As tragic events in Libya continue to unfold, civil struggles in Palestine have been flying somewhat lower beneath the media radar. From what I’ve been reading, however, it seems increasingly apparent that the Arab revolutions are now spreading to the West Bank and Gaza.
Last month, a coalition of Palestinian youth groups called for mass protests against their governments on March 15. Using the now-standard tool of social media, the “March 15 movement” has quickly gained thousands of members. Unlike other Arab revolutions, however, the Palestinian protests do not seek the overthrow of the PA or Hamas regimes. Rather they are calling upon their leaders to unite and put an end their political divisions.
(We) call on all the Palestinian factions to unite under the banner of Palestine, in order to reform the political system in Palestine, based on the interests and aspirations of the Palestinian people in the homeland and the diaspora…
We have heard that the Palestinian people call for legislative and presidential elections to end the state of division. Yes, we all want to end the division, but we also want a complete re-building of the Palestine Liberation Organization, to include within it all the colors of the Palestinian political spectrum, including Hamas, and to reform it in order to fight again for Palestine’s liberation, as it was initially intended.
Both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh initially appeared to respond warmly to the call, stating their intentions to hold joint meetings in the near future and vowing to protect the demonstrators on March 15.
Sadly, this was not to be the case in Gaza. According to a Human Rights Watch report, unity protesters who arrived at Gaza City’s Unknown Soldier Square were confronted by pro-Hamas demonstrators. When they relocated to another location, they were eventually attacked by plainclothes and uniformed police. On the following day, students who gathered at Gaza City’s al-Azhar University for a protest march were also attacked by police officers.
In the West Bank meanwhile, hunger striking protesters have been camping out in Ramallah’s Al-Manara square. According to a Maan News report, strikers suspended the strike last Thursday after Abbas announced he would hold unity talks in Gaza – but the strike resumed yesterday when protesters determined that the governments had failed to meet their demands. In the meantime, both PA and Hamas officials are saying that Abbas will be coming to Gaza for unity talks next week, “if all goes as planned.”
Needless to say, the challenges facing the March 15 movement are daunting. As blogger Jared Malsin wrote last week, the movement is less than unified and groups within the coalition seem to differ in their stated aims: “(some) are calling for the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority; others are not.”
Indeed, the Palestinian political leadership has always been notoriously splintered – allowing Israel to maintain a “divide and conquer” strategy to considerable advantage. And this, it seems to me, is the most critical obstacle standing in the way of the fledgling movement: it is protesting relatively weak Palestinian regimes that exist within the context of occupation by a larger and much more powerful regime.
Still, despite the many challenges facing the March 15 movement, it’s a welcome sign that a new generation of Palestinians is seeking to hold their leadership accountable and take responsibility for their own future. For this fact alone I’d say these developments are eminently worthy of our attention.