By Khaled Diab
Inspired by the Arab spring, a new generation of Palestinians plan to fight the occupation with olive branches.
Friday 13 May 2001
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Palestinian struggle for statehood once occupied centre stage in the Middle East, especially prior to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.
But the youth-led revolutionary wave rocking the region has captured the eyes and imagination of the world and diverted attention to many places that previously floated in the media backwaters or were simply uncharted territories: Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya. For a few unprecedented weeks, Egypt even caused a total eclipse of the international media.
Amid all this tumultuous change, one may be excused for thinking that all is quiet on the Palestinian-Israeli front. But the conflict grinds on ceaselessly under the world's radar and the factors that make it explosive continue unabated: settlement building, home evictions and expulsions in Jerusalem, a repressive Israeli occupation and oppressive Palestinian leadership.
So why haven't Palestinian youth risen up like their counterparts elsewhere in the region to demand their rights?
Well, it is not for want of trying. Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, and following the date-based example of counterparts elsewhere in the Arab world, a new youth movement dubbed by some as the March 15 movement has emerged in Palestine.
The date refers to the day when organisers employing social media, text messaging and word of mouth managed to draw thousands of protesters on to the streets of Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank, as well as Gaza City.
However, in contrast to other popular uprisings in the region, their demands were not wholesale regime change, despite the undoubted failings of both Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, and the absence of a democratic mandate for both parties.
“Our top priority is to end the divisions within Palestinian society. This is the only way to deal with the occupation,” explained Z, one of the founders of the movement in Ramallah, who wished to conceal his identity for professional reasons.
Some of the others involved in March 15 are also reluctant to reveal their identities, partly as an expression of the decentralised and “leaderless” approach preferred by Middle Eastern protesters tired of authoritarianism, and partly to avoid popping up on the radars of security services run by the PA, Hamas or Israel.
Despite its relative success on 15 March, the movement has not managed to replicate the most successful ingredient of the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain: constant pressure from the streets. This is partly due to the two-tiered nature of the oppression facing Palestinians, and the restrictions on their movement imposed by the occupation. “Unfortunately, we have two levels of repression in Palestine: Israeli and domestic,” says Z, who is in his early 20s.
In addition, there is the psychological barrier of widespread despair and disillusionment afflicting wide swaths of the population, which the Arab spring is just beginning to chip away at. Most Palestinians I have met since I moved to Jerusalem a few weeks ago speak enthusiastically and excitedly about the Egyptian revolution.
“The problem among Palestinians is that revolutions are nothing new, yet nothing changes or things get worse,” Z observes. “Neither uprisings nor negotiations have worked, Palestinians believe – we're still under occupation.”
And after two intifadas separated by the Oslo peace process, the net outcome for Palestinians has been to witness the gradual vanishing of their historic homeland and the space for a future nation spliced and diced into ever smaller portions, with many of the choicest cuts going to settlers.
Nevertheless, hope is emerging, Z insists. The surprise recent reconciliation agreement signed by Fatah and Hamas, which many reckon was partly due to youth activism, as well as the rapidly changing regional realities, has been a boost.
Z told me that a new generation of Palestinians, many of whom were born around the time of the first intifada, are ready to reinvent the struggle.
Drawing lessons from the failure of the violent second intifada and the success of the largely peaceful first intifada, as well as the now-proven power of mass, nonviolent protest to instigate change in the region, this generation of upcoming leaders plan to fight the occupation with weapons of mass disobedience. “We want to employ ‘smart' resistance,” Z says.
“A moderate, peaceful intifada is coming. Can't say when, but it is inevitable,” he adds confidently. “We're trying to create a snowball effect. In Egypt, it took a decade to get to this stage.”
Palestinian activists, often in collaboration with the Israeli peace movement, have been quietly laying the groundwork for nonviolent resistance in recent years, as demonstrated, for example, by the constant stream of protests against house demolitions and evictions, and the Israeli separation wall.
Being the dreamer that I am, I cannot shake the vision in my head of the joint Israeli-Palestinian activism infecting the masses, with large-scale joint action as the most effective way to end the occupation and bring about peace.
In my vision, squares in cities across Israel and Palestine would be filled with people rallying around a single goal: “The people demand an end to the occupation.” Protesters on both sides would also pitch tents at checkpoints to demand their removal and, who knows, perhaps one day have their own Berlin wall moment.
But Z doesn't believe there is much scope for broader joint action. “We have no problems working with Jews and Israelis. We're against racial discrimination and so shouldn't discriminate ourselves,” he says. “However, we don't feel the majority of Israelis care enough or are interested in our plight to do anything about it. Besides, there isn't enough mutual trust.”
Z and his comrades are busy formulating a post-reconciliation strategy that seeks, first and foremost, to strengthen the Palestinians internally and prepare them for statehood, and employ this greater unity and strength to bring the occupation to an end.
“We need new political faces and parties. We need renewal through youth,” Z says.