One year ago this week, Gaza erupted into one of the most exciting demonstrations of youth “power” I had ever had the joy to witness. The “Arab Spring” was in full swing, and this time, they believed, was “their turn.” Youth, and in many cases, their families, poured into the streets, chanting, singing songs and waving the flag of Palestine. Instead of an overthrow of the party that is governing the Strip, they called for what should have been a much easier “ask”: unity between their Hamas government and Fatah, the party that runs the West Bank (as much as possible, given the 60+-year occupation by Israel).
Sadly, it wasn’t long that day before the green flags of Hamas matched the ones for Palestine, and policemen began arresting and even beating the organizers and the most persistent of the demonstrators. Nevertheless, negotiations between Hamas and Fatah towards new elections and a unity government did begin, and I thought that perhaps the youth would follow in the footsteps of the Egyptians and hang in there until their goal was met.
When I returned to Gaza last month, however, and sought out some of the youth who had once shared their excitement with me, I was met with a wall of indifference. At first, many didn’t even want to talk about the subject. Fidaa Abu Assi, a 24-year-old English teacher and blogger, is typical.
“At the beginning, leading up to the demonstration and on March 15, I was so so active,” she recalled over tea. “I was so excited; I couldn’t sleep the night before. But I figured out that it was nonsense; I the saw flags of (all the political) factions. We wanted to end the divide, but others really wanted something else. All the effort was in vain. I went back home very disappointed. When I heard how the day ended up, with people being attacked by the government itself, I cried. From that moment, I started thinking about other priorities.”
For now, Fidaa says, she is done with internal politics, and doesn’t even listen to the news anymore. “We have been witnessing (the fighting between the parties) for so long, but so far nothing real has been implemented to stop it. I do not trust either one of them; I do not have any hope for such talks. They don’t represent me or the Palestinian people anymore. My hope is that they leave us alone..Leave Palestine!”
Where had all the energy gone? I asked. Why hadn’t they persisted, like the Egyptians?
The answer to that question depends on who you ask.
Mariam Abu Aamir, an 18-year-old journalism student, says it is a matter of numbers, and geography. “There are 80 million Egyptians,” she says. “We are just 1.6 million.” And Gaza, she points out, is hemmed in by two hostile governments — Israel and Egypt (although hopefully the latter will change soon). “Gaza like a small jail. We are under their control.” (I would argue, so were the Egyptians under Mubarak’s thumb….)
Mohammed Antar, a rapper and fellow organizer, agrees it is about numbers, but a different kind:
“(In addition to the government letting us down), youth disappointed youth,” he said. “We are 1 million here. But who cared enough to turn out onto the streets? Just 100,000. And who really cares? Enough to keep trying? Just 25 people or 20.”
But why, I asked? Mohammed shrugged, with a sigh. “We are human. People care most about jobs, safe water, a place to stay. Only then, when you have all that can you care about political reform. Life is too hard here; we have many things to lose: our education, jobs, our lives.” (But again, wasn’t that true for Egypt as well? No one talks about it much, but poverty and inequality is pervasive, and was one of the strongest motivations for the revolution.)
Ebaa Rezeq, one of the organizers of the March 15 demonstration and a student of English and French literature at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, offered another reason for a lack of persistence — and thus victory — among the youth:
“The people here…everyone is affiliated with one of the factions, whether it be Hamas, or Fatah, or Islamic Jihad, or PFLP. I can count on one hand the people I know who are truly independent,” she said, adding that she is one of them. “I was sincere in demanding unity and that we end all of the silliness of the past five years now, but others weren’t. In Gaza, many of the organizers support Fatah and want to end the rule of Hamas. In the West Bank, they want to oust Fatah. And they both used March 15 and afterwards to try to get what they want.”
Fidaa agrees, but was quick to explain to me the reason behind this pathology (one, I should add, that afflicts many Republicans and Democrats here in the United States as well). “It’s wrong, but I cannot blame them. People here need to belong to a faction if they want a secure life — jobs, security, even food.”
Ebaa explains the reliance on factions even more bluntly. “They put food in your mouth to shut you up. You can’t just give up on them.” She puts the big NGOs in Gaza, like UNRWA, in the same category, a theme I have written about before. When a people are not allowed to truly govern themselves — when, in this case, a foreign occupier (Israel) controls the real levers of power, society reverts to tribes and clans for protection — or to relief-oriented NGOs (who, by playing along with Israel’s rules, perpetuate the dependence).
There is still another reason why the Occupied Palestinian Territories is not Egypt. Yasmine Al-Khodary, who now works in the Bank of Palestine after completing her political science degree at American University in Cairo, explains: The difference here is that we have two governments, and we also have Israel on top of us. The youth, or anyone else in civil society, cannot gatherer to come up with a plan, because we are separated between the West Bank and Gaza, and we cannot travel. So, although we have a problem with our own governments, we have even a bigger enemy, and that is the occupation.”
That sentiment is echoed by Ebaa, who ended her pondering over tea with the same conclusion:
“Maybe we weren’t calling for the right thing. Maybe unity among our political parties is not what is most important to our people. For 64 years, we’ve been working against one enemy, against one body we all recognize as a cause of our problems, Israel,” Ebaa reflects. “This is the first time we called for something against our own people. I am not sure if they were ready for it.”
So what now?
“Abu Yazen,” the nom de guerre for one of the founders of Gaza Youth Breaks Out (GYBO), is more optimistic than most of the youth I talked to — although he is currently hiding out in Cairo and, despite the notoriety the group attracted when it first issued its brazen manifesto, most other young people in Gaza dismiss his “collective” as a flash in the pan.
“Hamas and Fatah will have to unite,” he wrote in our chat session. “There is no other way out of this. If you look at the changes in the region you’ll see that both sides have no allies; they can no longer count on Syria, Iran or Egypt (due to the turmoil and shifting allegiances). They know they’ll face lots of problems, since the new generation is much more aware than they use to be.”
However, the other youth I talked to are turning their attention and energy to more individual expressions — making their primary focus once again the occupation and using the power of social networking to amplify their voices.
“There are new activists out there, finding new ways to get attention, that I find amazing and inspiring,” said Ebaa. She cited the Freedom Riders, the Palestinians who boarded an Israeli commuter bus linking Jewish settlements in the West Bank to Jerusalem last fall; the hunger strikes of prisoners Khaled Adnan and Hana Shalby; and the global day of action called to demand the opening of Shuhada Street in Hebron.
“Much of these actions are initiated by individuals, or small collections of individuals, but they are having a big impact on how our cause is moving forward and can teach us, I think, how to be more effective in groups.”
Translating these actions to Gaza, however, will be a challenge, she says.
“In the West Bank, Palestinians can interact with soldiers at checkpoints, etc.There is an immediate way to confront and protest against your occupier. But we don’t have the opportunity for direct interaction. We can’t board Israeli buses or march to Israeli embassies. But we must find a constructive way to direct all of the anger.”
Yasmine is taking a totally different approach. She recalls that her original intention when majoring in political science at American University was to return to Gaza and become a diplomat, a minister and maybe even the president of the eventual country of Palestine. But then, she says, she came home and discovered that was not realistic. “Here, youth are excluded from politics. For example, youth were completely left out the equation when deciding on the UN statehood bid. I don’t want to involve myself in failing institutions.”
Instead, she is focusing on nurturing Palestinian history and culture in Gaza. “I want to do something for my country,” she says. “I used to think politics was the only way. Now i see I was wrong. Keeping our history and culture alive is the best gift I can give.”
Yasmine’s father, Jawdat, is the founder of Al Mat’haf (“The Museum”) — a combination of hotel, restaurant and archeological museum. She is helping him catalogue the collection and recruit international museums willing to host it, while also renovating houses in the oldest, most historic part of Gaza City.
“For many people, the fact that gaza has a glorious history remains unknown. People are shocked when we start to teach them, because Gaza has been the subject of so much negative news for so long. But it used to be a major cultural center, and I want to share that with both the people here, and outside. Gaza, and Palestine as a whole, is worth saving, and fighting for, not because we are charity cases, but because we have so much to offer!”
Reposted from the Pam in Progress blog.