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Latest Target For Palestinians' Protest? Their Leader

Jul 26, 2012
Originally published on July 29, 2012 9:20 am

The Kalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank is best known as a flashpoint between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces. Images of masked youths throwing rocks by the painted concrete wall here are ubiquitous.

Protesters gathered at Kalandia again last week, but their focus wasn't Israeli soldiers: It was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"I think there will be an intifada, or uprising, not against the Israelis, but against Abbas and all the corrupt people around him," says one protester, who won't give his name for fear of reprisals.

He says he's a staunch supporter of the Fatah movement, which dominates the Palestinian Authority, but he no longer supports Abbas, its leader. And he's not alone, as opposition to the 77-year-old leader grows among disillusioned and frustrated Palestinians.

Crackdown On Critics?

This protester says he came out to demonstrate because of a recent series of arrests in the West Bank by the Palestinian Authority. The sweep netted 150 people who were, according to officials, rogue militants or guilty of corruption.

The protester disputes the account, saying most of the people arrested in his neighborhood were party loyalists who are simply no longer happy with Abbas.

"I think they are trying to silence people because Abbas and his regime have not been able to secure a Palestinian state, they have not been able to help the economy," he says. "And his security agencies are dealing with the people with a police-state mentality."

That mentality, protesters say, was on full display at another demonstration a few weeks ago.

Freelance journalist Mohammed Jaradat says people had gathered to demonstrate against a possible Abbas meeting with the then-Israeli deputy prime minister. Despite showing his press card, Jaradat says, he was beaten at the event and then again at the police station.

"For one hour, maybe 45 minutes or 50 minutes, they were beating me," the reporter says.

Jaradat says the leadership has blamed the Israeli occupation for all the ills in Palestinian society. But increasingly, the young people, after the Arab Spring, are calling the Palestinian Authority to account.

"And they are worried about this," he says. "They want to keep in power, they want to keep control of everything, and they don't want any opposition for them."

Worsening Economic Hardships

Abbas has been Palestinian president since Yassir Arafat's death in 2005. A longtime supporter of nonviolence and a two-state solution, Abbas was initially seen as a person Israel and the West could do business with in terms of negotiating an end to the endless conflict in the Middle East.

But the peace process is paralyzed with little prospect of becoming ambulatory any time soon. And so Palestinians, like Israelis, have turned away from engagement with the other side and are looking inward.

What they are seeing isn't good, analysts say.

Bashir Rayes, an economist who teaches at the West Bank's Birzeit University, notes that unemployment is about 24 or 25 percent.

"The picture gets gloomier for a Palestinian family of mother, father and three children," Rayes says. "The poverty line is 2,240 shekels [$550]. Talk to taxi drivers, talk to ordinary people outside of Ramallah, they can barely make 2,000."

Of course, the Israeli occupation has stymied the West Bank's economy. But the Palestinian Authority under Abbas, Rayes says, hasn't done what is needed.

Right now, the Palestinian Authority needs $200 million a month to pay the salaries of the workers on its bloated payroll. Half of that comes from revenues transferred by the Israelis. The rest comes from international donors, but donor commitments have dried up.

Rayes says the Palestinian Authority has no economic plan. It commits to government jobs it can't afford while not thinking of ways to stimulate growth.

"The occupation is to blame generally, but we as Palestinians could have done [a much better] job in managing the internal affairs. Not having a plan has nothing to do with the Israelis," Rayes says.

Lack Of Confidence In Leadership

Husam Zomlot is an adviser to the Palestinian Authority. He says Abbas and his government have transformed the situation for the better.

"This is a man who has been able in the last seven years to do a miracle, to turn a corner, to impose law and order, to bring us back into the positive energy, to build institutions," Zomlot says.

But Rayes says people are not convinced anymore that the current leadership can provide a better future.

"People do not have hope anymore," he says. "There is nothing to look forward to. And this is devastating. This is very serious [in] the long run."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is facing tough times. He's long been a proponent of a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but he's facing increasing opposition from Palestinians.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro traveled to the West Bank and filed this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The Kalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah is best known as a flash point between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces. The images of masked kids throwing rocks by the painted concrete wall here are ubiquitous. Again, last week, protesters gathered at Kalandia, but their focus wasn't Israeli soldiers. It was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) I think there will be an intifada or uprising, not against the Israelis but against Abbas and all the corrupt people around him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is one of the protesters. He won't give his name for fear of reprisals. He says he's a staunch supporter of the Fatah movement, which dominates the Palestinian Authority, but he no longer supports its leader, Mahmoud Abbas. He says he came out to protest because of a recent series of arrests in the West Bank by the Palestinian Authority. The sweep netted 150 people. Officials said they were rouge militants or guilty of corruption.

The protester disputes the account, saying most of the people arrested in his neighborhood were party loyalists who are simply no longer happy with Abbas.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) I think they are trying to silence people because Abbas and his regime have not been able to secure a Palestinian state, they have not been able to help the economy. And his security agencies are dealing with the people with a police state mentality.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That mentality, say protesters, was on full display at another demonstration a few weeks ago.

MOHAMMED JARADAT: For one hour, maybe 45 minutes or 50 minutes, they were beating me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Mohammed Jaradat, a freelance journalist. He says people had gathered to demonstrate against a possible Abbas meeting with the then-Israeli deputy prime minister. Despite showing his press card, he says he was beaten at the event and then again at the police station.

Jaradat says the leadership here has blamed the Israeli occupation for all the ills in Palestinian society. But increasingly, the young people, after the Arab Spring, are calling the Palestinian Authority to account.

JARADAT: And they are worried about this. They want to keep in power. They want to keep control of everything, and they don't want any opposition for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mahmoud Abbas has been Palestinian president since Yasser Arafat's death in 2005. A longtime supporter of non-violence and a two-state solution, Abbas was initially seen as a person Israel and the West could do business with in terms of negotiating an end to the endless Middle East conflict. But the peace process is paralyzed with little prospect of becoming ambulatory any time soon. And so, Palestinians, like Israelis, have turned away from engagement with the other side and are looking inward. And what they're seeing isn't good, say analysts.

Bashir Rayes is an economist who teaches at the West Bank's Birzeit University.

BASHIR RAYES: Unemployment now, we're talking about 20-plus, around 24, 25 percent. The picture gets gloomier for a Palestinian family of a mother, father and three children. The poverty line is 2,440 shekels. Talk to taxi drivers, talk to ordinary people outside of Ramallah. They can barely make 2,000.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course, the Israeli occupation has stymied the West Bank's economy says Rayes. But the Palestinian Authority under Abbas, he says, hasn't done what's needed. Right now, the PA needs $200 million a month to pay the salaries of the workers on its bloated payroll. Half of that comes from revenues transferred by the Israelis. The rest comes from international donors. Donor commitments, though, have dried up.

Rayes says the PA has no economic plan. It commits to government jobs it can't afford while not thinking of ways to stimulate growth.

RAYES: The occupation is to blame generally, but we, as Palestinians, could have done a way - a much, much, much better - way much better job in managing the internal affairs. Not having a plan has nothing to do with the Israelis.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Husamfyasser Zomlot is an adviser to the Palestinian Authority. He insists Abbas and his government have transformed the situation for the better.

HUSAM ZOMLOT: This is a man who has been able in the last seven years to do a miracle, to turn a corner, to impose law and order, to bring us back into the positive energy, to build institutions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But economist Bashir Rayes says people are not convinced anymore that the current leadership can provide a better future.

RAYES: People do not have hope anymore. There is nothing to look forward to. And this is devastating. This is very serious at the long run.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.