On the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the Palestinian Authority (PA) headed by Mahmoud Abbas may not qualify as a sovereign government. But it is moderate and U.S.-backed, and has been behaving of late like one of the region's brittle and freshly vulnerable autocratic regimes.
Three times in the past two weeks, PA security forces have dispersed young Palestinians gathering to demonstrate solidarity with the crowds in Cairo and Tunis. The last crackdown came Wednesday night, when a small group organized through Facebook assembled near the lion sculptures of Ramallah's central square, only to be shoved back with police batons. The next day a police spokesman warned that "unlicensed gatherings" could bring chaos.
"The Palestinian leadership is very nervous and is worried about what will happen to them if the Palestinian people decide they are sick and tired of the situation," says Rana, 28, who was among the many residents not at the demonstration but is troubled by the authorities' reaction to it.
Like their fellow Arabs, Palestinians are transfixed by television coverage of events in Egypt, looking up from the screen at regular intervals to assess parallels with the situation around them. What many see on the West Bank is a government that grew out of a popular liberation movement and has settled into a political hierarchy notorious for corruption and, lately, quashing dissent. "When the Palestinian National Authority was established we thought that it would be different from the Arab states which are ruled by dictators," says Najwa, 24, of Birzeit. "The PNA is no different, and I hope things will change here like in Tunisia, hopefully Egypt, Yemen and Jordan." She adds, "I hope we free ourselves as well as our land."
In some ways, the West Bank looks ripe for its own people's revolution. Palestinians are frequently called the best-educated Arab population in the world, especially if that assessment includes the diaspora living in Europe and elsewhere. And the ruling Fatah party is best known for patronage. Its security apparatus intimidates civil society as well as local operatives of Hamas, the militant Islamist group that pushed Fatah out of the Gaza Strip (Hamas allowed a demonstration against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Friday, after quashing a gathering a few days earlier).
Nor does it help that Egypt erupted just after the satellite news channel al-Jazeera released confidential papers of Palestinian peace negotiations. The exposé, clearly calculated to embarrass Abbas, succeeded on that score.
But much else argues against rebellion. With no other political alternative yet organized, a flattened Fatah might be quickly replaced by Hamas, which has many loyalists in the West Bank. What's more, the West Bank is currently enjoying its first taste of real governance, as technocrat Prime Minister Salam Fayyad beavers away at building the institutions Cabinet departments, schools, waterworks that he calls the foundations for statehood.
Finally, there's the small matter of the occupation. Israeli troops have controlled the West Bank since 1967, when an Arab effort to eject the Jewish state ended up with the loss of even more Arab territory and opened the way to some 400,000 Jewish settlers on what the world at large recognizes as Palestinian land.
"A wave of demonstrations is not going to take place here because of the complexity of the situation," says Said Zeedani, a senior official at al-Quds University, near Jerusalem. "But I think the Palestinian Authority, due to the events in Tunisia and Egypt and their likely extension, is going to be negatively affected, in terms of being to some extent discredited because of its alliance with the Israeli regime, and because it belongs to the same camp as these so-called moderate regimes."
To wit: Shawan Jabarin, general director of the Ramallah human-rights organization al-Haq, was both appalled and amused that the most established West Bank news outlets, which is to say those closest to the PA, tried for a time to ignore the revolution in Egypt a splendid example of the obeisance characteristic of the old Middle East. "The first four, five days, nothing," says Jabarin, who calculates that the authorities were trying to buy time, wary of repeating Yasser Arafat's hasty mistake of the first Gulf War. In 1990, after Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman quickly sided with the aggressor and ended up all but alone in the Arab world. Thousands of Palestinian guest workers were ejected from Gulf states allied with Washington against Iraq. "The Palestinian authorities are just now analyzing what's going on in Egypt and Tunisia and how they can mitigate the situation here," Jabarin says.
One response came midweek, when the PA announced that municipal elections, canceled last summer, would go ahead in July. A year late, but a gesture not unlike concessions to democracy being made under pressure the same week by the rulers of Egypt, Jordan and Yemen. "Autocratic, unelected regimes tend to identify with one another, it seems," the Maan News Agency quoted activist Omar Barghouti as saying after the pro-Tunisia demonstration was broken up. "The glaring difference here, in the occupied Palestinian territory, is that the PA is trying to rule by decree while we are still under foreign occupation."
Saturday afternoon brought another response: some 2,000 people were allowed to gather in downtown Ramallah to support the Egyptian protesters. The crowd was not only larger but more Establishment than the previous three demonstrations, this time including a few Palestinian political leaders as well as titans of business and civil society. At one point, a handful of young men started chanting against Abbas, the PA President. Plainclothes security bundled them off in short order, witnesses said, using clubs and government authority.
With reporting by Rami Nazzal / Ramallah