This article was originally published in The Economist on August 5, 2015.
Douma — The men who patrol the isolated village of Douma after nightfall cannot do much except raise the alarm; they must hope it will be enough to prevent another tragedy. Two Palestinian homes in the village, outside Nablus, were firebombed early on the morning of July 31st, killing an 18-month-old toddler named Ali Dawabsheh, and leaving his parents and young brother severely burned. Such violence is common in the occupied West Bank: the UN recorded 109 attacks on Palestinian people, land and property* by Israeli settlers in the first half of this year; in 2014, there were 331.
The Palestinian police cannot protect their own people, because they have no jurisdiction over settlers, and there is no confidence in the Israeli authorities’ willingness to prosecute attacks. For Palestinians living on these rugged hills, vigilante groups offer the only modicum of security. Fatah, the ruling party, is encouraging their spread. “It is the right of our people, living under occupation, to defend our land,” says Jamal Jaradat, a local party official.
The proliferation of such groups is, above all, another sign of eroding faith in Fatah’s leadership. Mahmoud Abbas, the ageing Palestinian president (pictured), is ten years into a four-year term. He refuses to call new elections, fearing a slate of rivals that ranges from Hamas, the Islamist militants who reign in Gaza, to Mohammad Dahlan, a onetime Fatah strongman now plotting a return from exile in the Gulf.
The ossified regime has made no real progress toward creating a Palestinian state. Mr Abbas remains committed to peace talks with Israel, but the last round collapsed in April 2014. While he has adopted a more aggressive tack in recent months, pursuing Israel on the world stage, it has yielded only symbolic victories. The International Criminal Court, which Palestine joined this year, will take years to press charges, if it ever does. Few Palestinians celebrated their December accession to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Mr Abbas can at least take credit for bringing a degree of stability and economic growth to the West Bank. Officially one in six people is unemployed, a poor statistic, yet nothing like as bad as Hamas's war-torn Gaza, where almost half the population is jobless. Still, poverty is widespread, especially in the villages far from the centre of power and patronage in Ramallah. Residents in Douma scratch out a living as farmers, or as labourers inside Israel. Hussein Dawabsheh, Ali’s uncle, helped build the suburban Tel Aviv hospital where his relatives are being treated.
The stability, too, seems increasingly tenuous. At least 19 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since January. A cabinet minister died in December after a confrontation with Israeli troops. None of this has brought a meaningful response from Mr Abbas. There is a sense of drift—no diplomatic process with Israel, nor a popular struggle against it. Some 42% of West Bankers want to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, up from 17% five years ago.
Some Palestinians have sought to fill the vacuum by carrying out a rash of shootings, stabbings, and hit-and-run attacks against Israelis. Others root for Hamas to take power, including Ali’s ailing grandfather Mohammad. “In this village no one wants to protect us, not Israel and not our government,” he said while receiving mourners in the family home. “We have asked for soldiers to come here, but no one comes. Hamas is the only one fighting for the liberation of the Palestinian people."