Youth activists in the West Bank and Gaza seized initiative Monday, beginning a planned wave of demonstrations a day early in a bid to outmaneuver Hamas and Fatah authorities who they say want to co-opt their movement.
Activists on the ground reported that as many as 5,000 people joined civil society demonstrations (Palestinian flag only) in Gaza, converging on Unknown Soldier Square, where protesters have camped out for the night. In Ramallah, 10 young people are on a hunger strike in Manara Square, with others demonstrating in support. (Abdullah Abu Rahmah, the Bil’in nonviolent struggle leader, was reported to have saluted the hunger strikers, hours after he was released from the Israeli prison at Ofer.)
Ad hoc groups of youth organizers were gearing down for a major unity and democracy protest on March 15th. Fearing an Egyptian-style uprising, authorities in the West Bank and Gaza planned their own demonstrations for Tuesday in attempt to pass the movement off as their own. Police in Gaza have also arrested and allegedly tortured at least one protest organizer, while the PA the West Bank is maintaining close surveillance on activists there. Police in both areas did not physically interfere in Monday’s protests.
The youth outflanked the authorities on Monday, descending into the streets 24 hours early. This tactic appears to have worked for now. Tuesday will be another test as to wether the young activists can get their message across without interference from Hamas and Fatah and the respective security forces in both places.
The political morass in Palestine is arguably more complex, and more intractable than that in Egypt or Tunisia, and this is reflected in the variations in the stated aims among the protesters. Some are calling for the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority; others are not. There appears to be unity on one point, however: the need for new elections to the Palestinian National Council, the long dormant parliamentary body of the PLO. From a March 15th Movement press release:
- Democratic Palestinian National Council (PNC) elections based on a one-person one-vote electoral system that guarantees equal representation for all Palestinians around the world (Gaza Strip, West Bank, 48 territories, refugee camps, and in the Diaspora). This necessitates a complete overhaul of the PNC’s structures and the establishment of new electoral procedures.
This is a departure from the conventional approach to Palestinian unity. In conversations with several March 15th organizers in the past two weeks, each stressed to me that their movement is demanding something much more than dividing of ministries between Hamas and Fatah. Fadi Quran, one of the protest organizers in Ramallah (who is said to be one of the hunger strikers), told me the idea is to build a broad based liberation movement vis-a-vis Israel. This what he told me in a short profile of him I wrote for the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU):
“We want democratic representation first and foremost and then move to nonviolently challenging the occupation in the same sense that Martin Luther King Challenged segregation in the south, and in the same sense that Gandhi challenged British colonialism in India.” “We’re trying to move toward that goal. March 15th is seen not as an end in itself but the beginning of a new generation of struggle.”
This is the overall understanding among these activists: official political unity is not an end in itself. It’s a necessary step toward remobilizing the Palestinian national movement. And Monday appears to have been something breakthrough in that direction.
This post originally appeared on Jared Malsin’s blog.