Searching for the Arab Spring

in Ramallah

Rights & dissent

A year has passed since Arab youth took to the streets demanding freedom and dignity, unleashing a long-awaited revolution. As authoritarian regimes fell in Tunisia and Libya, were shaken in Egypt, and are struggling fiercely in Yemen and Syria, I went searching for the Arab Spring in Ramallah, looking for the reverberations of the Arab uprisings on Palestine. Euphoria as much as apprehension accompanied me as I looked for the promise of a revolution devoid of any grand ideology, a revolution about freedom and rights, inclusive of everybody – Christians and Muslims, Islamists and liberals, young and old – if only for a short while.

Already in early March, the “Third Palestinian Intifada” Facebook page was set up calling for demonstrations.

On 15 March 2011, just over a month after mass demonstrations in Cairo brought down Husni Mubarak and peaceful protestors in Bahrain were being violently dispersed, thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in Ramallah and Gaza City. El Herak El Shababi, a loose group of young activists formed in November 2010, joined forces with a number of progressive political parties and various nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) to demand the end of the political schism between Fatah and Hamas. The March 15 Movement that emerged then sought to build on the weekly sit-ins at Al Manara, Ramallah’s central square, that El Herak had been organising since February to demand an end to Palestinian division. Fatah and Hamas watched as the young protesters camped in the street of Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem, making sure that the police encircled them and did not let them move too far. The youth did not seem much bothered by the attempt of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to intimidate, divide or co-opt them. They were decentralised and computer savvy enough not to be unduly deflected from their goals: to reassert Palestinian rights and bring down the Oslo regime.

Already in early March, the “Third Palestinian Intifada” Facebook page was set up calling for demonstrations to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba. El Herak did not know much about the group that set up that webpage, but it did not oppose their message. Through the Palestinian Youth Network and other Facebook pages, young people in Ramallah and Gaza were communicating with youthful compatriots in Burj Al-Barajneh and Ein al-Hilwa in Lebanon, in Yarmouk and Damascus in Syria, El-Wahdat and Zarqa in Jordan, in Chicago and San Francisco, as well as Haifa and Sakhneen. Their message was simple: to reiterate and protect the Palestinian right of return. And their plan was daring: to organise a peaceful march into their homeland on 15 May 15th, the anniversary of the Nakba, to reiterate their internationally recognised right. Within less than two weeks nearly 250,000 subscribers joined the webpage. Israel felt concerned enough to demand that Facebook close down the page, claiming it “was inciting violence and hatred”. Facebook complied. Palestinians saw this as a testament to the power of their message.

Their message was simple: to reiterate and protect the Palestinian right of return.

The 15 May March went ahead, to the surprise of many — the youth included. The 15 March Movement disintegrated as soon as Fatah and Hamas signed their first reconciliation agreement in Cairo on 4 May 2011. Members of El Herak El Shababi (The Youth Movement) left the group, while others debated how to move forward and build on the non-violent resistance movements that have taken ground in the West Bank since the second Intifada through Popular Committees against the Wall in Ni’lin and Beil’in, the Boycott National Committee and the Stop The Apartheid Wall Campaign, among others. Many from El Herak mounted on buses organised by the Stop The Wall Campaign that took descendants of refugees to demonstrate at the Qalandia checkpoint and the Erez crossing in Gaza.

Their compatriots in Syria and Lebanon were meanwhile marching towards the borders with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Some managed to cross from Syria into Majdal Shams; thirteen were killed by Israeli soldiers, and one managed to hitchhike all the way to Jaffa, his grandfather’s home town. Another group, the 6 June Movement, emerged soon after calling for peaceful demonstrations to commemorate the Naksa, the 1967 War. The protestors, mostly independent members of leftist parties, NGO, and youthful cadres, marched again towards Qalandia. But this time they were met with more violence and less media coverage. I wondered if the youth were seeking to revert politics to mass mobilization, as during the first Intifada, and if so at what cost to the PA? Can they force the Palestinian leadership to rethink its strategy if not the statehood project in its entirety? Can Palestinian rights be affirmed and protected without a state, outside the two state solution paradigm? And if so how?

I arrived in Ramallah in mid-June to participate in a conference jointly organised by Muwatin, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy, and El Herak El Shababi, on the question of the Palestinian bid for United Nations (UN) membership, officially announced by the PA in April 2010. I was actually surprised that so much attention was being given to this topic. It seemed at odds with the spirit of the Arab Spring that is reinventing the meaning of national liberation away from an obsession with statehood and towards the fulfilment of basic rights. But when I arrived in the West Bank I could not find much excitement about the Arab Spring, the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas that Palestinian youth activism helped bring about or the prospects of a UN seat for the Palestinian state.

When I went to Birzeit University for some meetings, I could find no slogans on the wall promoting the UN bid or calling for the fall of the Oslo regime. The students I talked to seemed rather more concerned about their future, what work they will find once they graduate. Although Ramallah was buzzing with public works as the PA moved on to implement Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s Palestinian Reform and Development Plan, many complained that jobs were scarce outside the construction sector and the security apparatus that had been expanding in accordance with an American agenda. When asked about the Arab Spring, some students were eager to point out that the Palestinians had been there long before the others. “Our first Intifada (1987–1993) with its nonviolent strategy of resistance is what the Arab youth are emulating today,” one of them said.

“We are still living under occupation and must fight it.”

Mujid, who graduated in business administration two years ago, is now working as a car dealer between Nablus and Jenin. He is busy making money and did not want to talk about politics. “Nablus is finally peaceful now that Hamas has gone underground and Israel has eased some of the restrictions on movement. Going to the UN will not end the occupation nor terminate Palestinian fragmentation. It is just a ploy to save the PA and earn it money and time”. Alia, sitting beside him, agreed, but she disapproved of his political disengagement. “We are still living under occupation and must fight it”, she said as she distributed leaflets calling for the boycott of Israeli products, prepared by the local Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campus committee.

I went to the Muwatin conference not knowing what to expect. As a taxi drove me through increasingly clogged Ramallah roads made worse by an unprecedented number of SUVs, I noticed the new “Muqata’a”: the PA’s West Bank headquarters. It was totally transformed from just 6 months ago: a grand new entrance; a small esplanade for the anticipated diplomatic cars bringing dignitaries to greet the president; and a small, newly constructed area planted with grass and some old olive trees, with a fountain in its midst despite the water shortage Israel has imposed on the West Bank. I asked the driver what he thought of all these new renovations. “A waste of donors’ money”, he said. “A futile way for the PA to say that the UN bid is real. But it is in vain; Hamas and Fatah will not reconcile and Israel will not give us back an inch of our land”.

SEARCHING FOR THE ARAB SPRINGI thought of Salwa, a 35-year old activist of the First Intifada who is now working with a youth organisation in Hebron. She was worried that the Arab Spring could put the Palestinian cause on the back burner of Arab politics, since Arab states were too busy with their internal affairs and Palestinians with their divisions. She had not participated in either the 15 March Movement or 15 May March. Neither had her brother who was now living in Bethlehem, working illegally in the Gilo settlement, the only job he could find. “What is the point of demonstrating against an 8 feet tall wall?” he said to me when I last saw him. “There is no political leadership to adopt our sacrifices and “cash” them for real liberation. Only the desperate and the rich young kids, who want to feel that they are doing something for the Palestinian cause, demonstrate these days.”

“What is the point of demonstrating against an 8 feet tall wall?”

I arrived at the Friends’ School in Ramallah where the conference was taking place, and was directed to the newly constructed, but still leaking, gymnasium. I smiled at the symbolism it evoked; the youth of Palestine, the role of the United States, the acrobats needed to muscle this UN bid through. The hall was full with the familiar faces of well-known academics and analysts, but it was also packed with many young new faces I had never seen before. Ladies in jilbab and in tight jeans, young men with hippie hair and others with beards. I even heard a few Hebrew words intermixed with northern Palestinian accents, signalling that Palestinians from inside Israel, a group you do no often see in Ramallah, were among the crowd. I was told that the youth coalition that coordinated the conference organised the transportation of buses from Tubas and Hebron, Jerusalem and Jericho, El Taybeh and Nazareth to ensure that youth representatives from all cities of Palestine could attend. Gaza was unfortunately not present, but the place was full with activists — old and new, students, trade unionists, and civil servants who do not often get a chance to visit the undeclared capital of Sulta-stan, as Ramallah is unofficially called.

Many of the critical questions were posed about the UN bid. “What will happen to Palestinian rights, the right of return, if we go to the UN?” asked a bearded man. “What about us Palestinian inside ’48”, said a young lady, “shouldn’t the PA consult us?” “Isn’t it time to abandon the two-state solution after these maps you presented?”, asked an angry man. “Isn’t it time to dismantle the PA and return to the Palestinian fundamental rights?” shouted a few. “Shouldn’t the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) be revived and new elections called for?”, asked a lady. The PA officials attending the conference were uncomfortable, and many of the questions went unanswered, but it did not matter. It was sign of changing times that these were being posed in such openness and by such youthful new faces.

“What will happen to Palestinian rights, the right of return, if we go to the UN?”

At lunchtime, I sat with a group of young people who came from the Jenin area. They said they liked the discussion, adding that everyone up north is fed up with Fatah and Hamas, but people still want jobs with the PA. These are the most secure in these times of high unemployment. On another table, I could hear some girls with a Hebronite accent ask how they can get involved with El Herak El Shababi for future events in their cities. Not far from me I could hear the trade unionist, who has asked a question earlier, in heated debate about the need to reform Fatah and return to armed struggle. The group of young people sitting at his table disagreed. One of them said that the only way to reassert Palestinian rights is through international law and non-violent resistance. There is no point engaging with Hamas or Fatah, said another, it is a waste of time. What is important is reconciliation and new elections for the Palestinian National Council (PNC), not simply the PA. “Like with the Arab Spring”, added a young man from Jerusalem. “We must take our destiny in our own hands and liberate ourselves from the defeatist Oslo narrative the PA is still attached to as much as from the occupation.”

As the day ended, I wondered whether Palestinian youth were trying to reshape Palestinian politics or just venting their frustration at the sense of defeat they feel around them. After hearing them at the conference, I was left with a sense of their empowerment and determination to affirm the unity of the Palestinian people that Oslo fragmented. They are asserting that the Palestinian struggle is one of rights not statehood per se; the right of return, the right to equal political rights, the right to be free, not under siege or occupation. The PA leadership seemed to have heard them. Mahmoud Abbas’s UN speech made reference to the youth, even as it tried to co-opt and redefine their message. “At a time when the Arab peoples affirm their quest for democracy— the Arab Spring—the time is now for the Palestinian Spring, the time for independence”, he reiterated. Most of the youth did not agree with Abbas’ strategy, or with his obsession with statehood, as one young man put it. As far as the youth are concerned, Palestinians are fighting for their internationally-recognised rights, not a bantustan in the West Bank.

“The time is now for the Palestinian Spring, the time for independence.”

I returned to Ramallah in January 2012 to see how far things have moved. Fatah and Hamas had signed yet another reconciliation agreement in Cairo in December 2011. Hamas had attended a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Executive Committee, a first step towards its integration into the PLO — a long overdue demand by most Palestinians. I met with Ali and some of his friends, all members of El Herak Al Shababi at one point or another. They are in their 20s or 30s, had studied in various local universities and were abroad at some point to undertake a Master’s degree or a doctorate. I asked Ali what he and his friends, some of whom live inside Israel, have been up to.

In November 2011 a group of them had left El Herak and organised the Freedom Riders’ March towards Jerusalem, a campaign to board Israeli buses in the settlements to reclaim Palestinian right to the Holy city. The march received some international coverage but Ali did not seem to approve of it. “Why should we always emulate the Western model of peaceful resistance, and thus risk acknowledging the illegal settlements?”, he asked. “We are under occupation and we need to construct our own model of resistance without worrying what the PA or the West has to say.” He made sure to add though that he still respected his friends’ action: “Among the most important characteristic of our work, us the youth, is our acceptance of our diversity of opinions,” he explained. “We want to maintain an open forum for discussion and disagreement so long as we agree on common, non-negotiable Palestinian principles.”

When I asked what these principles were, Lena, Ali’s friend from Tulkarem, was quick to specify that they do not mean a Palestinian state on 22 percent of historic Palestine. “The two-state solution is dead”, she said, “and with it all attempts to normalise or negotiate with Israelis.” “But this does not mean we want a one-state solution either,” clarified Tarek. “ It is still too early for that and it is far from clear what is meant by a one-state solution, and on whose terms. Our struggle now is for democracy and asserting our national rights”. Huda, his friend from Haifa, did not seem to disagree. In December and January El Herak and other youth groups, such as Falastiniyyun Min Ajl al-Karameh (Palestinians for Dignity) demonstrated against Palestinian and Israeli youth meeting in Jerusalem and Ramallah to promote the Geneva Initiative that advocates a two-state solution. A similar meeting scheduled in January in Haifa was as a result cancelled.

“We want to affirm our role in shaping our present and future.”

I turned to Yasmin and asked her what she thinks young activists in Palestine want today. “We want to affirm our role in shaping our present and future,” she said. “The Arab Spring has taught us that we can break the barrier of fear and assert our role in the public sphere. We want to hold the Palestinian leadership accountable so that it defends our political rights, and does not trade them for false promises”. “Our aim”, she continued, “is to mobilise society and get the Palestinians to be politically engaged as they were during the first Intifada.” When I asked her how she and her friends plan to attain their objectives, she outlined a three-tiered strategy.

The first pillar is organisational; it seeks to create a structure, however loose, for the work of El Herak and other youthful associations. El Herak’s members already hold weekly meetings, produce monthly statements, and reach out to new youth groups in different cities and villages outside Ramallah. “But we do not need to become a fixed body, a political party or an NGO”, interjected Ali. “We need to remain a loose group, in order to remain in touch with our society and avoid any future power struggles”.

The second pillar is political; it focuses on defining a strategy of resistance that mobilises the Palestinian street. It is one that builds on the popular non-violent resistance that has been taking place over the years in the West Bank and is open to engaging different political parties and forces in the country. Many from the Herak go to Nabi Saleh and Bil’in to participate in weekly demonstrations against the Wall. On 15 January 2012 Filastiniyyun Min Ajl al-Karameh (Palestinians for Dignity) and El Herak called for demonstrations at the Muqata’a against the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Amman. Only a few people came. On 21 January, those standing in front of the Muqata’a swelled to a couple of hundred. On 26 January, El Herak called for another demonstration, this time against the PA’s decision to increase income taxes and the rise in food prices. It joined forces with trade unions and other political parties who together made the Fayyad government suspend its austerity plans. Yasmin and her friends are presently collecting all the old leaflets issued by the Unified General Command of the First Intifada in the late 1980s to see what they can learn from them for their future activities.

“We need to have a Palestinian-wide discussion, not one confined to the West Bank, over what our national strategic plan of resistance is and how to rebuild our national movement.”

The third pillar of the present youth activism is a campaign to revive the PNC that the Oslo regime has marginalised. El Herak was the first youth group in the West Bank to openly call for new PNC elections, joining various activists groups in the Diaspora and the Occupied Territories who have been working on the details of such a campaign. “We need to have a Palestinian-wide discussion, not one confined to the West Bank, over what our national strategic plan of resistance is and how to rebuild our national movement”, said Lena. “We, the youth, must be part of the national conversation, because we represent over 60% of the Palestinian population”.

I left Ali, Yasmeen and their friends to join my cousin and her son of 25 who just started working in the police force. Her husband was imprisoned by the Israeli army in the 1980s and her second son used to be a Fatah cadre. As we drove in her car, I asked my relatives if they had heard of El Herak el Shababi. My cousin did not seem to know what I was talking about. Her son explained that those were the young people who stood by Al-Manarah sometimes and meet at the old Ottoman Court House in central Ramallah. Her other son said that Fatah has been watching them. “I wish them luck”, she said, “I suppose each one of us tries his best to stay steadfast.” As the car raced out of Ramallah and through the undulated olive hills outside the city, I could not help think that although the revolution is yet to come, its seeds are already being planted.

Written by Laila Farsakh for Jadaliyya, republished with the courtesy of them. Photos from Sanna Engdahl.


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