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ANALYSIS-Palestinians talk of protest, little sign of action

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 18 Aug 2011 09:37 AM
Author: Reuters
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* Diplomatic push might see unrest, but many sceptical

* Fatah leader sees protests growing, Israel prepares

* In refugee camp, no sign of preparations for demonstrations

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Aug 18 (Reuters) - Calls for Palestinian protests to back a diplomatic push for statehood at the United Nations next month have put Israel on guard; the peace process in deep crisis, some see a violent September, inspired by the Arab Spring.

Yet to many, a sustained Intifada, or uprising, appears unlikely, at least for now. To ordinary Palestinians, the significance of U.N. manoeuvres in New York is hard to fathom, their leaders in the West Bank are wary of violence with Israel and their national movement remains weakened by a deep schism.

"There might be some protests," said Zakaria al-Qaq, a Palestinian political analyst. "But not with the size that the Palestinian leadership expects because the people feel they are marginalised. There is a great lack of confidence."

Marwan al-Barghouti, a charismatic leader in the last two Intifadas and now jailed for life in Israel, was among the first to call for protests to add popular weight to President Mahmoud Abbas's bid to secure a U.N. seat for a new state of Palestine.

With memories of protests on its borders this spring still fresh, Israel is deploying extra forces in preparation for trouble. In the opinion of Avigdor Lieberman, the far-right foreign minister, the Palestinians are planning violence.

In Jalazone, a refugee camp a short drive from the centre of Ramallah, Mohammed Nakhla, 23 years old and unemployed, believes the failure of diplomacy means more confrontation is inevitable.

"There's no alternative," he said. "You need to resist."

With faith in the peace process non-existent -- Abbas himself says talks have hit a dead end -- observers have for some time warned of a vacuum that could be filled by turmoil.

Mahmoud al-Aloul, a veteran in the Fatah party led by Abbas, confidently expects widespread protests in support of the U.N. bid. "It is a declaration of a loss of hope," Aloul told Reuters. "This will lead to a continuous escalation.

"They will be peaceful protests. But will they stay peaceful? This will depend on how the Israelis act."

LITTLE APPETITE

Yet to many Palestinian analysts, the idea of an imminent outbreak of widespread insurrection, similar to those that are reshaping the rest of the Arab world, seems fanciful.

Some question whether Abbas is even serious in calling for the protests. He has long been opposed to violence and may fear that protests will spiral out of control.

Regardless, some Palestinians will probably take to the streets in response to his call. As is always the case in the generations-old conflict, there is ample potential for confrontations with Israeli security forces.

Yet if the experience of May and June is anything to go by, the participation will not be large. Protests called to mark major anniversaries in the conflict with Israel failed to galvanise large numbers in the Palestinian territories.

More attention focused on Israel's northern frontiers, where thousands of refugees gathered. Some crossed the frontline from Syria, delighting Palestinians and giving Israel's heavily armed troops the problem of dealing with unarmed mass protests.

The head of the Israeli army, looking ahead to next month, has said he does not see "strong energy" among the Palestinians. Unlike foreign minister Lieberman, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak says he expects events to unfold quietly.

On the ground, there are few signs of preparation. Headlines in Palestinian papers focus more on protests against the high cost of living and on the uprising in Syria than on any thoughts about Palestinians' own possible demonstrations in September.

If Abbas has plans for mass mobilisation, they have yet to reach Jalazone. Established in 1949, it is today home to 11,000 refugees and amounts to a suburb of Ramallah, distinguished from streets elsewhere in the hilly city mostly by its poverty.

"IT'S MEANINGLESS"

At the local Fatah headquarters, Abbas loyalists forecast a large turnout for protests when Abbas asks the United Nations to recognise a Palestinian state. But they could not say what, if anything, was being done to organise that.

In the street, some expressed support for a move seen as a welcome departure from two decades of failed peace talks. Others were outright dismissive, arguing that the U.N. manoeuvres will have no tangible impact on their lives under Israeli occupation.

"It's meaningless. I talk to people and they make fun of the issue," said Bahaa al-Din Zaid, as he stacked loaves in a bakery. "We don't have the foundations of a state."

Away from the veneer of prosperity elsewhere in Ramallah, he said Palestinians had other concerns: "People are not interested in this subject -- they are interested in making ends meet."

Like many Palestinians, he remembers the uprisings of the 1980s and a decade ago as failures, neither Intifada bringing the Palestinians closer to achieving their goal of independence.

The first resulted in the Oslo interim peace accords seen by many Palestinians as a woefully bad deal. The second caused the deaths of hundreds of Israelis and thousands of Palestinians, and led to the erection of Israel's West Bank barrier.

With Israel's key U.S. ally opposed to Abbas's push for U.N. recognition -- Washington insists that should be part of a negotiated settlement with Israel -- substantive gains from a request for enhanced status at the United Nations seem unlikely.

The division between Fatah and Hamas has added to a sense of national crisis among the 4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who are looking for a leadership with a clear strategy.

The schism between Abbas's Fatah in the West Bank and the Islamist Hamas which rules in Gaza, which has so weakened the Palestinians, persists despite a deal agreed in May to end it.

One Fatah organiser in the West Bank, who declined to be named, said the leadership's call for protests was not serious: "The potential for Palestinian protest is there, but it cannot be the result of government directives," he said.

"The Palestinians want mobilisation and there's accumulated frustration. But you cannot mobilise with this current policy." (Editing by Crispian Balmer and Alastair Macdonald)

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