West Bank: Wind of Change
The PLO leadership called for a Day of Rage across the occupied territories on 25 February, following the US veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution one week earlier condemning Israel’s continued settlement building. It sought thereby to deflect growing discontent at the Palestinian Authority (PA) and direct indignation at the United States for protecting Israel. Though Hamas also condemned the veto, Gaza remained calm.
In Hebron, a thousand turned out to protest against the Jewish settlements in the heart of the city, clashing with Israeli soldiers (IDF); as the protests spread, the PA sent in their riot police to help the IDF. In Ramallah, the PA failed to mobilize support for their Day of Rage. A day earlier, Palestinian youth had already taken to its streets, in a separate protest, to demand national unity between the PA and Hamas. Scuffles broke out between supporters of PA president Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinians demanding an end to the Oslo accords.
After the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia fell, the PA had moved quickly to counter the spreading wave of people power. Al-Jazeera’s release of the leaked “Palestine papers” in January, exposing a relationship between the Palestinian leadership and Israel based on concessions to, and collusion with, the occupation, had already undermined PA legitimacy. The PA watched nervously as Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak was forced from office, and adopted a policy of containment. The chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat resigned, Abbas declared there would be presidential and legislative elections by September, and prime minister Salam Fayyad dissolved his cabinet.
According to PA spokesman Ghassan Khatib, Erekat’s departure was in response to the Palestine papers, not the events in Egypt. Khatib explained that there was a vast difference between the Palestinian situation and the rest of the region: “The cabinet reshuffle was overdue but the events in Egypt sped it up. Here it’s not the same as elsewhere; there is a democratic process that has been disrupted by occupation and the internal division” between competing authorities in the West Bank and Gaza.
Though the call for elections suggests the PA’s concern to move with the winds of change, Khatib said it had other intentions: “President Abbas didn’t imagine elections in the West Bank without Gaza. For elections to happen in Gaza, it would require national unity, and I think the chances of that are very low.” The call for elections -- a show of intent, not a decree -- was “an attempt by the PLO to put pressure on Hamas to go ahead and allow elections in Gaza.”
Abbas and his administration may have used division between the West Bank and Gaza to cling to power since the split in 2006, but this division is becoming a central issue around which West Bankers are rallying. On 17 February, hundreds took to the streets of Ramallah demanding that Abbas and the deposed Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, reconcile immediately. Playing on chants from Cairo that called for an end to dictatorship, the (mostly young) crowd rewrote the slogans to call for an end to national division.
“Unity is the entry point for our four demands: freedom, social justice, self-determination and the right of return,” said Fadi Quran, a youth organizer in Ramallah and central in the Egypt and Tunisia solidarity demonstrations. Quran is part of an emerging network of Palestinian youth organizations in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel itself, and refugee camps outside the country. In a café in downtown Ramallah, he said he had begun organizing in autumn 2010, but the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt gave an impetus for action on the streets. Quran is a Stanford University-educated graduate, now studying constitutional law in the West Bank, part of a generation of post-intifada activists seeking to challenge the old guard through Palestinian youth mobilization.
Quran focuses on rebuilding Palestinian national identity, which was badly damaged by internal division, and unifying a struggle crippled by Israeli occupation. He claims this emerging movement does not target the PA but aims to develop a new way of fighting the occupation, through noncompliance, mass protest, and boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. “When we talk about BDS, we are not just talking about the international campaign, but a local campaign. Israel has succeeded in making us dependent, but there are cracks. We are creating an alternative process for liberation; the Oslo process is dead.”
This approach is not new to Palestinians in the occupied territories; its principles began to emerge during the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, and have been used as a model for resistance in West Bank border villages since 2003. Quran acknowledges that his movement’s struggle has been influenced by the border villages’ campaign against Israel’s separation wall, land annexation and occupation.
Quran supported a campaign this past year in the central West Bank village of Nabi Salah, which Israel is attempting to end. Nabi Salah, like other struggles across the West Bank, declared its protests to be in solidarity with Egypt. The night before Egypt’s Day of Departure on 4 February, we were in the home of a leading village organizer, Nagey Tamimi. The following morning, three hours before a demonstration was scheduled in the village square, 15 Israeli soldiers descended on the house and arrested three Israeli solidarity activists.
Since December 2009, hundreds of Palestinian, Israeli and international activists have been arrested over demonstrations in Nabi Salah. In the past two months, six Palestinians under 16 have been arrested during night raids to coerce them to testify against committee leaders (and help indict them in trials before a military court). They claim they were beaten.
The demonstration began after midday prayers. It was immediately put down, the demonstrators dispersed with rubber coated steel bullets, sound grenades and US-made tear gas, similar to those used against Egyptians in Tahrir Square. Israeli soldiers took over the main square for the afternoon as Palestinian youth clashed with the army on the outskirts of the village.
“We live the Egyptian type of demonstrations and repression in Nabi Salah week after week, and so we naturally stand in solidarity with the Egyptian people,” said Tamimi, as Al-Jazeera relayed the latest from Egypt. But similarities between the West Bank struggle and the Egyptian uprising end here. For the villagers of Nabi Salah have not managed to expand their struggle into the major West Bank cities, nor are they willing to do so. “If we push the popular struggle into the cities we will clash with the Palestinian Authority because of their obligations to Israel,” said Tamimi. “While there are problems with aspects of the PA, they are still a part of us. People in this village work in the Authority.”
It is here that the village campaigns and youth struggles in the cities diverge. Quran said: “The village organizers have a big impact on us, but in terms of Palestinian society they are unknown, or have a negative image. They are rural struggles.”
The demonstrations in Ramallah have clashed head on with the PA. Quran said that, at first, the PA threatened arrest and repression; then PA security forces beat and arrested young people in the city square by night. Before the demos, Quran said he was interrogated for hours by PA police and intelligence who threatened arrest if they went ahead; he said the police had invoked a presidential decree banning demonstrations for fear of embarrassing Egypt. The PA has denied any such order, claiming it was a mistake by security forces that has been corrected.
The PA has clearly shown its fear that Palestinian civil society will directly take up the struggle for liberation, negating the PA’s role and contesting its investment in a negotiations process that has failed in the eyes of Palestinians. It seeks to preempt further protest, realizing that Palestinians could build on the model of popular resistance of West Bank villages as they react to the demands for change sweeping the Arab world. The PA now fears this could be the writing on its wall. Jesse Rosenfeld is a journalist based in Ramallah and Tel Aviv; Joseph Dana is a writer based in Jaffa. Copyright © 2011 Le Monde diplomatique -- distributed by Agence Global