RAMALLAH, West Bank — It is a tough time to be Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, a man without a country — or a popular mandate or much of a plan.
The Palestinian Authority president is struggling to lead, or just survive, as his popularity plummets and Israelis taunt him as being either weak or an inciter. His own people, especially youths, have turned away in frustration.
The West Bank is quaking with violent demonstrations, with daily knife attacks by “lone wolf” Palestinian teenagers against Jewish Israelis, countered by deadly fire by Israeli soldiers at rioters, including children.
In the recent unrest, more than 1,000 Palestinians have been wounded in clashes with Israeli soldiers. Four Israelis have been killed and others wounded by knives and stones.
A week ago, the 80-year-old Abbas returned to Ramallah from New York, where he celebrated the U.N. decision to raise the “State of Palestine” flag at the world body.
It should have been a victory, even a small diplomatic one.
At home, nobody really cared.
Many Palestinians said it was a symbolic gesture that did nothing to end the almost 50-year military occupation by Israel.
“The flag was a good thing, but it was nothing,” said Rajab Hamad, 27, a welder.
The applause at his red-carpet homecoming in Ramallah was tepid and obligatory. Crowds were bused in. A municipal employee told The Washington Post that his attendance was mandatory.
“What you don’t understand is that we don’t care who the Palestinian president is anymore. What we want are results and an end to this humiliation,” said Hamzi Suliman, 25, a chef in Ramallah.
Recent polling by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that two-thirds of the Palestinian public want Abbas to resign. For any politician, that is a stunning number. Palestinians haven’t held a presidential election since 2005, so Abbas’s legitimacy depends in part on such polling.
The same survey revealed that eight in 10 Palestinians think the chances for establishing a sovereign state next to Israel in the next five years are “slim to nonexistent.” A growing number of Palestinians also said they support “armed resistance” against Israel.
“Abu Mazen is always taking the sides of the Jews,” said Mohammad Rayed, a propane deliveryman, using Abbas’s popular nickname. He and another worker applauded the “operation” allegedly carried out by a five-man Hamas-affiliated cell, which ambushed and killed a Jewish couple on the roadside in front of their children this month.
The Palestinian men said the victim was a top general in the Israeli army. They were wrong. He was a rabbi.
“But he was definitely a settler,” one of the men said, shrugging.
Israelis are filled with anxiety that a third popular uprising, or intifada, is brewing.
The Israeli leadership has done little to support Abbas, who has pledged nonviolence and overseen unprecedented security coordination between Palestinian police and Israeli forces, according to Israeli military commanders.
Israeli ministers have branded Abbas “a terrorist in a suit” and “inciter in chief.” They mock him as weak, even as they demand that he stop — or at least publicly condemn — the shootings and knife attacks on Israelis.
The Reuters news agency reported Saturday that two Palestinians were shot dead by police after stabbing at least four Israelis in separate attacks near Jerusalem’s Old City. The news agency also said Israeli security forces fatally shot two Palestinians, ages 12 and 15, in protests along Gaza’s border fence.
Israeli leaders have blamed Abbas for the spike in tensions at a holy site in the Old City revered by Jews and Muslims, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday called out Abbas, who said last month that Palestinians will not allow their mosque to be soiled by the “filthy feet” of Jews who want the compound opened to Jewish prayer and who visit accompanied by armed forces. Abbas praised the mosque’s volunteer guardians — outlawed by Israeli decree — who shout at Jewish visitors.
“We bless every drop of blood that has been shed for Jerusalem,” Abbas said.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry talked with both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday, expressing concern about the wave of violence. According to the State Department, Kerry said it was important to uphold the status quo at the holy site and offered U.S. support in efforts to restore calm.
On Thursday, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations demanded that Abbas and the Palestinian Authority be “held to account.”
“We know that President Abbas can impact the ‘Palestinian street’ when he wants to. His failure to do so should bring a cut in funding and the isolation of Abbas until he takes concrete steps,” leaders of the organization said.
In recent days Abbas has tried to walk a fine line. He has expressed support for “popular resistance” to the Israeli occupation — meaning large, often violent demonstrations — while insisting that the Palestinian Authority does not want to see a “militarization” of the conflict, meaning armed resistance and terrorist attacks by Palestinian factions.
Abbas has a security force that is not allowed to enforce law and order in 60 percent of the West Bank or in East Jerusalem. He is opposed and constrained by the militant Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is increasingly popular in the West Bank — and is stoking tensions.
Israeli parliament member Anat Berko, who served in military intelligence, said Thursday, “I don’t think Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority want an escalation.
“Before, we saw a lot of incitement,” she said, but now Abbas “is trying to calm things down.”
But many Palestinians are not taking their cues from Abbas.
“I say this as someone who supports Abu Mazen. Nobody is paying attention to him,” said Mahmoud Badran, 27, a barber.
Khalil Shikaki, a respected Palestinian pollster, said Abbas is in a tough spot.
“The people are angry with him, because they are angry about the situation,” he said, “and the situation has not changed.”
Sufian Taha in Ramallah and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.