Reinventing the Palestinian struggle for freedom

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 and the Palestinian struggle for statehood once occupied centre stage in the , especially prior to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.

But the -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, , 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 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 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 , and partly to avoid popping up on the radars of security services run by the PA, Hamas or .

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 .

“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.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free section on 12 MaY 2011. Read the full discussion here.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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3 thoughts on “Reinventing the Palestinian struggle for freedom

  • For there to be progress, Arab nationalists will have to admit that Israel/Palestine has never been 100% Arab, that non-Arabs have human and political rights, that the Jews in particular have a longstanding  attachment to the country, and that  the 19th-20th century Zionist emigration to was driven by urgent and utterly defensible need. Islamists will have to invent a story, in which God allows Tel Aviv to the Jews. 

    It will not happen in the lifetime of anyone who is alive today, if it ever happens. 

  • ISRAEL is an occupying state,the world chooses to ignore the constant plight of the Palestinians in favour of this disgusting zionist country. La-illa-ha-illalah WE the glorious muslims will get our just reward on the last day, the day where all occupying and imperial states will perish in the depths of the hell fire where your skins will burns black…. hope you are looking forward to your come uppance Israel and America.

  • I read your piece on Palestinians rising up against Israel’s occupation, it was striking for its shameful disregard for fact.

    Palestinians regularly polled say that the society they most admire in the middle east is that of Israel. Why? Because only in Israel can they get a fair trial. Only in Israel are Arabs allowed to stand in free and fair elections – witness the Arab parties in the Israeli parliament. Only in Israel are Arabs free to take to the street and stand up for their rights, as they regularly do. Type ‘Arab protest Israel’ into google and you’ll find many examples of Arab demonstrations against Israel in Israel.

    Criticise Israel all you wish, Khaled. Some will be valid. But Israel is the only free democracy in the Middle East, a fact you cannot just ignore. This is intellectually weak, ignorant and misleading.

    The situation in Israel/Palestine is rather simple. In 1948, Israel declares itself independent in an area the UN marked out for it, and in which Jews were the majority. They reached out to their neighbours, but what happened? They were attacked, strangled at birth, and fought back, and have been fighting back ever since, because that Arab attack on Israel at its birth in 1948 was based on the refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist. They never have recognised this right, and so are you really surprised Israel continues to fight against its neighbours, occupying their land? Deal with the causes, not the consequences, and maybe you’ll start to figure out how this problem will be solved.

    You should apologise, really, but I doubt you will.

    Via e-mail


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