A Palestinian who was wounded Nov. 17 during protests in the West Bank against Israel’s ongoing operations in the Gaza Strip has died from his injuries, the Palestinian Ma’an news agency reported Nov. 19. The West Bank has been calm in recent years, but significant protests have been taking place across the eastern Palestinian territory – which is ruled by Hamas‘ secular rival, Fatah – in response to Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense. The protester’s death could widen that unrest.
These developments have implications in Jordan, where the regime of King Abdullah II is also struggling with political unrest. The duration of the Israeli-Gaza conflict will determine the extent of the brewing unrest in the West Bank and the toll it has on Jordan.
The ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel has generated a significant amount of sympathy for Hamas in the West Bank. In some parts of the territory, anti-Israeli youth protesters have thrown stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli security forces patrols. The protests, while at a low level for now, complicate matters for the administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
While the Arab Spring created conditions that increased the power of Hamas, it also added to the woes of Fatah, which has been deteriorating for some time. The group suffers from an aging leadership, internal splits, corruption charges amid poor economic conditions in the West Bank and a failure to make progress toward Palestinian statehood in negotiations. Thus, it is no surprise that Fatah, despite its deep animosity toward Hamas, has come out in support of its rival and in solidarity against Israel. Fatah likely chose not to interfere with the West Bank protests to avoid aggravating matters, but it cannot allow the protests to spiral out of control.
Fatah is hoping that Hamas and Israel reach a truce as soon as possible. Indeed, the West Bank group is likely using its channels with the United States and Israel toward this end. Clearly, Fatah does not want protests in the West Bank to go from supporting Hamas and Gaza to turning against mismanagement in the West Bank. At the same time, this could be a reason why Hamas, which seeks a resurgence in the West Bank, would want to prolong the conflict somewhat.
The stirring of turmoil in the West Bank is very worrisome for Jordan, which neighbors the Palestinian territory and is home to a large population of Palestinian heritage that harbors anti-Israeli sentiments. The ruling Hashemites do not want to see the Gaza issue spill over Jordan’s borders and accentuate their own problems.
The effects of the Arab Spring have not really manifested themselves in Jordan, but the kingdom has not been stable either. Since the outbreak of the regional unrest in early 2011, King Abdullah II has replaced three prime ministers in response to low-level but steady protests. The dilemma that the Hashemites face is that unrest has spread into the ranks of the tribal forces (aka East Bankers), who until recently have served as the bedrock of the monarchy’s stability. At the same time, in urban areas, the country’s largest political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, has departed from its traditional role as the loyal opposition and begun demanding that the palace share power with parliament.
Meanwhile, the economic situation in the country has deteriorated to the extent that the government was forced to cut fuel subsidies earlier this month. The public backlash to the rising energy costs has intensified the protests. In the early months of the Arab Spring, there were isolated cases of tribal youths chanting slogans against the Jordanian king and queen. Such instances of public criticism – some even calling for the king to step down – appear to be growing.
Still, neither the rural-based tribal principals nor the urban-centered Brotherhood appear to be interested in trying to topple the monarchy. Indeed, both have made it clear that they do not wish to see unrest turn into anarchy. But the problem is that neither institution seems to have a monopoly over the protests; youth groups and other non-brand entities are driving some of the agitation.
The Brotherhood, which has long called for the kingdom to cut ties with Israel, has once again raised this demand. Such calls have not gained traction in the past. But in the post-Arab Spring atmosphere – and now with the conflict in Gaza – the demand could become a tool for the Brotherhood to extract even greater concessions from the palace. Already, the king has been on the defensive, asking the Brotherhood to end its boycott of the political system and participate in upcoming parliamentary polls. Moreover, after restoring ties with Hamas earlier this year, the king has sought the mediation of Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal toward this end.
It is too early to tell what domestic political gains the Brotherhood could obtain by leveraging the fighting in Gaza. But the king’s persistently defensive approach could lead to apprehension within his camp about whether he has what it takes to steer the country out of its downward spiral. Any fissures within the ranks of the Hashemite state will lead only to greater instability. Over the longer term, instability in Jordan breeds the same in the West Bank, where the ruling Palestinian National Authority has been unable to resolve its own political problems.