West Bank Streets Quiet as Palestinian Authority Suppresses Protests

Human Rights

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is using brute force and intimidation tactics -- similar to those deployed in Cairo -- to suppress pro-Egyptian and Tunisian protests in the West Bank.

However, despite PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his ruling Fatah party being all too keenly aware of their own tenuous grip on power, it appears Palestinians are not yet ready to rise up like their brethren in the region.

PA Special Police Forces, undercover police and other plain-clothed security personnel have disrupted several attempts by Palestinians in Ramallah to express solidarity with protesters in Egypt and Tunisia. Palestinian television, meanwhile, has largely ignored the unrest in the region.

Undercover security forces in plain clothes and police wielding batons have forcibly dispersed small impromptu gatherings. A number of protesters were arrested and physically dragged away. Meanwhile, a pro-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak rally, alleged to comprise members of the security forces in civilian clothing, went ahead with no police interference.

Abu Mazen’s -- as Abbas is better known -- term ran out in Jan. 2009 and his government’s in Jan. 2010. However, the PA has refused to hold even municipal elections since then. PA security forces spokesman Colonel Adnan Dmeiri said that protests had been banned and warned they "could lead to unrest and instability".

The PA spends approximately one third of its budget on security and has one of the highest ratios of security personnel to civilians in the world -- many accuse the PA of running a police state, but without a state.

"We have issued a statement previously warning that the PA is heading towards the mentality of a police state," Wissam Ahmed of the Palestinian human rights organization Al Haq in Ramallah told IPS.

Despite restrictions, on Saturday approximately 1,000 protesters in Ramallah defied the ban and gathered in the city centre chanting slogans in support of the Egyptian protesters and calling for Mubarak’s ouster.

Political echelons within the PA, aware that this particular demonstration -- which had been planned days in advance by a coalition of Palestinians -- would draw a sizable foreign media presence realized suppression was impossible and decided to play the "free democracy" card allowing it to proceed.

From the beginning the event was swarming with undercover security agents armed with hidden pistols and two-way radios. Everything went fairly smoothly until a small group of Fatah supporters -- alleged to be undercover security men -- began chanting anti-Abbas slogans in what appears to be a coordinated effort to disrupt proceedings. In fact, they subsequently were heard chanted pro-Abbas slogans.

Following verbal confrontations several women in the crowd were assaulted and manhandled by the Fatah supporters. This led to a physical confrontation. Several people were dragged away by security personnel and when their friends tried to follow them to the police station, a plain-clothed security officer fired shots into the air.

When this IPS reporter questioned some of the instigators as to whether they were working for intelligence services, one of the men got verbally aggressive and took my photo. When I tried to take his picture in return one of his friends physically prevented me from doing so while another one tried to trip me up.

IPS spoke to a group of young Birzeit University students who were waiting outside the police station for news of a friend who had been arrested.

"We didn’t want any partisan slogans chanted or on placards. We also asked people not to bring any factional flags. We made it clear from the beginning that we wanted unity amongst Palestinians and solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Egypt and Tunisia," said Omar Abu Ghosh, 20, who was held for several hours by the police "for his own protection".

"But these pro-Abbas supporters always instigate trouble and try to divide people. This is a strategy that Abbas’ men are using similar to what happened in Cairo. When we started to see them bringing out Fatah flags we wanted to leave," Abu Ghosh told IPS.

As we stood talking, groups of young men with military-style crew cuts in cars with governmental registration plates arrived at the police station. Later a group of young men left the station with placards and headed for the demonstration.

This tactic of using security force members, and perhaps also genuine Fatah supporters, to create disruptions has been occurring with increased frequency during the last month or so following the tumultuous events in Egypt and Tunisia and the release of the Palestine Papers which accuse the PA of colluding with Israel.

Nevertheless, despite Abbas’ close ties with Mubarak and his unpopularity due to lack of democracy, the chances of a major uprising in the Palestinian territories against authoritarian rule both in Gaza and the West Bank appears unlikely at present.

Political disunity, the Israeli occupation, disillusionment and exhaustion all factor as reasons why the Palestinian streets are not yet ripe for a revolution along Egyptian lines.

"We’ve seen decades of political upheaval and gone through two uprisings, none of which brought us any closer to freedom, but in fact left us weaker and poorer than before," Aziz Zabanah, a shop-keeper who witnessed both uprisings told IPS.

"People are worried about surviving economically and feeding their children and they have little faith in the respective leaderships," coffee shop manager Hossam Al Gharbi told IPS.

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