By Samer Makhlouf*
When popular social protests erupted across the occupied West Bank this September, I was thrilled to see the masses take to the streets, drawing attention to skyrocketing prices for basic goods and demanding social justice. Such popular will in action seemed absent for some time in Palestine. For a moment, I thought to myself, maybe something new was lurking on the horizon and radiating hope for change.
That fleeting moment disappeared with the smoke of the burning tires, when it became apparent the youth at the forefront of the protests were mere pawns, aimed at targeting Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. As if the blame for our dire circumstance and suffering could be laid squarely on his shoulders, or that his simple resignation would bring forth our salvation.
The hardships we as Palestinians endure are real. With high fuel prices, unpaid salaries and spiraling costs of living, it's become nearly impossible for us to lead normal lives. The popular protests should be about a rejection of the status quo, a natural reaction against the bitter reality on the ground, and a demand for a better life after so many years of hardship.
Sadly, elements within Palestinian society subverted the spirit of these protests as part of their personal vendetta against Fayyad. With chants blaming official policies for the current economic woes, politicians and news media alike lined up to demand the dismissal of Fayyad's government. All of them seemed to turn a blind eye to the problems festering ever since the signing of the Oslo Accords; problems made worse by the Paris Protocol on Economic Relations, and other similar agreements.
Worse yet, the manipulation of these young protestors only served to obfuscate the principal cause behind their suffering: Israel's tight control over Palestinian land. Haaretz journalist Amira Hass said it best: "It's the occupation, stupid!"
All of us are affected by Israel's continued military presence, day in and day out. The opportunity here, as we stand at a historical crossroads, lies in clearly stating that the status quo, the occupation, and interim agreements that do not address the underlying problems are all unsustainable.
The Palestinian leadership, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, has the opportunity to be proactive and even provocative, ensuring that the cost of the occupation is not taken for granted. One option that is being much discussed is the cancellation of the 1994 Paris Protocol. While I'm not an economic expert, this would, at the very least, create ripples in the stagnant political waters. But I would go further and suggest that these ripples should be used to end the occupation, not just ease its hardship, with Paris being superseded by a comprehensive move towards final status negotiations. We must not replace one interim agreement with another.
I call on the key players in the international level (US, EU, Arab countries and the UN) to recognise that Oslo and its annexes have run their course, and come together and guarantee one year of serious negotiations with clear terms of reference to sign a just and comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and Palestine in a way that deals not only with the economic issues but all final status issues in accordance with international resolutions. Oslo was intended to lead to statehood and peace, and that is the route that we must put this process back upon.
The current agreement grants Israel the right to collect taxes from Palestinians in the West Bank on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, which it often withholds as a punitive measure. It also gives Israel control over the supply of all utilities and restricts value added tax and fuel prices to comparable rates paid by Israeli consumers despite the vast difference in living standards.
Palestinian leaders will have to enact extreme economic measures, which will likely be met by Israeli counter measures, including the disruption of fuel supplies in the occupied Palestinian territories. In turn, I hope such actions ignite the people to mobilize against the true impediment posed by the occupation toward realizing our national aspirations, right to self-determination, and independence through a two-state solution.
Enough with attacks on Fayyad, as though the situation was better before him or will improve after him.
What I'd like to see is our youth peacefully blocking roads that lead to Israeli settlements, the expansion of which continues to create negative facts on the ground. I'd like to hear their chants against stalled peace talks. Our politicians, whatever their leaning, must call for and support a peaceful popular movement that seeks to permanently resolve the conflict as the first step toward addressing our economic, social, and other internal crises.
*Samer Makhlouf is executive director of OneVoice Palestine.