacted with unbridled fury and swore to catch the perpetrators. PA security services spokesman Adnan Dmeiri said PA forces took the threat of a return to military operations seriously, and security services had “decided never to be lenient with those who harm Palestinian security or PA commitments” – code for torture and abuse.
The PA is constantly being criticized for abusing political detainees, with a number of Hamas operatives having died during interrogation. This practice was recently eased following criticism by PA Foreign Minister Salaam Fayyad. However, following the attacks, Fayyad too warned of “no leniency.”
The very survival of the PA is at stake, and it’s not only Hamas that is a threat to its existence. The PA-affiliated Fatah was the only faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to approve of the talks in Washington.
All the other PLO factions, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), held protest meetings and demonstrations against the talks. One of the meetings was disrupted by plainclothes PA security men who proceeded to attack participants and journalists covering the event.
“These peace talks are nothing but a sham. [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is not interested in a real and sustainable peace. He is just faking the peace process while refusing to discuss critical issues such as East Jerusalem, the borders of a future Palestinian state, and has refused to cease settlement building,” PFLP spokesman Abed Alraheem Mallouh told IPS.
More militant Palestinian groups, including Islamic Jihad and Hamas, have warned that the armed struggle is on again and have sworn to carry out more attacks despite the wave of arrests. Israeli security officials have also warned of pending attacks.
Fatah is sharply divided. Many activists are against the talks, and allegedly only a minority was in favor of the PA delegation traveling to Washington. A protest held in Ramallah was attended by many rank and file Fatah activists, and fistfights nearly broke out between pro-talks and anti-talks members at another meeting.
The PA has its back to the wall and seems desperate to prove its political and security credentials to Israel and the U.S.
There seems to be a common consensus among the foreign, Israeli, and Palestinian media, as well as analysts from both sides of the conflict, that there is little hope of a successful outcome from the next year of meetings between Israelis and Palestinians.
Currently it appears that Netanyahu will not agree to basic Palestinian rights with regard to settlements, refugees, East Jerusalem, or future borders. Several outcomes are predicted.
Without any progress, the PA could announce its dissolution. Palestinians might call for a one-state solution where Palestinians and Israelis have equal rights, as the settlement expansion in the West Bank has made a contiguous Palestinian state virtually impossible. However, Israel would not accept this, as the demographics involved would mean an end to Israel as a Jewish state.
Another possibility is that the PA will maintain its tenuous grip on power as Palestinians grow ever more disillusioned. Further armed attacks against Israeli settlers could take place, which would weaken the Palestinian cause.
These attacks would lead to massive retaliation by Israel along the lines of the last military assault on Gaza. World opprobrium would follow and strengthen the growing Boycott, Disinvestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
The only glimmer of hope is if Fayyad’s state-building initiative gains momentum, Palestinians unilaterally declare statehood in a year’s time, and the fledgling state is recognized by the international community.
But a stable security situation on the ground would be essential for this scenario to succeed. As indicators by both Israeli and Palestinian security sources point to renewed attacks, an even more totalitarian crackdown on political dissent in the West Bank seems probable and with it the erosion of the last vestiges of the PA’s support base.
(Inter Press Service)