Given the history, it is generally wise to be skeptical about signs that might portend a breakthrough toward peace, or even nonhostile co-existence between Israel and Palestine. Nonetheless a move by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to challenge powerful militant Palestinian groups is a sign that might be worth noting.
It is important to understand why it might be significant.
Abbas, according to The Associated Press, was moved “by domestic concerns, including an audacious rampage by gunmen through Ramallah and the very real fear of impending electoral defeat, rather than by persistent U.S. and Israeli demands” to get serious about militants who not only advocate attacks on Israelis but have challenged the Palestinian Authority’s power.
If that is true, it suggests not only that ordinary Palestinians have become sick of terror and violence as a negotiating tactic, but they believe they have ways to communicate their concerns to their rulers, and some hope that their rulers might pay attention.
In short, it is possible that something like a civil society might be emerging among Palestinians. If even conditionally true, this is a much more important development than the holding of elections.
Political scientists have many definitions of civil society. We like to think of it as the elements in a society who routinely think and act independently of political leadership, and feel enough self-confidence to believe the politicians should serve them rather than dictate to them. In a society with long-established traditions of self-governance, it might include unions, business associations, groups like Rotary or Girl Scouts, as well as religious and social institutions that are mostly nonpolitical but feel free to seek action from politicians when appropriate.
As a general rule, the stronger the civil society, the better chance a society has to establish internal peace and order and nourish institutions that encourage respect — even by the government! — of the rights and legitimate interests of all citizens, not just those with political influence or connections.
Demands from ordinary Palestinians to do something arose from an incident the previous week. Palestinian officials ejected six militants, who had taken refuge from possible capture by Israelis since 2002, from Abbas’ headquarters. Angered, the militants grabbed rifles and shot up the town of Ramallah.
To be sure, that was a challenge to the Palestinian Authority more than to whatever nascent civil society exists on the West Bank, so it was in Abbas’ interest to respond. But if other Palestinians are demanding that the authority keep the peace effectively, that could be significant.
One should not get carried away. There are still plenty of reasons, including division within Israel over closing settlements in Gaza, Israel putting even more Israeli settlers into West Bank settlements, and a potential clash over the disputed Temple Mount in Jerusalem, to be skeptical about peace prospects. But if Abbas really believes he needs to be more responsive to Palestinian public opinion than to Israel or the United States, that’s a beginning.