RAMALLAH -- The echo of large Israeli demonstrations for social justice seems far away from the streets of Ramallah, the economic capital of the West Bank. Frankly speaking, many Palestinians during this month of Ramadan have not given the matter much thought.
“Their protests don’t affect me. It’s not inherently political as in Tunisia or Egypt, but rather about rent prices,” said Majdal Nijem, a 22-year-old student, who along with others launched a Facebook group last March to urge Hamas and Fatah to reconcile in the midst of the Arab Spring. “Since they don’t have the security problems that Palestinians do, they are more able to focus on internal problems.”
For Saleh Abdul Jawad, a political science professor at Birzeit University near Ramallah, the protests are a reminder of how “far away” Israel has become. “There has been a total separation between Israeli and Palestinian societies since the second intifada. Yet the distance that separates us is not about geographical boundaries.”
Fady, with a shaven head and clear eyes behind small, rectangular glasses, lives in east Jerusalem and has a small business in Ramallah “where the price of houses is just as expensive.” He is a harsh critic of the revolt unfolding on the other side of the wall since “Israelis have a solid economy, a better standard of living and the possibility of taking care of themselves and leaving the country if they want to,” he said. Fady also fears the demonstrations are “a political game” that could turn into “a pretext to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank.”
Some Palestinians who watch the protests on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, or read about them in the papers take a certain pride in the fact Israelis are “copying” the Arab Spring revolts. Such is the case with Daoud Talhami, a member of the Palestinian National Council for more than 30 years, who hopes this revolt will take a more political turn.
“The forces of peace, much weakened in Israel, could benefit from this climate of defiance,” he said. “It could alert public opinion about the link between the occupation and Israel’s economic and social problems. The amount of money spent by the government in east Jerusalem and in the West Bank could be redirected toward disadvantaged segments of the population.”
The costs of occupation
It is an analysis consistent with that of the Palestinian Authority. “If we look at events from a positive perspective, we realize that it is in fact possible to mobilize Israelis in the streets in the case of justified social demands,” says Hassan Balawi, adviser to the Foreign Affairs Ministry. “We can therefore hope to mobilize the street for peace by explaining that our drive at the UN for an independent Palestinian state would permit a normalization of relations between Israel and Arab states as well as economic prosperity.”
An “important part of our communications campaign will be directed at the Israeli public,” Balawi says. “The occupation is not only costing the Palestinians dearly. Israeli society also pays the price.”
Still, the optimistic outlook is quickly tempered by the dread of seeing the Israeli government utilize the conflict with the Palestinians to find an exit to the crisis. “We have already seen in the past that the repression of the Palestinian people is a favorite theme that unites a diverse cross-section of Israeli society,” Balawi says.
In downtown Ramallah, a few steps from Manara Square, Amar runs a small bakery. He supports the Israeli demonstrators, but notes that “the Arabs from 1948 [living inside Israel proper] should join the protests in order to bring down the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Arab Israelis – an estimated 20 percent of Israel’s population – have for the most part not mobilized, even though they are particularly affected by the rising cost of living.
“Several laws discriminating against them were voted on in recent months by the Israeli parliament. That explains why they are distancing themselves, feeling already excluded from the demands of this social movement,” says Sawsan Zaher, an attorney with Adalah, a legal center in Israel that advocates for minority rights. “Now, however, a process is underway, and more and more Arabs are joining the demonstrations.”
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