In the West Bank and Gaza, young Palestinian activists are taking to the streets to demand change from their feuding political leaders.
RAMALLAH —The youth of occupied Palestine, like their compatriots across the Middle East, are starting to demand changes from their divided and unresponsive leadership.
They call themselves the March 15 Youth, after the date of their first major demonstration. In Gaza, nearly 100,000 people came out last week to rally for unity, and another 4,000 demonstrated peacefully in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The demonstrations and sit-ins have not stopped since then, with marches occurring in the West Bank cities of Bethlehem, Hebron, Jenin, and Nablus.
The protesters have been marching, staging sit-ins, and even fasting to protest the failure of Palestinian political parties to end the division between the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is dominated by Fatah, in the West Bank. And the Palestinian political class has clearly received the message: On March 16, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made the surprise announcement that he was prepared to travel to Gaza for reconciliation talks.
These efforts to reestablish Palestinian unity will now be sorely tested following the deadly bombing at a Jerusalem bus stop on March 23, which killed one person and injured dozens more. The growing tensions between Israel and Hamas will only make it harder for the Palestinian factions to find common ground.
However, roadblocks on the path to Palestinian unity are nothing new. The split in the Palestinian leadership dates back to June 2007, when Hamas militiamen took over the Gaza Strip following bloody battles with PA forces and Fatah supporters that left hundreds dead and injured. The division has only become more entrenched since then, with the Palestinian factions engaging in endless squabbling and abortive attempts to form a unity government.
The activists say that the continued division undermines their dream of a united and independent Palestine. "We are fed up with factions," Fadi Al-Sheikh Yousef, the March 15 media coordinator in Gaza, told me. "We have lost faith in them and place our trust in Palestine."
And the people of the West Bank and Gaza seem to agree. A December opinion poll conducted by Near East Consulting reported that 41 percent of Palestinians don't trust any faction, and surveys over the past three years have also shown that achieving unity was a top national priority, even surpassing ending the Israeli occupation. In February, another survey reported that 76 percent of Palestinians support a peaceful revolt against the internal division. With the overwhelming majority of Palestinians under the age of 30, the youth movement speaks to a broad swath of Palestinian society.
In a televised speech on March 16, Abbas announced that he was ready to go to Gaza "to end the division and form a unity government with independent ministers." He said he was ready to travel to Gaza "tomorrow," and while no date has yet been set for his visit, preparations are already underway.
The response was almost immediate. In Gaza, a Hamas spokesperson welcomed the announcement, saying, "We will start preparing for the visit." Divisions within Hamas's ranks in recent days, however, have cast some doubt on whether the movement will welcome Abbas in Gaza. Hamas leaders in Syria and leaders of its armed wing are reportedly opposed to the visit, conditioning Abbas's presence in Gaza to the release of Hamas fighters held by the Palestinian Authority. Other Hamas figures have suggested that more rounds of dialogue between the factions, which have failed in the past, must be launched before the visit can commence.
Nevertheless, the two sides are still hard at work on organizing the details of the visit. On March 17, representatives of all factions, including Hamas, met in Nablus to coordinate what to do next. Momentum is picking up, with Palestinian media confirming that Abbas has ordered the arrangement of the final details of the trip. Abbas has reportedly also dispatched a delegation to Gaza to deal with the on-ground preparations.
Abbas's announcement is not the only indication of the youth movement's newfound power. Fatah Central Committee member Mohamad Shtayeh told me that he recently opened a Twitter account to better understand the youth's grassroots effort. "These young Palestinians give us all hope, he said: "They are forming the public pressure factions need to move toward unity."
That's not to say that the youth movement has accomplished its goals just yet. Yusra Al-Jamous, an activist in Ramallah, told me she thinks Abbas's initiative is only meant to defuse public pressure, and casts doubt on the commitment of Hamas and Fatah to achieve unity. "They haven't done enough to earn our trust," she said.
Jamous said that the rallies were a welcome sign of Palestinian unity after years of feuding between Fatah and Hamas, both of which she blames for the continued division. "The people are not divided," she told me. "The politicians are."
Whatever happens with Abbas's visit, the protesters aren't looking to overthrow anyone, despite admitting inspiration from revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. They say that events in other countries gave them courage to try to change the political system, but insist their activism is different. "Those revolutions were about overthrowing a regime or system, but we are struggling to restore the system here," said Fadi, a 24-year-old activist in Gaza.
However, Hamas in particular has seen these demonstrations as more of a threat than an opportunity. Hundreds of plainclothes Hamas security forces attacked the unity demonstrators on March 15 in the Gaza Strip, sending at least five people to the hospital. When I spoke to Fadi, he was in hiding and nursing a broken leg and many bruises -- his trophies, as he described them, from the protest. In the West Bank, security officers did not attack the activists, but differences among the pro-unity youth resulted in several scuffles. Activists in Ramallah said some people at the rallies, some of whom they believed to be Fatah supporters, were intent on sabotaging their sit-in and voiced dissatisfaction with PA police officers for not intervening to stop the fights. Some of the instigators of these fights are believed to be Fatah supporters.
Like several other March 15 Youth organizers, Fadi's name and photo are available to Hamas officers now manning make-shift checkpoints across the Gaza Strip. Fadi, however, has found a way to make a difference without risking arrest. "I'm not in the street, but I'm heading the central command room," he told me. From his secret location, he coordinated between the activists on the street, collected videos and pictures, and made sure they were distributed widely. "I have plenty to do," he said, with an enthusiastic laugh.
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