Sair, West Bank — The air was thick with militancy and talk of a new intifada on Monday as thousands of Palestinian mourners crammed the central square of this village to pay respects to Arafat Jaradat, who died in an Israeli security jail over the weekend.
After years of calm in the West Bank, during which violence with Israel dropped to a minimum, the new “martyr” of the struggle against the Jewish state appeared to be fanning the flames of a fresh uprising. But few seemed concerned about an intifada upending efforts by the U.S. to restart peace talks after a visit here next month.
“All of the parties and people are ready for a third intifada,” said Lubnah Farouh, a 36-year-old woman who attended the funeral. “We don’t even want to see the face of [President Barack Obama]; we don’t even want to know him. He provokes Israel against us.”
The funeral for Jaradat, 30, who the Palestinians say was tortured (Israel disputes the charge), became a stage to broadcast outrage and frustration with Israel as participants chanted “Let the olive branch drop, and let the tivist and political commentator. “The people’s mindset is, ‘We have nothing to lose.’”
Are the sides indeed on the cusp of a new uprising? The all-important question has been asked ever since the 1993 Oslo Accords put an end to the first intifada that erupted in 1987 and since the construction of the security wall tamed the second intifada, which began in 2000. Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring and speculation that the Palestinians would eventually follow suit with an uprising of their own, the discussion has even become clichéd.
With less than a month before a planned visit by Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to the region, observers think the situation has become more dangerous. A confluence of factors, they say, is at play: escalating solidarity demonstrations for Palestinian prisoners; continued clashes with Jewish settlers; and a budget crisis blamed in part on Israel.
The death of Jaradat symbolized that outrage over the conditions of the prisoners, a highly emotional issue that is a consensus one despite deep political rifts that have helped keep a lid on an uprising until now. As the Palestinians and the United Nations are calling for an international investigation into the death, that symbol will endure.
Predictably, mutual recriminations have ensued. Israel said the Palestinian Authority was to blame for fanning the flames and not exercising enough control over the Palestinian street. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of fomenting the unrest, and reportedly instructed his security chiefs not to be drawn into the fighting.
“We did not want things to go as far as they have,” Abbas said in the West Bank on Tuesday, Reuters reported.
Kadoura Fares, a member of Fatah who heads the government’s prisoner’s association, termed Israel’s request of Abbas to calm tensions as “chutzpah,” and that Israel should instead negotiate a prisoner deal with the PA.
“When one of our boys come out of prison dead after five days, and there are signs of torture, how can you say, ‘It’s OK, we accept their version’” of the death.
Israel says the bruises on Jaradat’s body may have been caused by efforts to resuscitate him.
Abbas, who is having difficulty paying public employees’ salaries and government’s suppliers, is vulnerable and weak. Even though he is believed to prefer peace talks and opposes a new intifada because it would threaten the rule of Fatah in the West Bank, it is becoming more and more difficult to calm the street when emotions run high — especially when no negotiations are on the horizon.
“Abbas is for rapprochement, but there’s no one to do it with,” said Fares. “Instead of making accusations, [Israel] should check themselves about why there is this atmosphere.”
Despite that, both Palestinians and Israeli observers believe that activists in Abbas’ Fatah party are indeed helping the fan the flames. At the same time, many Israeli officials and analysts believe that a low level of unrest serves the interest of the Palestinian leaders at a time that peace talks seem to be low on the agenda of topics for the upcoming presidential visit.
“On the one hand, they know the people are frustrated, and they have to let them express their frustration,” said Shlomo Brom, a former brigadier general and a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “But on the other hand this is convenient for them before the visit of President Obama. When it is low-level, they think [clashes] serve their purpose, because it shows there is unrest here and that the only solution is a political negotiation.”
Back in the streets of Sair, a group of university students from Ramallah said they made the hour-and-a-half trip to the village to pay their respects. When asked about the possibility of an uprising, Mohammad Jaradat, a distant relative of Arafat Jaradat, said he believed that many are ready to confront Israel even while acknowledging that a broad swath of Palestinians are still queasy about an uprising. “But when you are pressured, you are ready to explode.”
Many see the unrest as an opportunity for Hamas to make political progress in the West Bank by filling a vacuum opened up by the chaos. Despite vocal encouragement from Hamas’ military wing, Hamas legislative leader Aziz Dweik sounded noncommittal.
“God only knows,” he said amid the demonstrators. “The Palestinian people know how to react to injustice.”
The situation in the West Bank has been made more volatile because economic hardship has prompted a spike in unemployment among young Palestinians, said political analyst Ghassan Khatib.
“We always warned that the economic deterioration will lead to unemployment and those who aren’t working will go out into the streets,” he said. “There are factions that will take advantage of this.”
That said, the unrest has still not escalated to an all-out intifada. Though the instability is the worst in years, Monday’s clashes were seen in Israel as relatively limited, with only several hundred participants and a handful of injured.
“I think that the memories of the second intifada are still fresh and nobody has an appetite to return to this chaos and suffering,” said Brom. “That is the reason why you see that the number of participants [in the demonstrations] is quiet small. Because of this, the PA can control what is going on.”
At the same time, Brom said the situation in the West Bank is a “pressure cooker.” If a Palestinian prisoner on a hunger strike were to die, it could spark wider confrontations, analysts say.
“There is no intifada, but the situation could deteriorate,” said Fares, “because if one of the prisoners dies, who will stand against the people?”