By Ramzy Baroud
The arrest of two Palestinian activists, including the prominent figure Musab Shtayyeh, by Palestinian Authority police last week was not the first time the notorious Preventive Security Service had arrested a Palestinian wanted by Israel.
This group is largely linked to the routine arrest and torture of anti-Israeli occupation activists. Several Palestinians have died in the past as a result of Preventive Security Service violence, the most recent being Nizar Banat, who was tortured to death last June. The killing of Banat ignited a popular revolt against the PA throughout Palestine.
For years, various Palestinian and international human rights groups have been criticizing the PA’s violent practices against dissenting Palestinian voices, quite often within the same human rights reports that are critical of the Israeli military occupation of Palestine. The Hamas government in Gaza also has its fair share of blame.
In its “World Report 2022,” published in January, Human Rights Watch said that “the Palestinian Authority… systematically arrests arbitrarily and tortures dissidents.” This was neither the first nor the last time a human rights group had made such an accusation.
The link between Israeli and Palestinian violence targeting political dissidents and activists is clear to most Palestinians.
Some Palestinians may have believed, at one point, that the PA’s role was to serve as a transition between their national liberation project and full independence and sovereignty on the ground. Nearly 30 years after the formation of the PA, however, such a notion has proved to be wishful thinking. Not only has the PA failed to achieve the coveted Palestinian state, but it has morphed into a massively corrupt apparatus whose existence largely serves a small class of Palestinian politicians and businesspeople — and, in the case of Palestine, it is always the same group.
PA corruption and subsequent violence aside, what continues to irk most Palestinians is that the authority, with time, became another manifestation of the Israeli occupation, curtailing Palestinian freedom of expression and carrying out arrests on behalf of the Israeli army. Sadly, many of those arrested by the Israeli military in the West Bank have experienced arrest by PA goons, too.
Scenes of violent riots in the city of Nablus following Shtayyeh’s arrest were reminiscent of riots against Israeli occupation forces in the northern West Bank city or elsewhere in occupied Palestine. Unlike previous confrontations between Palestinians and the PA police — for example, following the killing of Banat — this time the violence was widespread and involved protesters from all Palestinian political groups, including the ruling Fatah faction.
Perhaps unaware of the massive collective psychological shift that has taken place in Palestine in recent years, the PA government was desperate to contain the violence.
Subsequently, a committee that represents united Palestinian factions in Nablus declared that it had reached a “truce” with PA security forces in the city. The committee, which includes prominent Palestinian figures, told the Associated Press and other media that the agreement prevents any future arrests of Palestinians in Nablus unless they are implicated in breaking Palestinian, not Israeli, law. That provision alone implies a tacit admission by the PA that the arrests of Shtayyeh and Ameed Tbaileh were motivated by an Israeli agenda, rather than a Palestinian one.
But why would the PA so quickly concede to pressure coming from the Palestinian street? The answer lies in the changing political mood in Palestine.
First, resentment of the PA has been brewing for years. One opinion poll after another has indicated the low regard that most Palestinians have for their leadership, of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and particularly of the “security coordination” with Israel.
Second, the torture and death of political dissident Banat last year erased whatever patience Palestinians had toward their leadership, as it demonstrated to them that the PA is not an ally but a threat.
Third, the so-called Unity Intifada of May 2021 emboldened many segments of Palestinian society throughout the Occupied Territories. For the first time in years, Palestinians now feel united around a single slogan and are no longer hostage to the geography of politics and factions. A new generation of young Palestinians has advanced the conversation beyond Abbas, the PA and their endless and ineffectual political rhetoric.
Fourth, armed struggle in the West Bank has been growing so rapidly that Israeli army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi claimed this month that, since March, about 1,500 Palestinians have been arrested in the West Bank and that hundreds of attacks against the Israeli military have allegedly been thwarted.
In fact, evidence of an armed intifada is growing in the Jenin and Nablus regions. What is particularly interesting, and alarming from the Israeli and PA viewpoint, about the nature of the budding armed struggle phenomenon is that it is largely led by the military wing of the ruling Fatah party, in direct cooperation with Hamas and other Islamist and national military wings.
For example, the Israeli army last month assassinated Ibrahim Al-Nabulsi, a prominent Fatah military commander, along with two others. In response, not only did the PA do little to stop the Israeli military machine from conducting further such assassinations, but six weeks later it arrested Shtayyeh, a close comrade of Al-Nabulsi. Interestingly, Shtayyeh is not a member of Fatah, but a commander within Hamas’s military wing, Al-Qassam. Though Fatah and Hamas are meant to be intense political rivals, their political tussle seems to be of no relevance to military groups in the West Bank.
Unfortunately, more violence is likely to follow, for several reasons: Israel’s determination to crush any armed intifada in the West Bank before it spreads across the Occupied Territories, the looming leadership transition within the PA due to Abbas’s old age, and the growing unity among Palestinians around the issue of resistance.
While the Israeli response to all of this can easily be gleaned from its legacy of violence, the PA’s future course of action will likely determine its relationship with Israel and its Western supporters on the one hand and with the Palestinian people on the other. Which side will the PA choose?