Peaceful demonstrations took place last week in the center of Ramallah and Bethlehem to protest against the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) sanctions on the Gaza Strip. These were a continuation of a series of protests that were previously met violently by the PA on Wednesday, June 13, 2018 to enforce a ban it installed on demonstrating during Eid Al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. According to Al Monitor, dozens of protesters were attacked and injured by security forces and journalists were being arrested for documenting the protests. As reported by the Guardian, hundreds of protesters had called for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to lift the sanctions imposed against the Gaza Strip that left government employees without salaries and have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis. This is not the first wave of protests against PA policies in the West Bank, but it could be the beginning of a pronounced popular demand for an end to the Palestinian schism.
Since the takeover of control by Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2007, an increasingly deep political and social schism had developed between the Fatah-ruled West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Although a long-awaited reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas was reached in October 2017 and the establishment of a Palestinian unity government was planned for January 2018, this schism has not yet been resolved and might have even deepened. The PA under President Mahmoud Abbas has recently continued to tighten its 14-month lasting sanctions. In April 2018, salaries have been frozen to PA employees in the Gaza Strip and have not been disbursed since. Additionally, PA officials in the Strip were forced into early retirement as reported by the +972 Magazine. These sanctions are accompanied by the PA’s lasting refusal to pay for the Strips’ electricity supply by Israel or to pay for the tax on diesel for Gaza power plants, leading to a major electricity crisis. Nearly 70 percent of the population of the Gaza Strip depend on aid from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which has had much of its budget frozen by the US in January 2018. As a result, the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip intensified.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), poverty rates in the Gaza strip increased from 38,8 percent in 2011 to 53 percent by the end of 2017. Most Palestinians in the Gaza Strip live under food and water insecurity and have precarious access to electricity and health care. Resentment towards the situation had been expressed in widespread protests throughout Gaza during the last months, including protests in front of the UNRWA offices. Meanwhile, expression of public solidarity with the Gaza Strip’s suffering by the West Bank's population, considering the political, geographical and social schism, remained muted. Conversely, last week's protests in Ramallah have been the first large-scale mobilization of the Palestinian population in the West Bank against the PA’s policies and the siege on the Gaza Strip since the implementation of the sanctions.
The series of protests in the West Bank against the PA’s Gaza sanctions started on Sunday, June 10, in Ramallah with about 1500 participants and continued on later evenings, organized through social media. When protesters tried to reach the central Manara Square in Ramallah on Wednesday evening, 13th June, police and Fatah supporters awaited them and tried to disperse any demonstration and gathering and urged them to leave the streets according to the Guardian. Violent clashes and fights erupted, while the police used batons and tear gas against the protesters. Haaretz reported that Fatah supporters and security forces in civilian clothes are said to have mingled with the demonstrators to further fuel the situation.
According to a report from 2016 by the Henry Jackson Society on democracy, freedom and human rights, the PA’s violent reaction is not the first of its kind but is part of a series of structural repressive measures against opposition members and critics of Fatah and PA within the West Bank. In the past, restriction of basic civil rights such as freedom of expression, assembly and press were used repeatedly. ThePA’s police has disrupted nonviolent demonstrations and used excessive force and violence when dispersing protestors.
Further smaller protests have been announced for the coming days. These protests demonstrate the willingness of the Palestinian population to reconciliation and the termination of the schism between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It remains to be seen to what extent the protests will endure despite the repression.