Middle East

Will Arab revolt spread to Palestinian territories?

A Palestinian protester shouts slogans during a demonstration in support for Egyptian protesters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Photo: 5 February 2011
Image caption Many Palestinians celebrated the toppling of Egypt's and Tunisia' presidents

As Arab uprisings spread across the Middle East, Palestinian leaders face their own crisis of legitimacy, the BBC's Jon Donnison in Ramallah writes.

"There's a problem of legitimacy within the Palestinian leadership," proclaims Ghassan Khatib, peering over his spectacles, in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Tell me something we don't know, would be the response of most Palestinians.

But what is unusual is that Mr Khatib is part of the Palestinian leadership.

He is the head of the government's media centre and a close adviser to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

"There is no accountability, no checks and balances," Mr Khatib goes on with some regret, as pro-democracy uprisings flare up across the Arab world.

Rival factions

Image caption "It might be me... after Egypt and Tunisia," Mahmoud Abbas joked

And he's right - Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas' mandate expired more than two years ago, but he remains in power.

Parliamentary elections were cancelled in 2010 and are now over a year late.

The parliament in Ramallah has not passed a law for more than three years.

The entire Palestinian government on the West Bank resigned last week and, up to now, no new one has been formed.

Meanwhile, Palestinians remain politically and geographically split - with the Islamist movement Hamas in power in Gaza and their secular rivals Fatah running the West Bank.

The two factions rarely have a good word to say about each other.

"After Egypt and Tunisia, God knows who might be next," joked Mr Abbas in a speech in Ramallah last week.

"Don't laugh. It might be me," the 76-year-old leader told his audience.

Some appeared unsure how to respond - were they laughing with him or at him?

'All dogs'

Many Palestinians celebrated the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia.

"Two down, 20 to go" was the slogan on a banner at a pro-democracy demonstration in Ramallah this month.

"I hope that bastard (Col Muammar) Gaddafi is next," said one Palestinian last week as he watched the chaos unfold in Libya.

"All Arab leaders are the same," another man in his 70s joked with me among the lemon trees in his garden. "Some are German Shepherds and some are poodles. But they are all dogs."

And the Palestinian leadership does perhaps have reason to be worried.

There have been several pro-democracy demonstrations on the West Bank over the past few weeks. The biggest ones had several thousand in attendance.

In Gaza, there have also been calls by a small number of pro-democracy activists for demonstrations against Hamas. But the Islamist movement has not allowed these to take place.

On the whole, though, the Palestinian demonstrations have been small-scale compared with elsewhere in the region.

'Day of rage'

Image caption Members of Hamas's armed wing celebrate Hosni Mubarak's ousting in Gaza City

One issue is that Palestinians don't seem sure about whom to vent their frustrations on.

"Who do we rise up against?" asks Dr Jamil Asma, who teaches English at al-Azhar University in Gaza. "If we want to rise up, we should rise up against the occupier, against Israel."

Many Palestinians share the same frustrations voiced elsewhere in the Middle East - poverty, high unemployment and lack of opportunity.

But the fact is they overwhelmingly blame Israel's long military occupation for their problems. Israel has occupied the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since 1967.

And Palestinian leaders seem now to be trying to use the uprisings elsewhere in the region to their advantage.

Fatah politicians have called for a "Palestinian day of rage" to take place this Friday on the West Bank against the Israeli occupation and the US decision to veto a UN Security Council resolution criticising Israeli settlement expansion on the West Bank.

It is not yet clear what scale or what form the "day of rage" will take, but speaking to people here, it is a cause around which Palestinians could unite.

'Failed' democratic experiment

At the same time, though, there remains a continuing lack of unity amongst the Palestinian leadership.

A week ago, Mr Abbas and his Fatah party called for overdue presidential and parliamentary elections to take place by September this year. Hamas immediately rejected the proposal, saying political reconciliation was needed first.

President Abbas then backtracked and said elections couldn't take place without Hamas.

And so it goes on - back and forth, tit-for-tat.

Hamas perhaps has reason to be wary of a fresh vote. The party won the last elections in 2006, widely regarded to be free and fair. But the international community and Israel refused to accept the result.

The result was the bitter and sometimes violent split between Hamas and Fatah.

It was a democratic experiment in the Middle East that didn't work.

Some recent opinion polls show that the main issue of concern for Palestinians is that the two factions end their feud.

So far, the leaders don't seem to be listening.

And it is this division that' remains at the heart of the legitimacy problem for the Palestinian leadership.