Scattered protests aside, life in the West Bank continued “normally” (by West Bank standards) during Operation Cast Lead. The relative quiet stemmed from political disillusionment and the heavy-handed control exercised by the Palestinian security services. Whereas some thought that the Israeli campaign would mark a turning point, in fact it deepened the paralysis of the Palestinian political system. With Hamas failing to achieve tangible gains and Fatah increasingly at odds with itself and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah—itself pursuing a "good governance" strategy that few believe will end the Israeli occupation—Palestinians’ faith in their own political establishment has dropped to a new low.
Palestinians were glued to al-Jazeera during the three weeks of Operation Cast Lead, which had killed more than 1,430 Gazans and wounded another 5,300 by the time Israel and Hamas declared cease-fires on 18 January 2009. The television screen was about as close as most West Bankers got to entering the fray. Despite the ferocity of the assault, the Jewish state’s eastern flank remained largely quiet, if tensely so. The West Bank saw a single daylong strike (a second followed in East Jerusalem), a series of demonstrations in the larger cities, and a few scattered clashes with Israeli troops, which resulted in a handful of deaths. But security coordination between the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel continued apace, and while diplomatic negotiations formally were suspended “in light of the circumstances,” as a senior PA official put it, they were not severed.
The relative passivity amounted to a referendum on the Palestinian political system writ large—Hamas, the PA, and Fatah alike. While Palestinians were nearly unanimous in seeing the Israeli campaign as an attack on Gaza’s population as a whole and not only its rulers, resentment over the 2007 Hamas takeover, as well as the difficulty of manifesting solidarity with the Strip’s people without showing support for its government, kept many at home. Sympathy for the victims of Operation Cast Lead and respect for resistance as a political strategy initially boosted Hamas’s standing, but many subsequently soured on the movement when the fighting (and consequent suffering) failed to secure any tangible dividends for Gaza, and Hamas scored few successes beyond self-preservation. After Hizballah’s 2006 war with Israel, one of Ramallah’s main thoroughfares had been renamed “Bint Jbayl Street” in recognition of its performance, but Hamas’s efforts this past December and January earned it little praise.
Nor was Fatah able to turn the moment to its favor. With the former standard-bearer deeply fractured and many of its leaders at odds with one another and with the PA, no consolidated leadership was able to galvanize a popular protest movement in the West Bank. The lack of familiar and credible faces at the demonstrations gave free rein to the PA security services, whose aggressive measures inhibited any display that could have been considered sympathetic to Hamas. The result was a deepening of the already pervasive sense of alienation in the West Bank, bringing the level of trust in established political bodies to an all-time low.
Robert Blecher is a Jerusalem-based senior analyst with International Crisis Group. Additional details on Operation Cast Lead can be found in Crisis Group Middle East Report No. 85, “Gaza's Unfinished Business,” 23 April 2009, at www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=6071&l=1.