NABI SALEH, West Bank (Reuters) – In the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, Palestinians frustrated by the failure of peace talks to protect their land from Jewish settlement growth are on the march, and ready to face the teargas.
It is the latest example of Palestinians, their faith in the 17-year-old peace process sinking ever lower, turning to what they call popular resistance; code for protests that activists say are drawing an increasingly tough Israeli response.
Some observers are concerned that such unrest risks flaring up into new conflict, even if few see a “Third Intifada” mimicking the street-fighting uprising of the 1980s or the suicide bombings of the second Intifada a decade ago.
“The Israelis are worried because if it is played well it has all the ingredients to shape international opinion,” one Western diplomat said. “It’s an option to let off steam but it has a great risk of escalation and becoming violent.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, his negotiation strategy adrift, has embraced the idea of popular protest and urged more, even as the United States tries to restart peace talks that have been stalled for more than a year.
In Nabi Saleh, “popular resistance” has manifested itself in weekly attempts by dozens of villagers to march to the fences which surround the settlement. The villagers say the wire barriers have crept ever further onto their land.
“Even as the negotiations were going on, the settlers were putting up a fence on our land,” said Imam Tamimi, a 34-year-old mother of four who has taken part in protests staged by local Palestinian residents over the last month.
“People went to harvest their olives. The settlers said ‘This is our land,'” said Tamimi, whose living-room window is filled by the view of the red-roofed settlement homes across the valley and of a nearby Israeli military watchtower.
The protests have spilled into fist fights with settlers and confrontation with the Israeli army which has occupied the West Bank since 1967.
Israeli soldiers have fired dozens of teargas canisters at protesters who have in turn pelted them with rocks. Six villagers were arrested during the most recent Nabi Saleh protest, activists said.
Abbas has urged leaders of his Fatah party to take part. Hussein Tirawi, a senior Fatah figure and former Palestinian intelligence chief, was among the protesters briefly detained by Israeli troops at one recent demonstration.
NO SIGN OF MASS MOVEMENT, FOR NOW
For Abbas, backing “popular resistance” is a way to show his support for some form of activism, even if not of the military sort employed by the Hamas Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip and routinely accuses him of being a sell-out.
So far, Abbas’s commitment has seemed largely tactical, partly aimed at deflecting such criticism, analysts say.
But if the United States is unable to get peace talks going again soon, wider mobilization may be inevitable. U.S. President Barack Obama said last week he had underrated the difficulty of reviving deadlocked Middle East negotiations.
“When hope in negotiations retreats, this increases hope in other options. All the while the military option is unlikely, the option of popular resistance is the only game in town,” political analyst Hani Masri said.
Fatah’s Revolutionary Council has decided to escalate what it called the “popular resistance campaign.” Yet the extent to which Palestinians are ready to take part is unclear.
“There are no clear indications at the present time that we are talking about a mass movement,” said George Giacaman, a political scientist at Birzeit University near Ramallah.
“But these things are hard to gauge,” he said. “The first Intifada broke out when economic conditions were far better than they are now.”
The first Intifada, or uprising against Israel, erupted in the occupied territories in 1987. It is remembered abroad for scenes of youths armed with stones and slingshots confronting the Israeli army.
This differentiated it from the second, more militarized Palestinian uprising, which began in 2000 and lasted several years.
“The first Intifada was a model in which all Palestinians take pride, and this model is the one that can restore the Palestinian question to the political map,” Fahmy Zaareer, a senior Fatah leader, told Reuters.
Israel’s international image, which suffered in the first Intifada, has been stung again by world criticism of its offensive in the Gaza Strip a year ago, which it said was launched to halt rocket attacks from the territory.
International criticism has also focused on a blockade imposed by Israel on Gaza, where conditions have gone from bad to much worse.
Israel wants to avoid more bad press, hence its efforts to nip the protests in the bud now, said Jonathan Pollak, spokesman for the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee.
“They are trying to repress it now before too much damage is done,” he said.
Protest organizers say a crackdown has intensified in the past month. Since December, 20 Palestinians have been arrested in the village of Nilin in connection with protests against part of the wall and fence “security barrier” Israel is building in and around the West Bank, they say. An Israeli military official said there had been no change in policy toward demonstrations and the army had no problem with peaceful protest. “The problem is when these demonstrations invariably and quite deliberately become violent.” he said.