Revolts in the West Bank and Jordan – Challenge or Opportunity?

Monday, October 22, 2012 |  Elizabeth Blade

Since the eruption of the uprisings in the Arab world starting in late 2010, the West Bank, the biblical Judea and Samaria, has been relatively quiet. Now the situation seems to be changing with the notorious Arab Spring knocking on the door.

September saw massive protests across the Palestinian Authority-ruled territories as thousands of locals observed a one-day strike, while others shut down entire cities, burning tires and attacking PA governmental offices.

The demonstrations came in response to the government’s failure to pay the August wages of nearly 150,000 public employees, as well as the decision to raise fuel costs and value-added taxes on most goods and services. This made it hard for ordinary Palestinians to provide for their families, especially given the fact that an average monthly salary in the PA stands at about $400.

Frustrated at the expensive costs of living and the inability of the government to act upon its promises, Palestinians called for the resignation of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who as recently as last year was celebrated for boosting economic growth. Similar calls have also been directed against the President Mahmoud Abbas.

More to come

These protests are not likely to die out. A recent study by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) concluded that 76% of Palestinians expected the current wave of demonstrations to continue and even escalate, especially if prices climb further.

In an attempt to tackle the crisis, the PA came up with a number of initiatives designed to cool down the masses. Fayyad, for example, promised to resign if that was the will of the people and if doing so would “solve the economic problems”. He also announced some concessions, reducing the tax increase to 15% (instead of the proposed 15.5%), promising to restore petrol prices to their August levels, and guaranteeing that PA employees would get at least half of their salaries immediately.

Other high ranking officials joined the chorus, vowing that the government would introduce a minimum wage law and would work on the creation of price control initiatives aimed at preventing traders from exploiting the crisis.

Simultaneously, to distract public attention from domestic issues, President Abbas revved up his efforts to obtain non-member state status at the United Nations General Assembly, the debate and vote for which are expected in November.

Opportunity for extremists?

But as people are frustrated with the lack of progress, and as Abbas’ Fatah party seems to be losing support among Palestinians, could that be used by radical elements (like Hamas) to seize power, ousting the current government? In other words: will the West Bank become the Arab Spring’s next victim?

Professor Hillel Frisch, senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, says it is unlikely the Palestinian government will fall.

“The PA is weak, fragmented and has almost zero support, but I doubt it’s going to be brought down. In fact, the Arab Spring is actually helping the PA. Palestinians see the extent of suffering in other Arab states that were hit by the revolutions and they come to the realization that they don’t want this turmoil at home,” Frisch explained to Israel Today.

Addressing the concerns that Hamas could take over the West Bank in general elections, Frisch again expressed his doubts: “First of all, I don’t believe that [truly] democratic elections will take place and, secondly, Hamas is not popular even in the Gaza Strip,” let alone the West Bank.

Indeed, as the West Bank geared up for municipal elections on Saturday, with Hamas boycotting the polls amid claims of Fatah harassing its candidates, the chances of a Hamas takeover seemed bleak. Although analysts predicted severe blow to Fatah as well, the ruling party did win the elections without encountering any significant resistance.

Another reason that could explain Palestinians’ reluctance to turn peaceful protests into bloody revolts against their government is people’s lingering exhaustion from years of destructive uprisings against Israel (that mostly ended in 2005) as well as a relative rise in prosperity that followed soon after.

Scapegoating Israel

But even if that’s the case, the PA still fears that a regime change is possible, preferring to redirect people’s ire toward Israel, and encouraging a third Intifada (uprising).

Ramallah has already pinned the blame for the acute fiscal situation on Jerusalem, claiming it was responsible for the high costs of living. This is despite the mutual agreement to improve cooperation on tax collection (signed this summer), and the ongoing efforts of the current Israeli government to remove many military barriers that bog down Palestinian trade.

Nevertheless, the PA’s strategy seems to be paying off. Crowds flooded the streets across Judea and Samaria chanting anti-Israel slogans, including “The people want the fall of [the] Oslo [Accords]!”

But Frisch said that Israel had nothing to worry about. “People may act foolishly as a mob but most of them are tired of the problems and are more concerned with financial issue rather than Israeli activities”. His words were backed by the reassurances of hopeful candidates in Saturday’s local elections that promised everything from cleaner streets to free Wi-Fi, while largely avoiding outlandish anti-Israel slogans.

Blaming everyone but themselves

Yet, determined to find a scapegoat, Fayyad pointed a blaming finger at the international community, arguing the decrease in foreign funds stood behind PA’s impotence in handling the crisis.

“What they are getting today is 20 times larger than it was in 1994, when limited Palestinian self-rule came into being,” said Frisch, referring to the generous cash injections flowing from such states as Japan, Canada, the US, EU members, Russia and many others.

“The only way for the Palestinians to increase their wealth is through work in Israel. This possibility has been scrapped [following the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000 that claimed the lives of more than 600 people]. Now they are paying the price for their past mistakes,” concluded the expert.

Meanwhile in Jordan

In neighboring Jordan the situation is equally alarming, but unlike other Arab countries, where protests erupted spontaneously, demonstrations in the kingdom have been meticulously orchestrated.

But king Abdullah II saw it coming. That’s why, before demonstrations actually escalated, he started addressing the issues of corruption and lack of representation. Yet, the proposed reforms as well as the resignation of five governments didn’t help to ease the tensions.

In the beginning of October, thousands of Jordanians gathered in the capital city of Amman to protest the slow pace of reform and the electoral law passed last July, which discriminated against Jordanians of Palestinian descent.

Staged by the Islamic Action Front, a Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, mass protests got particularly intensive following the king’s decision to dissolve the parliament and call for early elections (without specifying the dates), indicating that the Brotherhood’s real intention was to overthrow the monarchy, not to push for reforms.

Could Jordan fall?

Will Islamists succeed in Jordan as they did in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya? Experts are skeptical.

“The situation can get nasty and tensions can mount, leading to the collapse of the regime. Yet, as things seem right now, I don't see it happening. In order to understand why, you have to know the system,” said Orit Perlov, a researcher with Israel’s Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), who specializes in monitoring the moods of the Arab street through social networks.

“Some 70% of Jordan’s total population is people of Palestinian origin. They hold the keys to the economy and business sectors, while the Hashemites (native Jordanians of Bedouin descent), the backbone of the current regime, are in charge of the army and the government,” she explained. “If the Muslim Brotherhood pushes the line too much, the army will use its force and blood will be shed. There should be no doubts about that and the Muslim Brotherhood knows it.”

Frisch agreed. “Many people might not be satisfied with the king’s ‘divide and rule’ practices, but the regime is not going to be toppled, primarily because the king has always had strong people to side with,” he told Israel Today.

A house divided

While the pro-government forces seem to be loyal to the regime, the opposition is pretty divided. “First of all, there is the [Muslim Brotherhood] movement that pushes for political reforms, among which is the demand to establish a constitutional monarchy where the government is elected and not appointed by the king,” explained Perlov, adding that even though the Brotherhood is organized, it does not represent the majority of the population, and is unable to draw big numbers for protests.

“Secondly, there are the kingdom’s Palestinians, most of whom oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, but they do speak up against high unemployment rates and political inequality. And, finally, there are the Hashemites, who call for socio-economic reforms,” she stressed.

Additionally, according to Perlov, there are two other factors that could keep the regime intact. “The majority of people – though angry with the authorities – still back the king. Plus, many Jordanians simply don’t believe the Islamic opposition would be able to oust the government, primarily because it doesn’t have the weapons to do so,” she charged.

The only problem is that there are plenty of regional (and international) players who would be more than willing to arm the anti-government masses. According to Saudi news channel Al-Arabia, Russia, Syria and Iran are already snooping into Jordan’s affairs, stirring conflict in the kingdom, motivated by the desire to weaken the western forces and distract their attention from the war-stricken Syria.

“Even if MB does find the weapons to launch full-scale attacks against pro-government forces and the king decides to step down to prevent bloodshed, Hashemites will not relinquish power that easily. They will fight to the bitter end, determined not to let Palestinians take over,” stated Perlov.

Regional battle lines

Other Arab monarchies won’t allow the Jordanian regime to fall, either. The Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia have already voiced concerns about Muslim Brotherhood activities next to their borders, fearing that the collapse of the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan would make Saudi Arabia next on the Islamists’ target list.

Israel is also anxious to see how the current developments will play out, especially since the 1994 peace agreement is at stake.

Western financial aid attached to that peace treaty doesn’t seem to be adequate incentive for the Islamists, and last Friday thousands of Brotherhood supporters took to the streets of Amman’s downtown, calling on the government to cut relations with Jerusalem despite earlier claims that they would honor the peace treaty. Crowds that totaled some 10,000 people have also urged the king to expel all US forces on Jordanian soil.

Show of might

In an attempt to send a clear message to the Islamists to back off, the king decided to display his military might, attending drills, and meeting with a French commander and Kuwaiti minister to mull cooperation. He also welcomed some 150 US planners and other specialists, who came to assist the monarch in dealing with the Syrian crisis as well as those forces that threaten stability.

Storm clouds on the horizon

“While the Islamists are too scared to confront the army at the present moment, they could get bolder if the Arab Spring managed to knock out Syria and the current Palestinian leaders, or if Islamists (like Hamas)ascended to power following free and democratic elections,” argued Perlov, adding that this possibility was highly unlikely due to Hamas’ dwindling support.

But while Israeli experts are skeptical, there are some who think that an Islamist regime in Jordan is not only possible, but could play into the hands of Palestinians.

Voltairenet.org, a French network of non-aligned press groups dedicated to the analysis of the international relations, claims that Hamas leader Khaled Mashal could become a potential leader of a post-Abdullah Jordan, especially given his past experience as the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Jordanian branch. If this scenario does play out, says the website, Mashal could unite the two banks of the Jordan River, becoming the ruler of a larger Palestinian state.

Perlov rebutted those allegations. “I doubt he will be chosen. Israel is hunting him, that's why he cannot even go back to Gaza and prefers to live in hiding,” she explained. Frisch conceded that Mashal was an unlikely candidate, but said the union of the West Bank and Jordan was not an issue of personality.

Nevertheless, Perlov said that the two banks’ union was inevitable in the long run. “With or without Mashal, it is going to happen. As things go right now, the West Bank is going to become a de facto Jordanian territory, whereas the Gaza Strip will eventually merge with Egypt. The writing is already on the wall.

“But until this actually happens, we will just witness another round of uncertainty and instability, with crime and arms smuggling reaching unprecedented levels,” she summed up.

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