Occupied West Bank: Protests against high prices and the Oslo Accords

Protests and strikes by thousands shake the West Bank

"A-sha`eb youreed esqat Oslo!" – "The people want the fall of [the] Oslo [Accords]!" – a paraphrase of the famous slogan of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions, has become a central slogan in the latest struggles in the occupied West Bank. A wave of angry protests and strike action by thousands shook the area at the beginning of the month against the unbearable cost of living and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) government, particularly its slavish acceptance of the economic arrangements and conditions dictated to it by the Israeli regime.

Another slogan, "Yalla irh’al ya Fayyad!" – "Leave already, Fayyad!" – paraphrases a revolutionary song against the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Effigies of the PA prime minister, Salam Fayyad, a former official of the IMF and World Bank and a current stooge of Western imperialism, were set on fire and in Hebron demonstrators threw shoes over a large banner carrying with his photo. In an attempt to isolate the protestors, he rhetorically declared a willingness to resign if that was the will of the people and it would “solve the economic problems". Already at the beginning of the year, Fayyad was forced by social protests to reverse decisions to attack public sector workers’ pensions and raise taxes, but this time the protests are more extensive and radicalised.

At the end of May, the PA reaffirmed its support for a complete monopoly by Israeli petrol corporations for the next two years. As petrol prices were raised by 7% and set at an all-time record in Israel (8.25 Shekels / €1.63 per litre of octane 95) on 1 September, they were automatically matched in the PA enclaves (excluding the Gaza Strip), where GDP per capita is about 15 times lower than the Israeli figure of $32,000 and unemployment is on the rise, estimated at 17%. In neighbouring Jordan, thousands protested against the decision of the government to increase petrol prices for the second time in three months, which was enough to scare King Abdullah with the spectre of a mass movement and to spur him to reverse the government’s decision. In Jordan, the price of petrol is less than half of the Israeli rate! As if the general rise in the price of food and basic products wasn’t enough, the PA’s VAT rate, pegged to its Israeli counterpart, was raised at the beginning of September from 16% to 17%, imitating the measure taken by the Israeli government. And yet once again, after months of delays in the payment of wages, the 150,000 public employees of the PA (including over 50,000 non-governmental employees in Gaza), providing a living for nearly a million people, didn’t get their shrivelled salaries for August, and were forced to pay the price of the PA’s deep fiscal crisis.

Youth against Price Rises

All of this was received with great frustration and revulsion on the streets of the occupied West Bank. Tragically, similarly to many such incidents since the Tunisian revolution, these sentiments were accompanied by some attempts at self-immolation. One of these was in Gaza by an 18-year old unemployed person from the a-Shati refugee camp, who died soon after (a parallel wave of bitter self-immolation protests among impoverished Israelis since July has taken three lives). However, at the same time, hundreds of Palestinian workers and youth were also beginning to organize a fightback from 4 September. The day after, thousands demonstrated across Palestinian villages, cities and refugee camps in the West Bank. Youth, some of them organized in the new non-partisan front "Youth against Price Rises" (شباب ضد الغلاء), were leading the stormy blockades of main roads and junctions, aided by rocks and burning tyres, shouting slogans against the Ramallah government and its corruption and agreements with Israel. Alongside Palestinian flags and some Keffiyes, there were also some protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masks, which have become an international symbol of social protest. Significantly, truck and cab drivers stopped their work and blocked roads and the Palestinian Teachers’ Union initiated several protest strikes as well.

Demonstrators were not impressed with the attempts by the PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, whose term was supposed to end almost four years ago, to endorse the protests, seemingly hoping to use them as a lever for his symbolic re-run bid to the UN General Assembly at the end of the month for the acceptance of the PA as a non-member state. Abbas himself met with angry protests in early July, organized by another youth group, "Palestinians for Dignity" (فلسطينيون من اجل الكرامة), in response to his willingness to meet with the leader of the Israeli Kadima party, Shaul Mofaz. The latter was IDF chief of staff during the Second Intifada (2000-2005) and responsible for several horrendous and bloody onslaughts against the Palestinians. Then, the demonstrators, already shouting against the Oslo Accords, managed to stop this planned meeting but were repressed brutally by Abbas’s security forces, with some ending up hospitalized. To pacify the anger over the role of the PA security forces as subcontractors for the Israeli occupation, an inquiry committee was set up. This time, Abbas initially implied that no force would be used against protestors, and on the ground parts of his Fatah party intervened in the demonstrations, apparently trying to focus the anger around the non-Fatah Fayyad. Those tactics didn’t help in watering down the general anger towards the PA. In the north-eastern governorate of Tubas, the governor was hit on the head by stones in one of the demonstrations. Very quickly, Fatah activists’ focus on Fayyad was answered in demos with matching calls against Abbas. In some incidents, protestors turned their frustration against PA buildings and threw rocks at the PA policemen. They were met with tear-gas and batons. Dozens were injured in Hebron and Nablus.

Down with the Paris Protocol

Demonstrators are calling for the abolition of the Paris Protocol, the economic appendix of the Oslo Accords between the PA and Israel, which was signed in 1994 and which assures a neo-colonial subordination of the PA enclaves’ economy to Israeli capitalism. The protocol obliges the PA to continue using the Israeli currency and to buy water, electricity and petrol exclusively from Israel. It also establishes a ‘customs union’ between the PA and Israel and pegs VAT (allowing a decrease of no more than 2 percentage points below the Israeli tax), thus preventing the PA from reducing prices and limiting a flood of Israeli products. All parts about the economic rights of the PA to independently trade internationally have been ignored by Israel. As Israel formally collects the customs taxes for the PA, it also delays the transfer of those taxes whenever it wishes to punish the Palestinians.

At the end of July, Fayyad signed new trade and taxation agreements with the Israeli government, following a year of secret talks, in order to extend the implementation of the Paris Protocol. With pressure from below, Abbas ordered the PA government on 9 September to formally request Israel to revise the agreement. He was also possibly pressured by a declaration by the petrol companies in Gaza – where no parallel demonstrations were yet organized – that they will decrease the price of petrol they import via tunnels from Egypt, which already was half of the Israeli price. Abbas’s statement didn’t seem to be taken seriously by anybody. The following day, a general strike by 24,000 public transport drivers, along with teachers in schools and universities, developed into a popular general strike that brought to a halt the bulk of the PA economy. The strike was joined by truck drivers and by many small shop owners, and by demonstrations in different areas. Following some incidents of private vehicles scabbing by offering paid transportation, the drivers moved to block all main roads. The Union of Public Sector Employees, declared illegal by Abbas last May, announced a strike the next morning, 11 September, and held a demonstration in Ramallah. A parallel youth demonstration on that day in Ramallah can be seen in the following video, where youth shout for "Thawra!", "Revolution!" – against Oslo, against Paris, against the arrangements with Israel, against Abbas and against Fayyad.


Fayyad’s concessions

Fayyad then declared some concessions. He promised that PA employees will get at least half of their wages immediately, that VAT will be reduced to 15%, and petrol and LPG prices will be restored to their August levels. As this does not mean the end of slavish capitulation to Israeli economic conditions, the PA will subsidize the gap with Israeli prices, and for that purpose will cut the budget of all ministries apart from education, health and welfare. He also promised in a vague manner that the PA will introduce price controls to prevent traders from exploiting the crisis. The minister of national economy, Jawad a-Naji, added that the PA will introduce a minimum wage law and impotently pledged to appeal to Palestinian capitalists to import commodities directly from other countries, allegedly bypassing Israeli middlemen.

Fayyad focused the blame for the economic crisis on donating states for not keeping their financial aid promises. Due to the international economic crisis, foreign aid to the PA has indeed dropped sharply in recent years, but this is secondary to the enslavement of the PA, under occupation, to Israeli capitalism. In contrast, on the streets there are a lot of sharp critical voices against the fact that international financial aid currently serves as a subsidy to stabilize the status-quo of occupation.

The current protests are testimony to the complete bankruptcy of the gradual ‘state-building’ project led by Fayyad in recent years. Despite praise by bourgeois commentators internationally for economic growth, this project has led to growing economic hardship for the population in the 40% of the West Bank that is semi-controlled by the PA. It did not deter Israel whatsoever from advancing its ethnic cleansing policies in the rest of the West Bank (Area C), where the Palestinian minority is discriminated against by segregated infrastructure and has to cope with daily attacks from both the Israeli military forces and settlers.

Crocodile tears

"I hope the Palestinians will get over the crisis. It’s a joint interest of all of us," said the Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, as he ordered an early transfer of tax revenues to the PA. Ever since the beginning of the revolutionary movements in the region last year, the Israeli bourgeoisie is noticeably more frightened of a renewed popular uprising of the Palestinian masses. Last year, following protests of tens of thousands for an end to the divide between the West Bank and Gaza, and following the heroic and bloodily-repressed protests of radicalized Palestinian refugees on the borders (with some succeeding in tearing the fences and coming in from Syria), the Israeli regime was preparing for the possible scenario of a new mass uprising to coincide with the application of the PA to the UN in September. Among other things, they trained the settlers’ militias to shoot at demonstrations. Such a scenario was postponed, partially due to the receding of the mass movements across the region in the latter part of the year. This temporarily lowered the pressure on the Israeli regime, which moved its focus to boost war threats against Iran.

At the same time and against the back-ground of growing discontent and class polarization within Israeli society – manifested last year by the eruption of a mass social protest movement – the entire logic of the ultra-nationalist Netanyahu government leads it to whip up nationalist tensions. It leans on the settlements and accelerates the never-ending expropriation of the Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line (such as the current government plan to demolish eight Palestinian villages near Mount Hebron for "a fire practice area"). Their stance also encourages a surge in settlers’ violence and terrorist activities against Palestinians (such as the burning and severe wounding of an entire West Bank Palestinian family last month by a Molotov cocktail).

The Israeli government strives futilely to subdue by brute force any hopes of resistance and any national, democratic and economic aspirations of the Palestinians. This can have only a limited effect in deterring mass action and, in fact, it radicalises further some sections of the population. In February, in response to some Israeli far-right provocations against Muslims, hundreds of protesters clashed with Israeli military and police forces, throwing stones, Molotov cocktails and flares. In parallel, marking the 18th anniversary of the Cave of the Patriarchs’ massacre in Hebron, hundreds of Palestinians protested across the West Bank, and one youth was shot to death by the soldiers at the Qalandiya checkpoint. Villagers’ demonstrations against the Separation Wall, regular in recent years, involving also some internationals and Israelis, have continued under harsh repression.

"We ought to act as forest-keepers"

While the call last March by the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, the only genuinely popular Fatah leader, for a third intifada was premature and couldn’t mobilize protests, nevertheless there are important indications of the further development of popular struggle. When faced with rapidly-spreading hunger strikes by Palestinian political prisoners, culminating in a mass hunger strike at the end of April and start of May, with some militant solidarity protests in front of Israeli prisons, the Israeli government has had to concede so far in every case, fearing that the death of a prisoner would spark a new mass movement on the ground.

The Israeli bourgeoisie dreads a situation in which the PA would practically collapse and give way to a mass movement that would turn against the occupation and the settlements, and even – hypothetically at this stage – demand equal rights within one state, where the Israeli Jewish population would then become a minority. And yet they are not sure of the repercussions of any political concessions and lack the political capacity to offer any. But the government is being constantly warned, implicitly and explicitly by the bourgeois media, by juridical bodies of the state and particularly by the military, that it faces growing political instability in the West Bank. Partially for that reason and under the recommendations of the military, last month the government started approving 11,000 more permits for West Bank Palestinians to work inside Israel in construction, but this will not make a significant difference. "In recent weeks we recognize a beginning of change, a beginning of a sort of Intifada in the Arab Spring [in] the Palestinian Authority that might challenge us… We ought to act as forest-keepers when the forest is very inflammable and matches are spread over a large number of places," said General Nitzan Alon, Head of Central Command of the IDF, in a meeting with settlement leaders on 10 September. The night before, the military severely wounded one Palestinian youth protester who allegedly participated in throwing Molotov cocktails at a military checkpoint. Throughout the Palestinian protests, settlers have kept up their usual provocations and attacks against villages, allowed de-facto by the Israeli military. In the Palestinian village of Qusra near Nablus, where some important steps towards self-defence organizations were already made last year, an attack by settlers on 8 September was answered with a well-aimed rain of stones by a group of 200 residents.

Looking back at the first intifada

The current protests seem so far to be smaller than the demonstrations "for unity" of March 2011, and they haven’t yet spread to Gaza, but they are beginning to merge economic demands with demands against the occupation, exposing also the collaborationist role of the PA. Militant strikes – even if not yet in the settlements’ industrial zones – accompanied by demonstrations that are led by working people and militant youth, are starting to pave the road for a powerful new liberation movement. Some say that "it’s like the beginning of the first intifada", the revolutionary mass uprising of the Palestinians 25 years ago, which dealt a severe blow to the Israeli military dictatorship in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip via mass demonstrations, strike action, popular committees and stones used against heavy arms. This is not yet the case, but there is now a new generation looking to learn from this experience, understanding that nothing but the power of the Palestinian masses can end their occupation, oppression and expropriation. Evidently, no foreign power will solve their problems. The big imperialist governments are all complicit in their oppression.

The establishment of the PA and the withdrawal of the Israeli military from the heart of the towns and villages were limited concessions following the first intifada (1987-1993), which made the old direct occupation unsustainable. But the Israeli regime never had any intention of agreeing to an independent Palestinian state, and was merely looking to bring down and repress the Palestinian movement via the newly-formed PA security forces and implementing different closure and dissection policies, even if that meant reaching a deal with the exiled leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. It wasn’t long before all hopes in the promised ‘peace process’ evaporated among the Palestinian masses. The living conditions of the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have declined sharply following the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, while the Israeli colonies in those territories have expanded vastly. After a series of popular struggles, September 2000 saw a new mass uprising, the second intifada, against an on-going Israeli occupation camouflaged with deceitful ‘peace’ talks and accords. The uprising broke down within months, giving way to predominantly limited military actions by small, secretive groups and reactionary terrorist attacks, which proved counterproductive. However, the popular uprising itself was a further blow to the Israeli occupation, and indirectly pushed the Israeli regime to pull out the settlements and military presence from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The Israeli ruling class saw this as a means to stabilize the occupation and the control of the Palestinians. The ‘locking away’ of the 1.5 million residents of Gaza was followed by murderous onslaughts against them.

In the first days of the current protest wave in the West Bank, the Israeli Air Force killed six Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Fishermen on its coast were once again shot at by the Israeli Navy, imposing a maritime blockade. Despite claims of economic growth in the Strip, mostly due to the tunnel-economy, 80% of the residents, the majority of whom are under 18, are still dependent on UN aid and unemployment is estimated formally at 30%. Power cuts are frequent. Recent UN research warned that within a few years there won’t be enough suitable drinking water. The recent firing of projectiles at Israeli residents, mostly by some reactionary small militias, doesn’t offer any way out of the crisis. The Hamas government, in power since the split with the PA in 2007, might be less loyal to Israeli capitalism, but cannot offer the masses in Gaza any fundamental change, as it is based itself on capitalism and a very narrow sectarian and religious agenda. The split with the West Bank, basically pushed by Israel and the West after Hamas won the 2006 elections, remains an obstacle in the way of a unified new Palestinian mass movement. All attempts to form a ‘unity government’ have failed so-far. That has also served as pretext to postpone again and again the general elections.

Local elections in the West Bank are still promised to be held on 22 October. Candidates based on the movement, campaigning in the interests of workers and the poor, supporting mass, democratically-organized struggles to further those interests could use these elections to build a pole of attraction. Otherwise, these elections might not have too much real significance.

Deepening of the national divide emphasizes impasse under capitalism

A joint Israeli-Palestinian poll in June 2012 among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem, and among residents of Israel, indicated that on both sides of the Green Line there is only a tiny minority who believes that there are any chances a Palestinian state could be established over the next five years. On both sides of the Line, people are generally split over the formula of a ‘two-state solution’, and majorities on both sides believe that the settlements in any case won’t allow such an alleged solution. At the same time, definite majorities (60% in Israel, 65% among Palestinians in the occupied territories) oppose a ‘one-state solution’ with equal rights for both nationalities. 47% of Palestinians said that the end of the Israeli occupation of the 1967 territories and the construction of a Palestinian state over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, should be defined as the most important goal for the Palestinian struggle. Although this poll was conducted along the territorial divide and not firmly across the national divide, it does indicate that currently there is a vast mutual distrust and disbelief in any possible solution. 62% of Palestinians in the occupied territories think that Israel strives to expel all Arab residents between the River and the Sea. 55% of the population in Israel believes that Palestinian aspirations in the long run are to conquer the State of Israel and/or to destroy much of the Jewish population in it.

The Palestinian masses could achieve great gains against the Israeli colonial occupation, with huge solidarity and repercussions in the region and internationally, against Israel’s neo-colonial rule of the PA, and its national oppression and expropriation measures.

At the same time, ultimately, both nationalities are here to stay. Will the bulk of the Israeli working class and poor collaborate with the breaking of the Palestinian struggle for social justice and national liberation or join hands with it? Existential scare-tactics allow the Israeli ruling class, despite sharp class polarization in society, to stabilize relatively the social base of its oppressive capitalist regime, and to mobilize the Israeli-Jewish population against the Arab-Palestinian population. Breaking up this predatory link is in the joint interests of the working class and oppressed on both sides of the divide. Only a programme that includes the assuring of an absolutely equal right of self-determination for both nationalities – as Maavak Sotzyalisti/Nidal Eshteraki (CWI Israel/Palestine) argues for – along with absolutely equal rights for all minorities, could serve as a framework for a genuine joint struggle on a mass scale for a socialist change that could meet the national, democratic and economic aspirations of the Palestinian masses, as well as the Israeli workers and poor, and offer a base for a voluntary and equal confederal union. Such a union would be vital to fully solve the distress of the Palestinian refugees in the region, enabling those who would wish to settle anew in any part of the country to eventually do so. The current Israeli government has recently adopted a line that emphasizes the historic sufferings of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who fled from the Arab countries due to the hostilities and violence against Jews that spread there following the 1948 war and the Palestinian Nakba. This was completely hypcritical: The Israeli Ashkenazi (European-background) ruling elite has marginalized and discriminated against them on an ethnic basis for decades, and now the regime uses part of their tragedy – while none of them lives in a refugee camp or demands a right of return – in cynical political spin intended to negate all demands regarding the right of the Palestinian refugees and their families.

Israeli capitalism, backed by the world imperialist powers, would never allow the full realization of the aspirations of the Palestinian masses. Capitalism in general could never allow a fundamental solution to the exploitation and dire poverty on both sides of the divide, including among the Palestinians all across the region, and would keep nurturing its ‘divide and rule’ policies.

Following Fayyad’s concessions, the public transport drivers have decided to cease their protest actions. The public sector workers are discussing the possibility of an unlimited general strike at the beginning of October, although currently it doesn’t seem certain at all. After a ‘week of rage’, the social protests in the West Bank seem to have calmed down for the time being, and the attention of the local media shifted more to the regional protests and riots against the recent anti-Muslim film. The PA has not waited long and has arrested over a hundred activists, a majority being Hamas members. With the prospect of further economic deterioration, significant protests could re-erupt in a matter of weeks. In any case, as limited as the recent wave of protests in the West Bank has been, it is only the beginning of a new stage of a more determined struggle for change. Maavak Sotzyalisti/Nidal Eshteraki is in full solidarity with the Palestinian protests and organizes street activities in Israel that call for solidarity with the West Bank protests, linking the need to reorganize the social protest movement inside Israel against the economic attacks and the high prices alongside a joint struggle for welfare, democracy, peace and socialism. The protest movement of last year managed to attract some layers of Palestinian citizens of Israel, raising their own demands against some of the discriminatory policies causing greater unemployment and poverty; but the movement as a whole mostly avoided the national question, fearing to deal with it. The West Bank protests, against the high costs of living, for democratic rights and an end to oppression, should definitely be an opportunity for Israeli workers and youth to reach out and show support for those protests and to work towards one cross-border united front for social justice and a just peace. In the West Bank, renewed popular committees – to include representatives from the neighbourhoods, villages, unions, universities and schools – should be formed and serve to discuss and decide on a platform of joint demands and on the next steps for the struggle. A new broad struggle-oriented political party of those formations, based on socialist policies, could and should then be posed as a fresh alternative to the dead end offered by both Fatah and Hamas.

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September 2012