No viable solution is expected to be found for the protests that swept the West Bank (WB) in September 2012, against the backdrop of rising prices and the delayed payment of salaries, except as part of a comprehensive national solution. It seems that the future of these protests is linked, in one way or another, to the future course of the Arab Spring in general, and in Egypt and Syria in particular.
The severity of these protests has decreased sharply, and it is unlikely that they will escalate further and continue over the near term. Nevertheless, the protests have shown that the situation in the WB remains fragile and subject to quick collapse, at any given moment.
A wave of protests swept the WB, throughout all sectors, disrupting public life. This forced the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the reference point for the Palestinian Authority (PA) that is responsible for the latter’s economic policies and general administration, to hint at the possibility of sacking the prime minister and reshuffle the cabinet, and reconsider all Oslo Accords including Paris Protocol, the economic appendix to the Accords,. This means that the peace process would return to square one. All this makes it increasingly important to analyze these protests and their impact on the PA, on the relations with the occupation, and on intra-Palestinian relations.
One cannot overestimate the role played by the deteriorating economic conditions in precipitating the protests. Indeed, the deficit in the PA’s budget has deepened, with repeated delays in salary payments, which were often disbursed in two batches. Unemployment and poverty also increased dramatically, in conjunction with deterioration in health and education services, a decline in local and foreign investment, and the growth of the PA’s debt service payments to an alarming degree. Yet the economic factor alone is not sufficient to explain what has happened, and what could indeed still happen.
Palestinians continue to live under occupation, which has unleashed racist policies and cynical plans for settlement expansion, particularly in Jerusalem, encouraging the settlers to maintain and escalate their assaults in an unprecedented manner.
Palestinians also suffer as a result of a complete lack of any political horizon, and the failure of all efforts to bring about national reconciliation, and the efforts to revive the so-called peace process and resume the negotiations. At the same time, the Israeli government continues to pursue a carrot and stick policy with the PA, with a view to restructure it and force it to accept the status-quo and comply with Israeli conditions and dictates, even if this leads to the toppling or replacement of the PA chief.
The campaign by the Israeli government, especially by Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, against the Palestinian leadership and specifically President Mahmud ‘Abbas, can be understood within this context.
On the other hand, Hamas has so far failed to present a practical alternative that is acceptable to Fatah, which would lead the Palestinians out of the spiral of the Oslo Accords and their commitments. Instead, Hamas was forced to coexist with the facts on the ground and suspended its resistance, giving priority to maintaining and strengthening its administration of the Gaza Strip (GS).
It is only in this context that we can understand what happened. The Palestinians live under a growing sense of anxiety and uncertainty without a comprehensive strategic alternative. The Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian factions, without exception, all talk of alternatives without matching this with any measures to build them on the ground, something that keeps them all on the same playfield imposed by the Oslo Accords.
Indeed, the PA’s future is in doubt, as it is prone to collapse at any moment. The relationship among its senior leaders (e.g. the president and Fatah on one side, and the prime minister on the other) is very tense.
Furthermore, the expected results of the Arab Spring in the near term, especially in light of the continuing schism (between Fatah and Hamas), are yet to be seen. Instead, it seems that the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world have only managed to somehow marginalize the Palestinian issue.
Meanwhile, Hamas’s government in GS continues to be under siege, and faces the prospect of Israeli aggression, should it refuse to abandon resistance and comply with the conditions of the Middle East Peace Quartet.
Returning to the protests, we must make the distinction between how they started, and where they ultimately ended. The protests started by raising slogans against high costs of living, and demanded amendments to the 1994 Paris Protocol and the resignation of Salam Fayyad’s cabinet.
These protests were peaceful and disciplined in the beginning, but evolved in several places to calls for the abolition of the Oslo Accords and the Paris Protocol altogether, as well as the resignation of both the head of the PA and his prime minister. They also led to assaults on private and public properties and institutions, and confrontations between the police and protesters, especially in Hebron and Nablus – with up to 200 injured on both sides.
The government hesitated at first to respond to the demands of the demonstrators, but in the end, it caved in under pressure from Fatah and complied with some demands.
For example, the government reversed its move to raise fuel prices, with the exception of gasoline; reduced the Value Added Tax (VAT) to 15 %; announced cuts to government expenditure; and instated price controls while stepping up its monitoring of prices, imposing large fines on manipulators. In addition, salaries of more than 4,500 shekels (about $1,172) were cut by 10 %, to be reimbursed later.
These measures helped somehow in alleviating the crisis, but they did not address them in essence, and do not guarantee that things will not get worse in the future.
Another thing that helped the PA control the situation was that the Israeli government rushed to transfer 250 million shekels (about $64 million) from the customs revenue collected by Israel ahead of schedule, and decided to pursue policies to increase the employment of Palestinians in Israel. Furthermore, Israel embarked on a study to improve the process of collecting revenues, without showing willingness to amend the Paris Protocol, even though the original text