Impatient Palestinians eye Arab world in flux

AP News
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Posted: Mar 26, 2011 4:36 PM
Impatient Palestinians eye Arab world in flux

Could the Arab Spring pass over the Palestinians?

With the peace process going nowhere, the threat of new violence increasing and the Palestinians badly divided, people in the West Bank and Gaza are surveying the rapid changes in the rest of the Arab world _ and growing impatient with stagnation at home.

In Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, officials are quietly working on a plan: Going for statehood without agreement with Israel, bypassing the moribund peace process. First mooted last fall, the notion precedes the Arab revolts but has been lent even greater urgency by them.

In Gaza, ruled by the rival Hamas movement, a current is emerging from the ground up: people are beginning to question four years of life under an Islamic militant group that has opposed peace efforts, ruled with an iron fist and tried to enforce a strict religious lifestyle. Although revolt seems unlikely for now, the crowded coastal strip has experienced a series of demonstrations with youths calling for national reconciliation between the two Palestinian territories.

Despite the stirrings, Palestinians in both areas have not risen up in great numbers as in Egypt, or caused riots that turned deadly as in Syria.

But that could change, especially if the statehood hopes fizzle _ or if the Arab revolts come closer to home, perhaps engulfing the neighboring kingdom of Jordan, whose majority is Palestinian and from where revolutionary sentiment could easily spread to the West Bank.

"I believe that change is coming to our part of the world. We need as Palestinians to catch the moment," said Saed Issac, a 22-year-old law student in Gaza. "It's time for national unity first, to elect new leaders, and to work hard to achieve our task to end the occupation."

Issac was referring to Israel's control over Palestinians' lives _ which Palestinians feel applies not only to the West Bank, where power is shared in a complex arrangement dating back to the 1990 autonomy accords, but also in besieged Gaza, even though Israeli settlers and soldiers pulled out five years ago.

In Israel, many eye the changes in the Arab world warily, fearing freedom could unleash more hostility _ and that is doubly true when it comes to the Palestinians.

"Sooner or later, the Arab revolt will reach (the Palestinians)," wrote columnist Ari Shavit in the Haaretz newspaper. He said the Palestinians were influenced by "the trauma of Hamas' rise in the Gaza Strip, relative prosperity in the West Bank" and the expectation of statehood materializing within months. If that expectation is disappointed "a political tsunami" will result, he predicted.

Hamas won a 2006 vote, beating Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party and emerging with a majority in parliament. Feeling it was denied its rightful share of power, the group's militants seized Gaza by force a year later, leaving Palestinians divided between rival governments.

A paradoxical challenge results: Hamas won elections but rules Gaza in authoritarian fashion, while Fatah, despite canceling recent elections, has made strides in convincing the world community that in the West Bank it is genuinely laying the foundations of a functioning independent state.

The picture that emerges from interviews with top Palestinian Authority officials, most off the record, marks a break from past policies that ranged from negotiations to violence and terror attacks. It combines what seems like genuine commitment to nonviolence with utter impatience with more talks with Israel.

September _ which President Barack Obama had earlier set as a target for a negotiated peace deal _ is emerging as the focus here as well.

"Negotiations have hit a dead end, and the U.S. administration is not willing to pressure Israel. Therefore, we have no other option except taking our case to the international community," said Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Ishtayeh.

Abbas' prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has long cited September 2011 as the moment his people will be ready for independence, after a two-year program of rehabilitating courts, police and other institutions. It also coincides with the annual meeting of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly.

Ishtayeh said Abbas would seize that moment to ask in his address to world leaders for recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and east Jerusalem as well as Gaza _ lands that were captured in the 1967 Middle East war

Success in the assembly seems far more likely than in the more powerful U.N. Security Council, whose decisions are legally binding but where the United States, still committed to a negotiated settlement, would probably use its veto power.

The Palestinians say 120 of the 192 countries in the General Assembly have already granted full diplomatic recognition to Palestine, including a recent string of Latin American nations. Many have said the state should be based along the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and the West Bank _ effectively taking the Palestinians' side on the border question, since Israel hopes to keep parts of the West Bank under a future deal.

Israel had previously dismissed the General Assembly as toothless, but that is starting to change.

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post Friday, former Israeli U.N. Ambassador Gabriela Shalev warned that a General Assembly resolution might be meaningful if passed under the auspices of so-called Resolution 377, a little-used device dating back to the Korean War that permits the body to recommend measures ranging from sanctions to the use of force in cases where the Security Council members cannot reach unanimity and peace is imperiled.

"This would seek to impose on us some kind of Palestinian state," Shalev was quoted as saying.

Although a General Assembly declaration might not force immediate change on the ground, the Palestinians see it as a major step that would "give us new political, moral and legal standing against the Israeli occupation," Ishtayeh said.

Inspired by the unrest elsewhere in the region, the Palestinians are also considering backing the diplomatic offensive with peaceful _ and photogenic _ mass marches and sit-ins across the West Bank, confronting Israeli checkpoints and settlements.

A peaceful march of thousands at the gates of a big settlement could put Israel in an awkward situation in which forcibly preventing them from entering could easily backfire.

One senior Palestinian official said the strategy, following the successful uprisings that ousted leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, would be meant to push the U.S. to take action.

A Facebook group called "Let's End the Occupation" has already sprouted up, saying it is preparing demonstrations near the Beit El settlement near Jerusalem later this year.

One risk, Palestinian officials privately say, is that militants could take over the effort, leading to violence and risking a resumption of the uprising that killed some 6,000 Palestinians _ alongside about 1,000 Israelis _ between 2000 and 2005.

If all else fails Palestinians warn they might disband the Palestinian Authority _ a move that would saddle Israel with responsibility for civil and security affairs in the West Bank, huge expenses and a public relations nightmare.

The hopes for a major diplomatic push explain the current effort by Abbas to reconcile with Hamas. He has offered to travel to Gaza and proposed a reconciliation plan that includes elections in both areas, also in September.

As long as peace talks were an option, Abbas could not afford to alienate Israel by embracing its archenemy this way. But the equation changes now that hardly a single Palestinian official can be found who believes in peace talks anymore: World recognition demands a unified front. And because the new strategy does not actually require the Palestinians to offer Israel formal peace, Hamas could be more likely to go along.

"Abbas can't go to the dance alone. He needs Hamas," said Ibrahim Fahmi, a Gaza analyst.

The Iranian-backed militants have responded coolly. They seem, for the moment, to prefer to wait and see what emerges in Cairo; perhaps the new government there will ease the blockade on Gaza from the Egyptian side. That would ease a lot of the pressure on Hamas by improving conditions in the strip, and would make reconciliation less urgent. Continued fighting with Israel _ which has surged in recent days _ would also divert attention away from reconciliation and diplomatic efforts.

But there is a certain foment growing from within. Its scale is difficult to gauge, because fear is still widespread, but recent weeks have seen repeated popular protests, which Hamas has alternately supported and violently dispersed.

"Hamas needs to listen to the young generation's demands," Fahmi said. "The whole world is changing. You can feel it. So can Hamas."

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Perry reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press reporter Ibrahim Barzak contributed to this story from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.