The tension was palpable in Ramallah’s city center as numerous Palestinian security forces gathered around al-Manara Square on the evening of 13 June. Wearing helmets and carrying batons, they peered through the square, waiting for the first person to raise their voice.
The protests were the first clear expression of solidarity with Gaza in Ramallah since the beginning of the Great March of Return.
As PA security officials waited for the 13 June protest to begin, women’s voices rose up chanting, “with our blood, with our souls, we will sacrifice for you Gaza.”
It only took seconds for the militarized forces to shoot stun grenades into the crowd, chase protesters and beat them with full force.
It became clear that there were many security forces in plain clothing present as young men were violently dragged away.
“We have seen violence from the PA before, especially during peaceful protests,” Dalia Nassar, a protester at the scene, told The Electronic Intifada.
“But to this extent, no. This is violence like never before.”
Some of the security forces present wore caps bearing the emblems of Fatah, the dominant party in the PA.
“We are used to the men in uniform,” said Wafa Abdel Rahman, founder of women’s rights group Filastiniyat. “But these gangs, they were new.”
Abdel Rahman noted that the men in caps were harassing women and girls. Some of the men in caps were heard shouting “bitch” at women and telling them to go home.
In at least one case, a woman was sexually abused before being rescued by acquaintances.
“I thought that they would still have some respect for women and girls, being Arabs. But I saw undercover forces beating up women the age of their mothers,” Abdel Rahman said.
The protest had been organized under the banner “lift the sanctions,” and came as a response to the Palestinian Authority’s recent salary cuts of public employees in Gaza.
“First, they cut benefits, like transportation, health insurance, child support,” Hussein, a Gaza resident who was reached by phone, stated.
In April 2017, the Palestinian Authority cut the wages of public employees by 30 percent in Gaza.
“People had to live on 70 percent of their salaries for 10 months,” said Hussein (not his real name). “Then they cut 50 percent more. Then the salaries stopped for two months, then they kept paying the 50 percent.”
“But most of the money goes to banks because many people here have loans.”
Hussein asked for his real name not to be used, as he is waiting for an exit permit for medical treatment. He fears the Palestinian Authority – which processes such permits for Gaza residents – would not allow him to leave.
Tug of war
Since Hamas expelled Fatah forces and took power of the interior of Gaza in 2007, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority has been trying to force Hamas out of power through imposing various sanctions on the strip, political analyst Mouin Rabbani told The Electronic Intifada.
The PA has “believed that a combination of Israeli military pressure against Hamas and punishment of the population of Gaza would lead to Hamas’ voluntary departure from government, or a popular rebellion against them,” Rabbani added.
Rabbani explained that as this strategy has not worked, Abbas and his associates are increasing pressure. In doing so, they do not shy away from appealing directly to the Israeli occupation authorities.
Last year, the PA asked Israel to cut Gaza’s electricity supply.
“We have come to see a disgraceful situation in which the self-proclaimed Palestinian leadership is openly soliciting for collective punishment from the occupation against its own people,” Rabbani stated.
The battle between the two parties is one for political power, stated Wafa Abdel Rahman moments before protests commenced on 13 June.
“Abbas and Hamas are both taking the Gaza people hostage,” she explained to The Electronic Intifada. “Abbas wants Gazans to rebel against Hamas, but they have done it before. They were attacked and killed. You are asking them to commit suicide.”
Abdel Rahman added, “nobody is answering the essential question: If Hamas is gone, what is the alternative?”
Rabbani expressed a similar sentiment, stating that while Abbas is attempting to oust Hamas, he is not showing a willingness to take responsibility over the Gaza Strip himself.
“The PA talks about the Gaza Strip as a foreign country to which it is providing aid, and about those who receive the salaries as if they are somehow recipients of a donor project, rather than their own people,” he said.
Diana Buttu, a former negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization, said that Abbas is seeking to punish the people of Gaza for voting for Hamas.
“The scary part is that the actual security services were willing to follow his orders,” Buttu told The Electronic Intifada.
Buttu emphasized that the Palestinian Authority seemed to have learned well from Israeli repression techniques.
“I watched the events via Facebook live feeds, and it was very reminiscent of what the Israelis did to solidarity protests in Haifa,” she said.
Buttu was referring to Israeli police’s violent suppression of a Palestinian protest in Haifa, a city in Israel, on 18 May. The protest had been called against Israel’s massacre of unarmed civilians in Gaza.
“From wearing riot gear when there is no riot, to stun grenades, to approaching it from a standpoint that this needs to be shut down, rather than allowing people to express themselves,” Buttu said. “They [the PA’s forces] have proven to very good students.”
Annelies Keuleers is a Belgian journalist based in Ramallah.