Al-Aqsa tensions straining Palestinian solidarity

The Palestinian Authority's repressive approach to recent demonstrations is leading some to wonder whether popular anger against Israel might soon be turned against Palestinian security forces.

al-monitor Palestinian protesters run near the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah on Sept. 29, 2015, during clashes with Israeli troops over tension at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman.
Ahmad Melhem

Ahmad Melhem


Topics covered

west bank, security, palestinian authority, mahmoud abbas, israeli-palestinian conflict, freedom of expression, al-aqsa mosque

Sep 30, 2015

RAMALLAH, West Bank — While suppressing a march in Bethlehem on Sept. 18 denouncing Israeli violations at Al-Aqsa Mosque, several members of the Palestinian security forces assaulted a teenager, beating him with batons after he had fallen to the ground. Such repressive actions and others have triggered a public backlash that many observers think will put international pressure on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to resume negotiations.

Tensions between the two sides have risen in recent weeks, following accusations from Palestinians that Israeli forces have committed violations at the mosque. While the area housing the mosque — referred to by Palestinians as the Haram al-Sharif — is officially controlled by guards from the Jordanian Ministry of the Islamic Waqf and Jewish prayer is forbidden at the site, Israel has taken a number of measures to limit Muslim worshippers at Al-Aqsa so as not to interfere with visits by Jewish visitors. On Sept. 9, Israel issued a statement designating the Mourabitoun and Mourabitat as illegal groups. These groups, which were established seven years ago to maintain worship and conduct learning seminars at the mosque, suspend their activities when Jewish groups visit and watch them closely to ensure the ban of Jewish prayer is not violated. Israeli security forces and Palestinian worshippers have clashed a number of times this month, with each side accusing the other of provocation.

On the day the teenager was assaulted, the Palestinian national security apparatus formed a committee to investigate the use of force against him, and two days later decided to dismiss or detain nine security force personnel involved in the incident. This official response, however, did not calm the public's anger, as Palestinians again took to the streets Sept. 19-20 to voice their displeasure with the security forces and demand that President Mahmoud Abbas step aside. Some of the protesters pelted the security services headquarters with stones, and in response security forces members shot live bullets into the air, resulting in a number of injuries on both sides. Some nine security officers sustained non-life threatening injuries.

Similar clashes between civilians and security forces had taken place Sept. 15 in the Jenin refugee camp during a solidarity event highlighting Al-Aqsa. The situation escalated into an exchange of fire between security forces and a group of hooded youths. Three security officers were injured by live ammunition.

Observers and politicians who spoke to Al-Monitor warned that popular anger over Israeli aggression could explode in the face of the Palestinian Authority (PA), in light of its security coordination with Israel. It is believed that the upcoming months will be decisive, resulting in international intervention to launch new negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis or a rupturing among the Palestinians due to popular upheaval and pressure on the PA.

A Palestinian security source who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity defended the security services, asserting, “The security forces are implementing political decisions, namely, the decision to prevent any confrontation from taking place between citizens and Israeli forces. Therefore, we are preventing any demonstration from heading toward the Israeli checkpoints.”

Jamal Huwail, a parliamentarian, told Al-Monitor, “What is happening in the West Bank reflects popular tension, which is a result of the Israeli attacks, and the lack of hope in any political accomplishments in light of the failure of peace negotiations, the deteriorating economic situation, increased settlements and attacks on holy sites and settler terrorism.​”

Huwail also said that a heavy-handed approach to security is no substitute for addressing the sources of the tension. “Rather, there should be an economic and development renaissance, a decrease in corruption and elimination of the negative phenomena,” he said. “Despite all the mistakes within the security services, which require reform, the dismantling and collapse of the security forces would mean that the country would fall into a dangerous abyss.”

In light of recent tensions, Abbas has gone so far as to warn of a possible third intifada, which “we do not want," if the Israeli violations and attacks continue against the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Abbas was speaking at a Sept. 22 press conference with French President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace in Paris. 

Hani al-Masri, director general of Masarat: Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “The security services’ approach is not right at all.” According to him, the biggest flaw lies in a policy of repressing citizens, to “prevent them from expressing their anger.” Masri said, “We must address the Palestinian security services’ policy that is based on providing security for Israel, as part of the PA's commitment to its political and security agreements with Israel. This is because [the policy’s] continuation will result in serious complications and could lead to clashes within Palestinian society. The incidents that occurred recently constitute a warning in this regard.”

On the possibility that the public might turn its anger on the PA, Masri said, “This possibility cannot be ruled out if the PA does not change its political and security policy and convictions, because the PA has lost legitimacy after failing to hold elections or make any political accomplishments in the negotiations. There is anger at the Israeli policies, to which poor living conditions are added.” If the PA does not channel this anger toward Israel, the PA could become the target, Masri believes.

The PA, however, views recent confrontations as an attempt by some people to create an environment of insecurity. Nablus Gov. Akram Rajoub holds a similar position. He told Al-Monitor, “Many incidents show that there are those who seek to restore insecurity, which Israel wants.”

Rajoub believes Israel has increased pressure on the Palestinians in the hope that the society erupts into violence in the PA's face, confirming to the world that the Palestinians prefer violence to seeking peace. He also thinks the PA is unconcerned about this subterfuge, but is instead focused on “legitimate, controlled and disciplined resistance without any violence.”

Tayseer Khaled, a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s and a leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, believes the relationship between citizens and the security services will not be resolved as long as the latter continue to take a strictly security-related approach. “The security services’ task is to provide security to citizens, not to restrict freedom of opinion, expression and the right to demonstrate,” said Khaled. “The security services’ performance needs to be changed. What happened in Bethlehem should not happen again.”

Khaled does not think Palestinians' anger is likely to explode against the security apparatus. He said, “There is a level of awareness among the Palestinians and the political forces that can contain any problem with the Palestinian security forces. The conflict is originally between Palestinian citizens and [political] parties on the one hand and the Israeli occupation on the other, not the security forces.”

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