Cities in Occupied Palestinian West Bank have been witness to unprecedented, overwhelming protests that came about as a reaction to the latest wave of price hikes affecting all consumer products, particularly fuel. Over the period of a few short days, thousands of Palestinians protested in the town squares in Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, Tulkarem, and Bethlehem. Protestors blocked roads with their cars, burned tires in protests, and were heard chanting slogans demanding the downfall of the (interim) Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Salam Fayyad. The protestors further demanded that the Paris Protocol be scrapped, while some were heard chanting slogans against Palestine's President Mahmoud Abbas.
This is also the first demand-driven protest of its kind in Palestine; since the outbreak of the latest Intifada in 2000, the country has not seen any major protests driven by public grievances/demands. The only seeming exception were demonstrations by public sector employees following the electoral victory of the Islamic Resistance Movement group Hamas, who then came to dominate the Palestinian Legislative Council. These protests, however, were clearly politicized, and had been used by Hamas' rival Fatah's attempts to discredit the legislative elections. The Palestinian people can be said to have always viewed protests as a purely political matter, hence the importance of these latest protests. The fact that these protests are also happening in the midst of the Arab Spring, which has seen entire political regimes collapse due to popular revolutions that have socio-economic circumstances at their core, makes them especially important. Indeed, these protests can be said to have come at a time when the Palestinian Authority, including the Salam Fayyad-led Emergency Cabinet and the entire Palestinian national movement as a whole, are facing their greatest challenges since the days of Oslo.
The Palestinian national movement is internally divided; the Palestinian Authority, along with all of the Palestinian political factions - including both Fatah and Hamas, has come to an impasse on all possible fronts. Not a single one of these parties presents a vision - not even a theoretical one - for how to work through the present predicament. Additionally, none of these parties propose any kind of strategy for the National Struggle or ending the occupation and the settlements, nor do they provide any solutions to the current economic strangulation of Palestine, which is evidenced in the spread of poverty, unemployment, and inflation, factors which very wide sections of the Palestinian population can no longer tolerate.
This paper attempts an analysis of the latest protests in the cities of the Occupied Palestinian West Bank, and the meanings and implications of these protests, which have already caused confusion amidst the political and cultural elites. Further, this paper shall address the circumstances and factors that led to the present crisis, and what possible outcomes/scenarios could result, given the peculiar Palestinian reality of living under a military occupation.
The Palestinian National Authority's Rhetoric Following Palestinian Division: Salam Fayyad as an Economic Miracle
In the Palestinian context, it is difficult to isolate the political from what is economic and social. The Palestinian Authority, which controls no more than 18% of the 5,800 km2 Occupied West Bank, and that by virtue of agreements with the Israeli occupation, has as little control of the Palestinian economy as it does over the borders of Palestine. In fact, the Palestinian Authority does not have the ability to control the price of commodities available in the Palestinian economy. The Paris Protocol sought to protect Israeli products and the Israeli economy by ensuring that any increase in Israeli consumer prices is reflected in the Palestinian market. At the time, this provision was to account for the lack of physical barriers between the Palestinian and Israeli markets, but it remained in place even after a very real physical barrier was erected between the two. For now, the Palestinian economy has been reduced to relying on the Israeli market as an unavoidable and precious artery for it to survive.
Herein lies the great contradiction: a Palestinian is forced to buy consumer goods at Israeli market prices even though the average monthly income for an economically active Israeli is four times that of an economically active Palestinian living in the West Bank. In the case of car petrol (or "gasoline"), one liter bought in the Palestinian economy costs more than US $2 - the highest price recorded in any economy the world over, including Norway and Turkey, and even higher than the price Israelis themselves pay. Alongside this increasing vulnerability of the domestic Palestinian situation, the peace negotiations, which the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization sought to present as the aim of the 2000 Intifada, have come to a complete standstill. Following the death of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leadership adopted negotiations as the only, comprehensive solution. As a result, soon after the second Intifada, the rhetoric of the Palestinian Authority began to adopt of the language of development and government planning, utilizing the slogans of ending unemployment and encouraging investment. The PA's economic miracle has, since 2007, taken shape in the person of Dr. Salam Fayyad, who despite the fact that his electoral bloc never won more than two seats in the Palestinian legislative elections, has come to be the Prime Minister of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Emergency Cabinet.
Since becoming prime minster, Fayyad has undertaken a number of projects and investment plans, moves the local media have dubbed a new Palestinian version of the Marshall Plan, helping to establish a state and a strong economy that would impose itself on the international community. The plan was, according to Fayyad: "Build to accelerate the end of the occupation, or, rather, build in spite of the occupation, to end it. It also includes the construction of an infrastructure, the creation of institutions, and the institutionalization of all mechanisms of governance and administration." Still, analysts have observed how the core of these plans has reflected, in essence - and quite faithfully - the declared economic agenda of the doctrine known as the post-Washington consensus. It is this consensus to which the Palestinian Authority has acquiesced, finding direct applications for it in government policy (e.g., its General Security apparatus, centralized government institutions, the provision of services to win legitimacy, and the development of the private sector).
A number of economists have suggested that none of these plans would be of any benefit. The Palestinian Authority will not be able to achieve any kind of economic advancement either in terms of development or in terms of citizens' standards of living so long as it lacks the most basic components that could make this happen. The Authority does not control any territory, including the water, nor does it control the border crossings to Palestine. Additionally, the Paris Protocol has turned the Palestinian Authority into an economic appendage, in every possible way, to the Israelis. As a number of others have said before, the Palestinian cause is not an economic issue, but a political one, and de-politicizing it while attempting to address the Palestinian economy is an escapist way of buying time and avoiding the crisis.
Nonetheless, the Ramallah government's rhetoric has whetted Palestinian appetites for a better quality of life, even if they are confined to ghettoes, with many hoping for new employment opportunities for the youth. For years, the only developments have been the improvement in the standards of living of a specific cross-section of the Palestinian population, and an increased influx of aid money with political strings attached. With the coming of the Arab Spring, the Palestinian people watched as the Arab peoples around them rebelled for political, economic, and social issues.
Palestinians watched regimes falter as they stood in place, and would soon discover that the supposed Palestinian Marshall Plan called for the implementation of World Bank directives to ensure the continuation of foreign financing. These directives call for rolling out austerity measures, tightening the public sector budget, and increasing taxes, all to take place in a country which, according to GDP per capita, is a poor country, where the cost of consumer goods outstrips what is found in many European economies.
The September 2012 social protests came at the end of the two-year period previously declared by Prime Minister Fayyad as the time for the creation of state institutions and proving the "merit" of a Palestinian state. Note the implicit naivety, perhaps a willing naivety, contained in this state. Contrast this to the deviance and colonialist Western rhetoric which implicitly states that, somehow, the Palestinians have to prove their merit in order to have a state.
These Palestinian economic policies, their submission to foreign funding agendas, and the economic conditions imposed by the Israeli occupation have resulted in widening gaps in income and standards of living between a small coterie, composed of wealthy businessmen, big traders, high-ranking employees in the Authority, and employees of foreign-based agencies and institutions on one side, and the vast majority of the Palestinian people living in the West Bank, on the other. The economic circumstances under which this majority live are worsening daily, with their incomes no longer adequate to cover the bare necessities of life. It is a societal sector which takes in a wide swathe of those employed by the public sector, including bureaucrats, alongside those in the private sector, small business owners, professionals, farmers, shopkeepers, public transport drivers, and the unemployed. The conspicuous wealth of Ramallah's globalized elite became a sore point in Ramallah itself and in other Palestinian cities that became notable for the intensity of the stark protests.
The Palestinian Authority has failed to implement any meaningful economic projects that would provide employment opportunities in the industry and agriculture sectors. They failed to establish industrial zones in those towns and cities for which they control, also failing to invest in the agricultural sector, with no meaningful effort into such an enterprise. Instead, the Authority has decided to build alliances between businessmen and several prominent leaders of the Authority itself to invest in rapidly profitable enterprises, such as communications and real estate, including the purchase of properties and lands in Palestinian towns and cities (generally within "Area A" zones, which fall under complete PA control). Despite all of this, however, the popular reaction of the Palestinian people to their socio-economic conditions would not have had taken this form were it not for the culture promoted in the Palestinian Authority's rhetoric. It is a culture of bank loans and "appropriate" spending in a country struggling under the weight of a colonialist occupation, with the country's territory being swallowed up in a wave of colonization, the likes of which have not been seen since the 1948 Nakba of Palestine.
The Palestinian leadership was concerned solely with regaining the legitimacy they had lost during the last elections (in 2006), by producing a daily comparison between the economic conditions of those living in the West Bank and those living in the Hamas-administered Gaza Strip. While the Authority did indeed succeed in scoring popularity points against their local adversary, they also obliterated any opportunity to use the Palestinian people to challenge the occupation. The political measures taken by the Authority were limited either to negotiations with the Israelis or to attempts at securing meaningless recognition, practically speaking, from international bodies.
During a time when the Arabs' and the world's attention was focused on the aftermath of the popular revolutions born during the Arab Spring and Israel was witnessing the rise of a settler-led government that imposed a blockade on the PA since they would not agree to a freeze on the settlements to re-start negotiations, the Palestinian Authority did not predict that they would soon fall into the same trap which they had set for their counterparts in Gaza.
The Palestinian people were not isolated from the Arab revolutions. In fact, in December 2011, Ramallah had seen some of the earliest popular demonstrations in support of the Tunisian people upon their success in ousting Ben Ali. Palestinian enthusiasm for the Arab revolutions only grew with the million-strong marches in Cairo's Tahrir Square, and following the removal of Egypt's President Mubarak, a group of Palestinian youth had planned a day of protest on March 15 to bring the Palestinians into the Arab Spring. The mass protests were intended to be the driving force behind a process of change in Palestine.
This particular action was planned by a group of youth drawn from a wide cross-section of Palestinian political factions whose means of communications was Facebook, some of whom had learned their skills in protest-building and rallying the masses through experience of protesting against the Israeli Separation Wall. The aims promoted by this group included holding elections for the Fatah-controlled Palestinian National Council, the body which serves as a legislative council for all Palestinians, including those in the diaspora, an end to negotiations, the Oslo process, Palestinian-Israeli security coordination, and an end to inter-Palestinian strife. This movement was brought to an end for a number of reasons, turning it into a kind of celebration instead.
Most important among these reasons was the way the Authority itself co-opted the event, and sought to focus attention on the aspect of "ending internal Palestinian discord," a rather vague aim for which everybody, except the occupiers, might hold responsibility. Out of a fear that the protests would ignite a further Palestinian intifada, the Palestinian Authority's security apparatus prevented the protestors from reaching Israeli checkpoints or coming into contact with the occupation forces, a reflection of a policy which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had taken upon his assumption of power at the top of the Palestinian political pyramid. In time-honored fashion, the institutions, ministries, and schools administered by the Palestinian Authority had even let out of tens of thousands of employees and students to participate in the protests; it was a ruse that would allow the Authority to co-opt the popular, political movement. In the face of such a massive outpouring of Palestinian students and Authority employees - the real army controlled by the Authority - any other political gathering would have seemed pathetic.
However, this youth protest movement did lead to the birth of a number of other youth groups, most significantly "Palestinians for Dignity," which coalesced out of a number of marches held in solidarity with illegally detained Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails who undertook a succession of hunger strikes which came to be known as the "Battle of Empty Stomachs," beginning towards the end of 2011. A number of other groups were also included in this broad youth movement, including "The Independent Youth Movement" and the group Benhib il balad ("We Love Our Country"). A number of issues served to bring these groups together and focus their efforts, including: Palestinian prisoners, the Palestinian National Council, and normalization of ties, negotiations, political detentions, and security coordination with the Israelis.
Despite these ties, the Palestinian people were not receptive to these movements. Palestinians were not, at that time, ready for another intifada, and most of them bear the signs of fatigue resulting from years of the last Intifada, which began in 2000, the war on Gaza, and internecine Palestinian fighting. With the Palestinians consumed with their own domestic economic worries, there is an overwhelming sense that any popular movement with a political hue would be useless.
For a time, Palestinian reluctance to rally in public spaces for anything other than celebratory carnivals seemed to be evidence that Palestinian society no longer had the morale to fight the occupation. The last remnants of this culture of apathy came to the fore very briefly in what was a painfully ironic event for Palestinians. In August 2012, the Israeli authorities permitted more than 100,000 Palestinians from the West Bank access to shopping centers and beaches located in the Palestinian coastal plain and the Galilee, parts of Palestine occupied since 1948. While most analysts had observed that this limited Israeli measure was intended only to help the Israeli economy, which is today in the throes of a very real crisis, it also reflects the Israelis' perception that Palestinians from the West Bank, having been subject to 12 years of subjugation and disciplining, are no longer the "threat to security" to their state. Even a few years ago, such a move would have been deemed an unthinkably insane gamble.
Another truly important turning point came in September 2012, when Salam Fayyad's government decided to raise prices on all consumer products, including fuel. The decision was made at a time when public sector recruitment and employees' salaries had been put on hold. Despite a campaign on the part of the Palestinian Authority in the form of advertisements in the local media and billboards along roads in the West Bank to raise awareness about the importance of taxes in building the "longed for Palestinian state," the real reason behind Fayyad's decision was clear -an increase in consumer prices in the Israeli market, which had happened for the second time in two months. The Paris Protocol stipulates that any increase in Israeli consumer prices should be matched by an increase in the prices paid by Palestinian consumers. There are also stipulated margins for allowed differences in price between the two markets, a margin which stands at 15% for fuel in general, although car fuel is an exception, with prices being totally controlled by the Israelis. The increase in the cost of living faced by Palestinians, and the crisis of financial liquidity faced by the Palestinian Authority due to Israeli extremist intransigence, and the failure of Arab states to meet their funding obligations, brought Palestine to the brink.
Following are two illustrative examples. First, the price of car fuel doubled, from US$ 1 to more than $2 between 2009 and 2012, with the price of one kilogram of bread climbing to $1. Given the economic circumstances in which Palestinians find themselves, these increases were simply unbearable. These increases also came at a time when social media pages, especially Facebook, sprang up, demanding an end to public sector corruption in Palestine and complaining of the high cost of living. For the first time, a Palestinian protest movement born out of economic considerations was born. Thousands of Palestinians went into the streets in most cities of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, calling for the Salam Fayyad's departure and chanting variations of the slogans born in the revolutions of the Arab Spring; the Syrian revolution's slogan yalla irhal ya Bashar or "come on Bashar, leave" became yalla irhal ya Fayyad.
The distinguishing feature of the latest protest movement was the way it was participated in by sections of Palestinian society not normally considered a part of the modern middle class. It was a group of people made up largely of drivers of public transport cars, green grocers, small businessmen, and residents of refugee camps; the group most adversely affected by the economic difficulties. Striking public transport drivers burned tires and closed roads, putting life on hold and bringing about a state resembling civil disobedience, while the top-brass of the Authority's security apparatus, having learned well the lessons of the Arab Spring, were careful not to intervene. Fayyad's statements describing how difficult it would be to address the rise in consumer prices, when the Palestinian Prime Minister suggested reaching an agreement with Libya and the GCC states to provide employment opportunities for young Palestinians, were seen as irresponsible and a violation of national principles.
This situation caused a great deal of confusion and consternation on the part of the Palestinian political and cultural elite in the West Bank, with some of these intellectuals enjoying a sense of critique, describing the protest movement as part of the power play between the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and US- and EU-backed Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. President Abbas, however, used a speech he delivered on September 8 to express his support for Fayyad's government's measures, doing away with such suspicions. This move reminds all observers of the Palestinian question that the era of internal contradictions within Palestinian political institutions was well and truly over. The organizational schemes engaged in by the Palestinian National Authority's leadership since Hamas came to power in the Gaza Strip allowed them to reach a compromise between the numerous centers of power since their plurality has been a main feature of the ruling institutions since the days of Yasser Arafat,.
After Abbas redistributed posts and positions in the PA government, a number of Fatah-affiliated officials and members felt marginalized and ignored as they had been senior officials under Arafat, a process which began in 2007. Many of this latter group had taken the opportunity of the protests to settle scores with Fayyad and discredit him in the eyes of the public, though it became obvious with the passing days that this was not the result of a plan hatched in the echelons of Palestinian power, especially as Abbas had the power to dismiss Fayyad without the need for popular protests. Evidence for such an understanding of the situation is found in the way the Palestinian Authority has described the protests as being the work of Hamas, seeking to be purely destructive. Further evidence is found in the activities of the Authority's security arms, to suppress the protests and disperse them, occasionally by sending in civilian infiltrators who disrupted their otherwise peaceful conduct. It seems obvious now that members of the Fatah leadership joined the protests in a bid to pressure the Authority's president to dismiss Fayyad, but there can be no doubt that some of these efforts were driven by the necessity of surpassing the impasse.
What those confused by these developments have failed to notice is that they are witnessing what is, for the first time, a social movement that is inspired by economics, something not seen in Palestinian context for many years now. Even union strikes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, increasingly frequent since 2006, were a politicized affair, aimed at undermining the Hamas government and taking away its electoral legitimacy. It also seems that this same group of confused onlookers has failed to appreciate another feature of the September 2012 protests - when the protests are led by those with limited incomes, and who live in refugee camps, such protests will have their own peculiarities. In this sense, the Palestinian social movement in September is no different from the protests emerging at the peripheries of Arab societies throughout the Arab Spring. It is, in fact, a new image of protests since most of the protests in times past have been led by youth who belonged to the modern middle class, who have not traditionally paid much attention to the social demands of the other sections of society.
In the midst of all of this, as the features of the context were becoming clear, the group "Palestinians for Dignity" worked with the other Ramallah-based groups to organize a rally that would head towards the Muqataa, the seat of presidential power for the Palestinian National Authority, on September 11, 2012. Only hours before the march was set to proceed, however, Emergency Cabinet Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced that the decision to raise consumer prices would be reversed for everything except car fuel. In a move the media regarded as "responsive" to the protestors' demands, they also announced that any shortfall would be accounted for by cuts to the salaries of high-ranking Authority officials.
The Israeli newspaper Maariv carried an explanation of the above situation, claiming that Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu had sent urgent messages to the United States and European Union, requesting the transfer of large sums of money to prevent the "collapse" of the Palestinian National Authority. In addition, they claimed that Netanyahu had coordinated together with Prime Minister Fayyad the release of 250 million Israeli Shekels (or US $64.3 million) of funds to the Palestinian Authority, funds which the Israelis owed the Palestinians but had earlier withheld from transferring. Israeli authorities also granted 5,000 permits for Palestinian laborers, allowing them to enter the Israeli labor market.
Such measures are evidence of Israeli anxieties about the risks facing the Palestinian political establishment. The Israeli security establishment's evaluation had been correct: there can be no economic protests in an occupied area as the blame would ultimately be placed on the Israelis, who are laying siege to the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Thus, assessments from the Israeli security establishment, which is generally more pragmatic than the settlers and settler-controlled political parties, became a source of pressure on the Israeli government, urging it to rescue the Palestinian Authority. Notably, it seems that the Israelis can dictate to the Europeans when to support the Palestinian Authority and when to withhold such support.
By examining the map of political protests held in the West Bank and reported in the media, as well as on social media sites, one can see that the protestors who came out in Palestinian towns and cities were drawn mostly from the refugee camps and villages surrounding those towns. The sight of youth from the environs of the towns blocking roads in Palestine was reminiscent, for many, of the 1987 Intifada. The only exception of this was Ramallah, where the localized protests were generally a politicized movement from within the ranks of Fatah against Fayyad. The Palestinians residing in Amaari, Qalandiya, Jalzoun, and Qaddoura camps, and those from the villages in the environs of Ramallah abstained from participation in the protests, possibly reflecting the way in which the people in those areas are over-represented in the cadres of the Palestinian Authority, particularly its security services, though. Even in Ramallah the protests came to be dominated by independent youth groups. If this crisis were to persist, even the relative calm of Ramallah would certainly be overturned.
The Situation in the Wake of the Protests: Expected Outcomes
Speaking to an audience on September 8, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made it clear that there would be no immediate solution to the present economic crisis in the Palestinian territories. It remains unclear, at the time of writing, where this new social protest movement in the towns and cities of the West Bank will lead the Palestinian people. As the driving forces behind this latest movement remain economic, and its focus remains the Palestinian National Authority, forecasting the final results will be difficult. Nonetheless, it is possible to present the following scenarios as potential outcomes of the current state of affairs:
The Social becomes Political
It is likely that the present Palestinian protest movement, with its social character, will transform into a political movement that may, in future, threaten the Palestinian Authority and its leadership, as there simply is no economic solution to the Palestinians' problems. Evidence for such a possibility can be seen in the way protestors, only days after the first marches opposing an increase in consumer prices, began to call for the annulment of the Paris Protocol.
A Receptive Palestinian Authority
The Palestinian National Authority could implement real amendments to their agreements with the Israeli occupiers. Such a move on the part of the Authority, however, would require confrontation and struggle, where public anger would be invested to pressure the Israelis, who are not been used to making concessions.
A Palestinian Rapprochement
It is likely that the present protest movement will lead the Palestinian leadership to the conclusion that they can no longer put off dealing with the political crisis by focusing on economic issues. In such a situation, the Palestinian leadership will start to make political overtures, beginning with a reconciliation with Hamas, and will eventually begin to build popular Palestinian anger toward the occupation.
Foreign Financial Assistance to the PA
Another likely outcome of this crisis is that the world powers, alongside the Israelis, will financially support the Palestinian Authority, particularly as the recent protests have destroyed Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's public credibility, making him reliant on the presidency. The Palestinian Authority may also continue to mitigate the problems of the Palestinian people in a kind of "palliative" way, preferring to bide their time and wait for the results of the US presidential elections and the opportunity to arrive at a final "peaceful settlement" once the conditions allow it. Since the Oslo Accords, however, this approach has been revealed to be an illusion based on a misapprehension of Israeli policies toward what is known as the "peace process".
Any amateur anthropologist can easily spot the Israeli colonialist mindset by observing [Israeli] behavior in the West Bank: it is as if the Palestinians have been reduced to subjects in a laboratory experiment. The Israelis provide support to encourage specific behaviors, withholding that support to deter other behaviors, only to return a small margin of support should the Palestinians of the West Bank rebel. It is unconscionable that a movement of national liberation, and an occupied people who previously provided the world with a model of anti-colonialist struggle, should accept such a situation.
 These are the agreements that govern ties between the Palestinian and Israeli economies, and act as the economic addendum to the Oslo Accords, which brought about peace between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israeli state.
 "Fayyad: No timeframe for wages; trying to secure employment opportunities for Palestinian youth in Libya and the Gulf" (in Arabic), Al Quds, September 6, 2012, http://www.alquds.com/news/article/view/id/382848.
 For an example, see blog post by Palestinian youth activist Mohammed Masharqa: "Hebron on September 10: The Complete Story" (in Arabic), September 11, 2012, http://masharqah.blogspot.com/p/10.html.
 The reason behind the inability of the Palestinian government to reduce the cost of car fuel becomes obvious with an examination of the Paris Protocol's governing economic relations between the Palestinian National Authority and the Israelis. Article 12, Section B of the Protocol stipulates that the difference in the cost of car fuel paid by Palestinian consumers and that paid by Israeli consumers cannot exceed 15%. The same passage of the Protocol gives the Palestinian Authority the right to control prices on all other petroleum products.
 "Israel to transfer 250 million Shekels to the Palestinian Authority," Maan News Agency, September 12, 2012, http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=519431.