West Bank Palestinians, Israeli Arabs protest as Gaza campaign intensifies

Three weeks into Israel’s bombing campaign of the Gaza Strip, West Bank Palestinians and Israeli Arabs are beginning to display the kind of fury and cohesion that Israel hasn’t seen since the so-called second intifada, or uprising _ a five-year-long grind of violence, notorious for suicide bombings and brutal crackdowns.

In the West Bank, the Ramallah municipality has papered billboards with signs that read, “We are all Gaza.” A large screen hanging on a building downtown shows a nonstop montage of children suffering in the coastal enclave.

Last week, 10,000 Palestinians marched on an Israeli checkpoint at Qalandiya in the West Bank, hurling firebombs and burning tires.

Arab citizens of Israel have staged demonstrations in Nazareth, Haifa, Umm el Fahem and Sakhnin. They’ve declared a general strike.

In Jerusalem, groups of Arab demonstrators have clashed repeatedly with police in the Old City and in east Jerusalem neighborhoods, leading to hundreds of arrests.

At the beginning of the Israel-Gaza escalation, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas tried to tamp down tensions. After three Israeli teens disappeared in the West Bank in mid-June, Abbas offered full cooperation to the Israeli security forces who made sweeping arrests in the West Bank.

Once the teens’ bodies were discovered outside Hebron and Hamas began firing rockets into Israel, Abbas urged a diplomatic solution to the crisis and asked Hamas, “What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?” 

But last week, with the death toll in Gaza mounting daily _ the overwhelming percentage of the dead civilians _ Abbas swung to Hamas’ position. In a speech in Ramallah on July 22, he adopted Hamas’ demands for a cease-fire, including ending the seven-year Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza, releasing prisoners who’d been rearrested after being freed in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and expanding fishing rights.

“No one in the world will live in safety and stability while the children of Gaza, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Palestinian children everywhere do not live in safety and stability,” Abbas said.

Two days later, at least 10,000 Palestinians took to the streets in Ramallah. One of the organizers, Mohamad Rabah, said he was inspired to see so many countrymen marching alongside him. At age 28, he’s never been to Gaza or Jerusalem.

“I was proud that all the people got united,” said Rabah, who works with young people in Ramallah. “I felt we are connected with Gaza again.”

While many of the people who were marching chanted peacefully, Palestinians who reached Qalandiya hurled stones and firebombs at the concrete checkpoint where Israel controls entry to Jerusalem.

A representative of the Israeli army said people in the crowd fired at Israeli soldiers, who retaliated with live fire and killed at least one protester. The next day, thousands took to the streets again, and eight people were reported killed in clashes with Israeli forces and a shooting by a Jewish settler

Ramallah isn’t the only flashpoint for Palestinians to rail against the Israeli operation. Palestinians took to the streets in east Jerusalem, Hebron, Nablus and in Arab towns in Israel, including Nazareth, Umm el Fahem and the mixed city of Haifa.

Mohammad Barakeh, the general secretary of Hadash, a Jewish-Arab socialist party, said the Israeli police arrested his two sons July 21 in a 20,000-person protest in Nazareth; a week later, one remained in custody along with eight other detainees.

Barakeh said Palestinians in Israel _ about 20 percent of the population _ were in “an impossible situation.”

“We are citizens of Israel, and we want to be equal citizens,” he said. “But as part of that equality, the state needs to understand the Palestinian people are our people, and we identify with their pain.”

Besides marching in the streets, Arab citizens of Israel are collecting clothing and medication to send to Gaza, Barakeh said. They’re also volunteering to visit wounded children from Gaza who are undergoing treatment in Israeli hospitals.

Barakeh said he and other leaders of the Arab community in Israel met regularly with President Abbas to keep updated. In their most recent meeting, Abbas told them about efforts for a cease-fire, he said.

Barakeh dismissed the question of whether protests in Israel signify a third intifada against Israeli rule, a reference that recalls a period of violence that began in 1987 and ended with the Oslo accords in 1993, along with the 2000 to 2005 violence that was sparked when Ariel Sharon, then the leader of Israel’s right-wing Likud Party, visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Israeli police aggressively repressed the Palestinian riots that followed, but the violence didn’t end until 2005, after Abbas was elected to head the Palestinian Authority. Abbas, sworn to nonviolence, agreed to a truce that year with Sharon, who by then had become the prime minister.

“Stop with this ‘third intifada,’ ” Barakeh said. “This is a protest against a criminal war. If the war ends, the protest will end.”

For the people of Gaza, the protests in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Israel are heartening. Abeer Ayyoub, a journalist from Gaza, said she got phone calls and messages from friends outside the strip, and she draws strength from seeing protests in Qalandiya or Nazareth.

Ayyoub said she doubted that Palestinian protests would end the Israeli operation in Gaza; instead, she hoped that Israeli anti-war protesters could force their government to stop firing.

So far, protests in Israel have met a stiff response. Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said that since the murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir on July 2, 375 residents of east Jerusalem had been arrested, accused of disturbing the public order; 135 indictments have been issued. Nationwide, nearly 1,000 people have been arrested on suspicion of such disturbances, almost all of them Arabs, Samri said.

Security expert Eitan Shamir said he didn’t worry that Arab citizens of Israel would be a significant security threat because “deep in their hearts, they know they live here.”

If there’s a cease-fire soon between Israel and Hamas, he said, the area will calm down within two weeks. However, “If there’s an escalation, then we really stand in a deterioration scenario. There could be a third intifada.”

Border police thwarted a car bomb Sunday morning near the West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit, showing a hint of the kind of violence that might unfold in a third uprising.

Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Abbas, said something had to change.

“We have submitted to this life of occupation and negotiation too long,” he said. “We disarmed ourselves totally, and the Israelis did not use that as a sign of seriousness of making peace.”