Palestinian protests offer a new chance to break deadlock
With the March 15 movement taking to the streets of Gaza and the West Bank last Tuesday, Palestinian youths have made their mark on the wave of protests that have rejected the status quo in the Middle East and North Africa.
Rallying under the banner of national unity, the protesters' demands addressed more than just the acrimonious split between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The core of Palestinian politics and the fruitless process of negotiations with the Israelis have been challenged.
It is a point that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took note of, responding that Palestinian unity would deal a death blow to the negotiations process. It is clear that in practice his government will only deal with a divided Palestinian people. But after 16 years of failure since the Oslo Accords, which have driven a wedge between Palestinians and seen the occupation expand, many young Palestinians on the streets would actually welcome an end to negotiations.
Starting on Tuesday, tens of thousands of people rallied in Gaza while thousands came out across the West Bank demanding an end to disunity, the release of political prisoners and immediate elections of the National Council of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. They demanded that all Palestinians, including refugees, be allowed to vote. It was a call directed as much at Israel's divide-and-rule strategy as the shortcomings of the current Palestinian leadership.
"The point made clear in the slogans is not that they are about bringing Hamas and Fatah together," said Jamal Juma, the coordinator of the grassroots Stop The Wall Campaign. "They are about Palestinian national unity, responding to the current political and economic situation."
While Hamas security in Gaza used force from the start to repress the demonstrations, in Ramallah the Palestinian Authority first tried to flood the crowd with Fatah party loyalists and plain-clothes police.
As night fell, tensions grew between demonstrators and supporters of President Mahmoud Abbas, who were backed by both undercover and uniformed security forces. Clashes started breaking out as demonstration organisers tried to set up tents, attempting to turn Ramallah's central Al Manara square into a Tahrir-inspired protest camp. Following news of a violent crackdown in Gaza, uniformed PA police commanders began handing out food and water in Ramallah, announcing that Mr Abbas supported the protests.
Standing in the crowd, most people appeared to reject this PA attempt to lay the blame on Hamas. And the public relations cover soon faded when undercover security and police forces seized tents and attacked the crowds, leaving seven people hospitalised and six arrested. Meanwhile, official statements from the PA called for elections in the West Bank and Gaza, while Hamas called for direct talks to end the national division.
Despite the reaction from security forces, people in Ramallah held part of the square late into the night; some protesters are still there. Gazans also have continued to protest amidst repression.
At the same time, protests have not escalated because seemingly there are serious negotiations going on to end the factional divide. Protesters are willing to cautiously watch and wait for the results of these talks - a central difference between the Palestinian protests and that other revolts in the region.
Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt transformed state power and fought for social justice from the bottom up; Palestinians recognise that Israel's system of segregation bars them from self-determination and they demand a strong unified and representative leadership to confront the occupier.
There is an understanding in the Occupied Territories that, at this stage, these demands will not lead to immediate freedom. And there is a fear that this struggle could bring back Israeli soldiers to the streets of Ramallah and the Gaza Strip. Nonetheless, many recognise that the current state of affairs has to be rejected. That realisation of the March 15 movement has brought together Palestinian youths and social organisations from Israel, East Jerusalem and refugee camps outside the country to protest alongside West Bankers and Gazans.
"What people need is not an introduction to their rights but the hope that they are possible, a hope that the Oslo process, the PA and Hamas have made impossible," said Fadi Quran, a March 15 organiser. "There is no real difference between what Fatah and Hamas want, it's just about power."
As a result, now it is the Palestinian people themselves who are saying they have had enough with this festering internal division. Unity is an issue that runs far deeper than simply putting an end to factional conflict - it is about charting a new course of struggle for the Palestinian people as a whole.
"This is the opening shot of this generational power clash, things won't be the same after today," Mr Quran said on Tuesday.
The protests might be calling for national unity, but a power-sharing agreement between Fatah and Hamas would not solve the problem. These protests reflect the will of a younger generation that was raised during two intifadas and lives with the failure of those struggles. Fatah and Hamas leadership may be discussing representation in a unity government, but without PLO elections including the whole Palestinian community, the status quo of internal division and Israeli hegemony is unlikely to change.
Jesse Rosenfeld is a journalist based in Ramallah and Tel Aviv since 2007
Updated: March 20, 2011 04:00 AM