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Israeli officials warn of 'knee-jerk' showdown with Iran

Originally published in USA Today

RAMALLAH, West Bank — During the day, shoppers jostle for space in candy and clothing stores and sip coffee in the sunshine here in the West Bank's bustling economic capital. The war raging a short drive away in the Gaza Strip seems far away. But at night, this city frequently explodes in anger at the conflict in Gaza that has killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and wounded thousands more. The protests are not confined to Ramallah but erupt across the West Bank. More than 10,000 people demonstrated last week at the Qalandiya and Hawara checkpoints — the largest seen in a decade. And five Palestinians were killed last Friday in the protests.

"We, in the West Bank, are one people with the Palestinians in Gaza," said Hisham Sharabati of Hebron, a busy trading city in the southern West Bank. "When the war first started, only activists organized protests. But now as people are watching the news and seeing Israel shelling civilian targets, such as hospitals and schools, the public is getting involved." Muhammad Othman, a human rights activist and photographer based in Ramallah, said much of the anger at the protests is directed at the Palestinian Authority (PA), in which Fatah is the dominant power — especially since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was silent in the opening days of the conflict.

Fatah is the more moderate party that governs Palestinians in the West Bank under Abbas. In Gaza, the militant group Hamas had defeated Fatah to take control of that area. "When people are demonstrating, they now chant against the PA," Othman said. "The PA will have no legitimacy on Palestinian streets until they stop their security coordination with Israel" to gain statehood. "Like the Israelis, they also use tear gas, rubber bullets and even live ammunition at the Nablus and Ramallah protests — they are firing on their own people," he added. Such sentiments are common across the West Bank, where many are frustrated with the lack of economic and political gains from Fatah's strategy of cooperation with Israel, started in the 1990s in the hope of gaining statehood for the Palestinians "There is a growing frustration among the Palestinians in the West Bank," said Dan Goldenblatt, the Israeli co-director of Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives (IPCRI), a Jerusalem-based think tank.

"Palestinians are frustrated because the president of the Palestinian Authority said to them that the non-violent resistance is going to be the key for achieving statehood, and up to now that promise has failed." Last year, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced a $4 billion investment plan that helped create a bustling economy in Ramallah with shiny stores popping up around the city's central Al Manara square. But the economic prosperity has been confined to a few. "You have a large number of Palestinians without a job, and they see that there's now a small class of people with fancy cars, who have fancy houses for just them and their wives because their children are studying abroad," said Ibrahim Shikaki, a lecturer of economics at Birzeit University near Ramallah.

"You have a small group of people with the majority of wealth and the majority of people with very little wealth. If that's not the ingredients for revolution, I don't know what is." Economic frustrations are compounded by a lack of physical mobility for West Bank Palestinians. Multiple checkpoints separating neighborhoods turn two-minute trips into "humiliating" two-hour ordeals, said Badia Dwaik, a father of six living in Hebron. "The checkpoints separate neighborhoods," Dwaik explained. "You visit one, two, three, four checkpoints and they hold up your ID and ask you to leave. They check when there is no reason to check, they just want to humiliate you."

Still, anger over Gaza and frustration with Fatah and the perceived lack of progress in the West Bank hasn't necessarily spilled over into support for Hamas, some observers said. "At the start (of the conflict), there was much more support for Hamas. There was a sense that (Abbas) was not doing anything," said Riman Barakat IPCRI's Palestinian co-director. "But I think there has been a change as this war goes on. People are starting to realize that Hamas is actually putting its own people at risk. There is more support now for the people in Gaza and not so much for Hamas."

For original article on USA Today.

Collins reported from Berlin. Contributing: Luigi Serenelli in Berlin

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