RAMALLAH, WEST BANK - While Palestinians in Gaza buried those killed in Israeli air strikes, Palestinians in the West Bank were holding demonstrations in support of Gaza residents. Hundreds took to the streets in Ramallah - home to the Palestinian Authority - many hoisting Hamas flags, a rare sight in the city.
Protests were also held outside Israeli military installations, including Ofer prison and the Bet Eil base near Ramallah.
Across the West Bank, protesters demanded an end to Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in the Gaza Strip, To date, 40 Palestinians and three Israelis have died in the renewed conflict, which is likely to claim even more lives. In Ramallah, activists at a small protest in the city’s central Manara Square called on Israel to end the operation in Gaza, but also appealed to their own West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas to do more to help their fellow Palestinians in the isolated strip.
Against the chants that filled the square, Ali Qaraqe expressed disappointment with his leaders – referring to Abbas as Abu Mazen, as he is called by many here.
“Abu Mazen, the government, the authority - everyone who controls the West Bank - hasn’t done anything. It’s not enough just to say you want to send something to Gaza,” said Qaraqe echoing the sentiment of many Palestinians.
Following a visit to Gaza by the Egyptian prime minister, Qaraqe suggested that Abbas also visit the besieged strip.
“Abu Mazen should go to Gaza now. He has to do that. It means a lot, and everyone knows that. He is not better than the people in Gaza; he is one of us,” said Qaraqe. “So he should go to Gaza now. Not wait for the bombing to stop there.”
The Palestinian president hasn’t been to Gaza since bloody clashes forced his Western-backed Fatah movement to abandon the strip five years ago. Since then, the division between the Fatah movement, which rules the West Bank, and Hamas, which rules Gaza, has left Palestinians without a unified voice, and some say also more vulnerable vis-a-vis Israel.
Observers say that it is the Palestinian’s inability to achieve reconciliation amongst themselves coupled with the resulting lack of cooperation with Israel that has hurt the popularity of Abbas and his Palestinian Authority. There are signs that the conflict in the Gaza Strip might increase the Palestinians’ displeasure with Abbas. Even despite his push for limited statehood at the United Nations, a September poll showed less than half of Palestinians satisfied with his performance as president. The results also revealed Palestinians would choose imprisoned leader Marwan Barghouti over Abbas in an election.
Dr. Samir Awad, a professor of Political Science at Birzeit University near Ramallah, says the popularity of the current leadership is very low and most West Bank residents are not happy with how Abbas is handling this latest crisis.
“Though he condemned the attacks strongly, he did not take any steps to ensure the people of Gaza and us are the same people,” said Awad. “The Palestinian Authority did not do anything to stop security coordination with Israel or even threaten the future of peace talks during these attacks on Gaza.”
Security cooperation with Israel has been a grievance of many Palestinian activists. The Palestinian Authority’s security forces help control protests in the West Bank and human rights organizations report severe abuses of Palestinians detained by these forces.
Palestinian police stood by the rally in Manara Square as protesters shouted for unity between the West Bank and Gaza - chanting that they are one people - despite the geographical and political divisions.
So far, said Ilia Ghorbia, another protestor who participated in the Manara Square rally, the Palestinian authority has offered only lip service.
“They just speak, speak, speak,” said Ghorbia. “But [the Palestinian Authority] doesn’t do anything real to help people in Gaza. We are standing up for our brothers and sisters in Gaza. We can’t go there; so, at least we can stand up here and say that we are supporting them, that we are with them. They are part of our Palestine. This is what we can do for them,” said Ghorbia.
But the division between the West Bank and Gaza appears to be growing. The divergent economic, social and political conditions are now compounded with the realities of a conflict with increasing casualties.
Yet some see a silver lining. Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, says the events in Gaza could change the existing dynamics and provide an opportunity not only for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas but also for a strengthening of their relationship with Egypt’s new government.
“President Abbas has a golden opportunity to share the responsibility,” says Abdul Hadi. “Abbas has an opportunity with the Hamas leadership and the Egyptian leadership. The leaders are in a unique position to work together to face these challenges.”
Nonetheless, few in Ramallah seem optimistic.
“We have a very difficult situation now,” said one young Palestinian at the protest in Manara Square who asked that his name not be used. To build a better future, he said,“in the West Bank we are looking to the U.N., and in Gaza they are looking to rockets.”