Geopolitics

Beyond Gaza: Seething Youth In The West Bank Are Radicalizing

For fear of losing legitimacy to Hamas, supporters of the ruling Fatah party have joined the riots that have left at least 19 people dead since Friday.

Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli soldiers near Nablus in the occupied West Bank
Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli soldiers near Nablus in the occupied West Bank
Louis Imbert

SILWAD — At the end of the unrest in their village of Silwad this past Saturday, under the watchful eye of a few adults and a spotter, perched on a roof at the edge of the village, dozens of children, barely 10 years old, are trying to throw stones at an Israeli base located 200 meters away. The soldiers are on the road that leads south, through beautiful terraced hills, to Ramallah, the seat of political authority in the occupied West Bank.

This was May 15, the day of remembrance for "Nakba" ("catastrophe") — the forced exodus of 700,000 Palestinians when Israel was created in 1948 — the entrances to Silwad are littered with the remnants of larger clashes. On Friday, Mohammad Hamad, a 30-year-old resident of the village, was killed by soldiers. The two days of rioting have left 19 people dead, according to the health services, across a hundred Palestinian towns and villages. This is a death toll not seen in the West Bank since 2002. But this is the first response in this West Bank that broods over its marginalization, far from the conflict in Jerusalem and far from Gaza where Hamas has been embroiled in an all-out war with Israel since May 11.

At nightfall, the inhabitants of Silwad climb onto their roofs to follow the light filaments traced by Hamas rockets in the sky over the coast. The town has been very active since the British Mandate in Palestine and the founding of the nearby Israeli settlement of Ofra in the 1970s, behind an Israeli army base. On May 6, soldiers captured a Hamas member, Montaser Shalabi, who had taken refuge in the village for four days after killing an Israeli settler on Route 60.

Mohammad Hamad did not have the profile of an activist. According to the villagers, he tried to run over soldiers in a car at the entrance to the military base and then brandished a screwdriver at them. This tall, stout, simple boy, a construction worker, had few connections in his village. He was not married, an exception at his age. Four years ago, he was sentenced to one year in prison for resisting arrest by the Israeli police: He was going to Jerusalem without a permit to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque.

For days, Mohammad had been watching on his parents' television the footage of police repression of worshipers on the Esplanade of the Mosques. On Friday, he prayed and asked his mother for forgiveness before going to the base. His father, Rawhi, also a construction worker, holds up a photograph of the scene. Mohammad lies under the open door of his car, a trickle of blood dripping from his skull. "The soldiers could have shot him in the legs," says Rawhi Hamad. "Why in the head? They murdered him."

On Friday, the army fired live ammunition at rioters in Ramallah, Nablus and Hebron. On Saturday, the army seemed to be measuring its response to smaller riots. On the last day of the Eid celebrations, marking the end of Ramadan, the West Bank Chamber of Commerce called a national strike.

These clashes should not be underestimated.

In the center of Ramallah, the only official demonstration in the Palestinian territories in remembrance of the Nakba gathered barely 200 people. A siren sounded at noon and the meager procession made its way to an army base on the eastern edge of the city. Equipped and experienced stone-throwers advance through the tall grass, in small isolated groups, toward soldiers who held them at gunpoint on the road and on the slope under the walls of the base.

These clashes should not be underestimated, although they are certainly not on the same scale as the bombing and destruction in Gaza. The young men had not experienced this level of violence in years.

"We were 10 years old during the last war in Gaza in 2014, we didn't do much. This time it's ours! The sulta Palestinian Authority will say what it wants; it can't stop us from defending Al Aqsa," says 17-year-old Rami, cooling off from the clashes. He and his friends are descendants of families from Lod, a mixed city in Israel, where the Nakba is remembered as a particularly bloody event.

The young men had not experienced this level of violence in years — Photo: Oday Daibes/APA Images via ZUMA Wire

What does the Palestinian Authority want? Mahmoud Abbas met with the American and French presidents, a diplomatic tradition that is a Pavlovian reflex, as the head of the Palestinian Authority has no control over what happens in Gaza. On Friday evening, one of his close associates, Jibril Rajoub, warned on television of three dangers facing Palestine: the entrenched division between the West Bank and Gaza, the end of dialogue with Israel and an overthrow of the "system," the power in the West Bank.

Since Friday, however, Abbas' party has been seething. The council of Fatah leaders in the major cities called on Saturday for its supporters to join the demonstrations. On the roads, Israeli roadblocks are multiplying. Soldiers and inhabitants are afraid of each other. The rules of the game are torn up.

A senior Palestinian officer noted that the mood among the security forces is dark. There is a good opportunity to overturn the balance that makes them the deputies of the Israeli forces, guardians of an order devoid of any political purpose.

"The majority of the riot organizers are Fatah supervisors, who feel ashamed. They are trailing behind Hamas and the Jerusalem activists. They know that we risk losing the support of the population," says Qaddoura Fares, a Fatah supervisor and president of the Palestinian Prisoners Club. "But this is still just a short-lived emotional reaction."

For the past month, in his village of Silwad, this affable man has been enthusiastic about the peaceful resistance movement of the inhabitants of Sheikh Jarrah, in East Jerusalem, threatened with eviction in favor of Israeli settlers. He regrets that Hamas rockets have erased this struggle from village conversations.

Hamas arrives like a Bollywood movie hero.

"Hamas has stepped in like the muscle-bound hero of a Bollywood movie: At the last minute, it turns the table and everything changes." Make way for violence. Make way for Khaled Mashal, the exiled political leader of Hamas, who is five years older than him and who went to school with Fares in Silwad.

Fares was a candidate in the Palestinian legislative elections, the first planned in 15 years. President Abbas postponed the vote indefinitely at the end of April, fearing that it would slip through his fingers. His dissident Fatah list remains a source of unrest within the party. "The presidency does not have much influence on events, so it risks losing control," says one of its leaders, Nasser al-Qudwa, who has just returned from Gaza.

In the riot that swelled at the gates of Ramallah on Saturday, Jamal Tawil, a Hamas political supervisor, came as a neighbor. This former mayor of a middle-class suburb of the city, who spent 16 years in prison in Israel, was a legislative candidate for Hamas. This week, Israeli soldiers arrested three members of his list. He says, "two others fled before the soldiers arrived." The army increased the number of preventive detentions during the week, without mentioning the identity of its targets.

The Islamist movement is weak in the West Bank, the result of 15 years of security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. But this conflict offers it an opportunity to make up for the election campaign that will not take place, and to win new support. Tawil watches the youth with a smile. He shakes hands with the organizers of the riot, linked to the Palestinian Authority, whom he knows well and who welcome him as a colleague.

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Geopolitics

Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung

-Analysis-

BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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