The Jerusalem Blowback in Palestine: Not What You’d Think
Since Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, reaction on the Palestinian street has not reached fever pitch. One reason: little or no faith in the Palestinian leadership.
JERUSALEM—It’s been almost 10 days since U.S. President Donald Trump announced his government would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, prompting expressions of shock from governments around the world, and massive protests in some Muslim countries.
But here in the Holy Land, the reaction on the ground has been comparatively subdued. Checkpoint clashes have raged around the Israeli occupied Palestinian territories, but while anger runs deep, Palestinians are also stunned, and reenacting the usual tactics of discontent.
The strikes, protests, tire fires, young people hurling rocks at Israeli checkpoints, teargas-choked air and the whistle of Israeli rubber-coated bullets followed by the cries of pain by young men taken away in ambulances—these are long-familiar scenes, recurring frequently over the last 30 years, ever since the first Intifada.
And for people who have become used to the U.S. underwriting Israel’s occupation, Trump’s statements told them that the last 17 years of U.S. sponsored talks and Palestinian concessions amid expanding Israeli control have been for nothing.
The Palestinians’ leaders have been equally shocked, and while Hamas has called from Gaza for a renewed intifada or uprising, the Ramallah-based leaders of negotiations from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have yet to express a clear vision of the path forward.
Palestinian representatives have launched a string of diplomatic responses to Trump’s move. Abbas has declared an end to a U.S. mediated negotiation process that Palestinians have seen little value in for years, and declared that the PLO is free from its Oslo accord obligations. He has canceled a planned meeting with Vice President Mike Pence in the West Bank, reiterated commitments to pressure Israel though international bodies, and encouraged Arab and Islamic countries to reconsider their recognition of Israel, while calling on European ones to recognize Palestine.
However, for many Palestinians, their leadership has provided little direction for action on the ground, apart from general calls for continued traditional protests. The basic functioning of Palestinian Authority and its coordination with Israel has gone unchanged.
In a smoky Ramallah café, middle aged men puffing on water pipes turned red and pounded the tables while Trump said he would recognize Israeli sovereignty over the capital of the state they were promised by a U.S. lead peace process. However, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s pre-recorded response came on after, the men sitting between pictures of Abbas, Yasser Arafat and a snow covered Al Aqsa Mosque turned away from the TV and returned to playing cards.
The next day, occupied East Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank and Gaza were shuttered in a mass general strike while thousands marched to checkpoints and the Gaza border in what were declared as three “Days of Rage.” The usually bustling, covered medieval streets of the Old City were as quiet as church corridors they surround.
“[The U.S.] kept telling Abbas they’ll give him things—and they took it away,” said 51-year-old Ibrahim Obeid during the strike as he sat in front of a closed shop on a empty street leading to the Al Aqsa Mosque. Obeid works in the old city’s tourism industry and is from Isawiya, an East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood sandwiched between Hebrew University and Israel’s separation wall. It is the site of regular protest against the conditions created by its occupation. “They said Jerusalem would be our capital and then they took it away from us,” he said.
For Jerusalemite Palestinians, Trump’s statements are taken not only as a political attack but a personal insult. “No one decides who I am except me,” says 50-year-old Mahmud Darwish. The stylish man in a fedora, who shares a name with the Palestinian national poet, is incensed by a statement that suggests the U.S. now perceives him as an Israeli subject rather than a Palestinian living under a foreign occupation.
Despite the palpable outrage, the protests—called by leaders who are widely mistrusted by their people—have been considerably smaller than protests around the Arab and Islamic world, from Beirut to Istanbul to Indonesia.
Darwish, like many others, insists that Trump’s recognition is more serious than the attempted Israeli security changes Al Aqsa last summer that sparked mass protest. Yet the protests of the last few days have paled in comparison to those in July.
Looking back on those days, 16-year-old Jerusalem high school student Osmine Nariman remembers, “No one was with us—not [Abbas].” A grassroots mass protest movement had caught the Palestinian leaders by surprise and forced Israel to back down. Now we were talking at a small protest by women outside the Damascus Gate. In chants, they denounced Israeli occupation, US support for Israeli and the the weakness of their leaders but the small protests were more reaching for the spirit of the Al Aqsa protests than reigniting its rage and determination. To Abbas, Nariman says, “The people returned Al Aqsa and we will return the capital.”
Although the daily protests evoke images of the first intifada––the popular Palestinian uprising that started 30 years ago this past weekend and pushed Israel to the negotiating table in the 1990’s—the disappointments of the intervening decades do not leave much room for hope that scenario will repeat itself.
So far two Palestinian civilians have been killed in Gaza by Israeli fire during border riots while two Hamas and two Islamic Jihad fighters have been killed in Israeli airstrikes on the Strip. Hundreds of Palestinians have been arrested, while 1,700 more have been injured in clashes.
At the same time PLO leaders are facing an existential crisis. While they are dependent on U.S. aid and recognition, they now feel no longer able to continue a process that only seems to legitimize unending occupation. As discussion about the way forward continues behind closed doors, Palestinian leaders appear split between saving the old and starting anew.
In an uncharacteristically defiant call, long time chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, stated that now is the time to fight for a single democratic state, accusing the U.S of making the goal of a two-state solution impossible.
“President Trump has delivered a message to the Palestinian People: The Two State Solution is over. Now is the time to transform the struggle for one-state and equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea,” Erekat told the liberal Israeli daily and newspaper of record, Haaretz.
However, Erekat’s long-time colleague, leading negotiator and senior Fatah official, Nabil Shaath, has walked back Erekat’s comments, taking a far more cautious approach.
“Talking about the one-state solution just reminds Israel that we will not accept the third alternative,” Shaath said just ahead of the Fatah central committee meeting on Saturday, referring to mass Palestinian expulsion. Echoing Abbas and the Palestinian position at the U.N. Security Council’s emergency session on Jerusalem, he contended that the U.S. is no longer an acceptable mediator. He argued that the U.N. and its charter should be the arbiter of future peace initiatives.
“I think we need time, the world is moving towards a direction that will be far more favorable to us,” Shaath said, referring to declining U.S. global influence.
In a press briefing just ahead of Trump’s announcement last Wednesday, senior Fatah official Nasser Qudwa outlined proposed responses to the U.S. change on Jerusalem that included closing the Palestinian mission in Washington, pressuring the U.S. to change its position, and building support in the Arab and Muslim world. Condemning the decision as not only a violation of the international consensus but of international law and Palestinian human rights, Qudwa sought to present a forceful reaction.
However, the proposals were not official policy and in an interview after the briefing he was clear to distinguish between diplomatic responses to the U.S. and renewing pressure on Israel and its occupation.
“We are talking about the United States, not Israel,” said Qudwa.
Until now, the deterrence for destabilizing actions in Jerusalem has been the threat of mass local and regional uproar. Palestinians have returned to traditional tactics to try and create a crisis that reminds the world Jerusalem is also theirs. But they are unsure if their leaders will seek new ways to secure their capital and rights, or a repackaged process where realities previously considered intolerable become accepted as, to borrow a favorite phrase used throughout the negotiations, “facts on the ground.”