As Trump Toured the Holy Land, Palestine Went On Strike

It’s not only the U.S. president and the Israelis that prison hunger strikers want to impress with West Bank protests, it’s the discredited official Palestinian leadership.

Mahmoud Abbas


QALANDIA, West Bank – The rocks started flying at Israeli checkpoints across the occupied West Bank soon after President Donald Trump touched down at Israel’s David Ben Gurion Airport on Monday. Shops, restaurants and cafés were shuttered, schools were closed, and government offices were empty as Palestinians responded to a call from over 1,200 hunger-striking prisoners in Israeli jails to greet the President with a general strike.

Although the leaders of both Saudi Arabia and Israel lavished Trump with pomp and circumstance, Palestinians turned their back on the president as he toured Israel and crosssed the Great Wall into Bethlehem, defying even their own leadership.

Business ground to a halt in Ramallah, the administrative center of the Palestinian Authority and seat of governance for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Although Abbas had traveled alongside Trump all the way from the Islamic summit in Riyadh to Ben Gurion airport, Palestinians were unimpressed. They responded by turning their communities into ghost towns. On the eerily calm streets of Ramallah, only the pharmacies stayed open while young men, teenagers, and boys made their way out of town to the Qalandia checkpoint to clash with the soldiers that symbolize 50 years occupation to them. One of them died there, shot by an Israeli soldier after allegedly trying to stab him.

As Trump arrived in Bethlehem Tuesday and called for peace and a new round of talks, the families of Palestinians in the jails of America’s most actively armed and supported ally gathered in Nativity Square. The community’s mounting frustration with Abbas’s leadership was clear, and when he delivered his welcoming address in Bethlehem, the P.A. president attempted to stave off further alienation by voicing the prisoners’ demands on their 37th day of the hunger strike.

Abbas must have known, as proved to be the case, that Trump would not even mention the word, and perhaps not understand the significance of, occupation. So he tried to set him straight.

“The problem is between us and occupation,” Abbas told Trump at a joint press conference. “In the vicinity of the Church of the Nativity and everywhere, families and mothers are denied the right to visit their children,” he continued, addressing an issue that personally touches a great many Palestinian families. As of last year, some 7,000 Palestinians were detained by Israel, according to the human rights group B’Tselem.

The Abbas statement was a strong public response to calls by the Trump administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop P.A. financial support to the families of prisoners. Netanyahu and the Trump administration take the position that providing aid to the families of those jailed for acts ranging from political organizing and demonstrating to killing Israeli civilians and soldiers to be “supporting terrorism.”  

Mobilizing the kind of broad grassroots protest that greeted the Trump visit is a rare thing in the occupied territories these days. The hunger strikers, including Fatah leader and Abbas rival Marwan Baraghouti, are exposing the growing disconnect between the P.A. and the people.  While the strikers’ specific focus is on improving detention conditions for those jailed, most of whom were sentenced by Israeli military courts, they also are seen as providing leadership at a time when the old guard looks like a spent force, and a corrupt one at that.

“The Palestinian street is telling the [PA] leadership that this is the kind of political leadership we want,” says Sahar Francis, the director of the Palestinian prisoners rights group Addameer. Sitting in her Ramallah office as honking cars with young people gather outside to go to the checkpoint clashes, Francis says that the prisoners’ unity, apparently transcending factions, and their focus on confronting Israeli repression has presented Palestinians with a sharp contrast to the current leaders of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and also their rivals in Hamas, which rules Gaza.

“People have more trust in the way the prisoners are able to fight—with unity and strategy,” she says.

While the strikes shut down the West Bank, the Hamas government in Gaza mostly functioned. The Islamic nationalist movement, which recently issued a declaration accepting a state along the 1967 borders, instead called for active protests against Trump, who called the organization a terrorist group during his visit to Saudi Arabia.

For Francis, the strike in the face of Trump’s visit is just as much a message to the Arab world as it is Israel and Palestinian leaders, the point being that peace can’t be reached with Israel without rights for Palestinians.

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Unwittingly, Trump’s visit actually gave the protests a boost. The prisoner protest and the political urgency to support the hunger strike had waned in comparison to past strikes, despite being the largest such action in Palestinian history. But the arrival of an American president whose ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and whose chief advisor, son-in-law Jared Kushner, have actively supported expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank—that injected new energy into the protests.

“Trump isn’t a person really looking for peace in our area,” says 61-year-old Mahmoud Ziadah, sitting in a tent for the families of prisoners in the center of Ramallah, holding a picture of his son Majd. A leader of the Palestinian Independent Trade Union federation who spent spent six years in prisoner in the 1970s and '80s for organizing strikes and for affiliation with a banned, left-wing nationalist party, Ziadah is typical of Palestinians connection to those in Israeli jails.

He said he was both inspired as an activist and terrified as a father when his son told him in April that he was going on hunger strike. He also recalls bitterly how this ordeal began, one night in 2002 when the Israeli army took his son from him.

In a night-time raid on Ramallah’s old city, soldiers rounded up all the men on the street, including him and his son, and carted them away to a prison in a settlement. It was the last time he saw his son until he appeared in military court room on charges of opening fire on Israeli soldiers and a settlement.

Refusing to recognize the military court’s right to try him, Majd Ziadah, in his late teens at the time, put up no defense and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. An appeals court recently reduced the sentence to 20 years.

His father says that Majd did in fact join Fatah’s armed wing at the height of the second intifada in the early 2000s, reacting to Israeli soldiers’ killing a friend of his in clashes. It is a common story shared by many Palestinians who had children coming of age at the turn of this century. Now Mahmoud Ziadah sees his son as someone inspiring people through his defiance and helping lead the struggle in a way officials have failed to do.

Ziadah sees no point in embracing the Trump administration, he says. And the problem is not just the president’s uncritical support of Israel and his many offensive comments about Muslims. Rather, Ziadah sees the U.S. as still playing the role it has played for decades, one that has allowed Israel’s occupation to expand behind a smokescreen of “talks.”  

“He is with the Israelis, it’s clear,” says Ziadah. “Maybe there is some difference in personality, but it is still the same system.”