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Palestine: Revolt through reconciliation

Le Monde diplomatique (German edition) – 13 May 2011

For decades the Palestinians were an exemplar for Arab publics across the Middle East both of steadfastness (sumoud) – in the face of Israel’s occupation – and of the will to resist – especially in two long uprisings against Israeli oppression. It was the Palestinians who introduced the rest of the world to the Arabic term “intifada”. When Tunisian protesters chased off their dictator, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, or when Egypt’s masses overwhelmed Hosni Mubarak’s police thugs, many demonstrators in both countries doubtless drew on the Palestinan experience for inspiration.

But paradoxically, during the street protests and political upheavals that rocked the Arab world in recent months, the Palestinians were mostly invisible. Far from leading the regional convulsions, the Palestinians saw their own struggle eclipsed.

Belatedly, however, the first shoots of the “Arab Spring” have appeared in the divided Palestinian lands of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On May 4, the Fatah and Hamas leaderships met in Cairo – the scene of the most powerful Arab uprising – to sign a reconciliation agreement. If all goes to plan, they will form a national unity government until elections can be held next year. The practicalities of the arrangement are still unclear, particularly how the two factions, each with its own armed forces, will cooperate on security policy in Hamas-ruled Gaza and the Fatah-controlled West Bank.

Israel is deeply opposed to the agreement: on the day the parties met in Cairo, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, referred to it as “a great victory for terrorism”. The United States too has greeted the reconciliation coolly. Both are concerned that their four-year policy of blockading Gaza to contain and weaken Hamas is about to come to an end.

Facebook clashes with Fatah and Hamas’ agenda

Egypt, which brokered the agreement, has said it is ready to open its short border with Gaza, thereby making the Israeli blockade ineffective. Additionally, Israel and Washington are worried that a unified Palestinian leadership will be in a stronger position to push for recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations in September – as Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority’s president, has threatened to do.

The reconciliation between Mr Abbas’ secular Fatah party and the Islamic movement Hamas appears to be the first fruit of a social media campaign by Palestinian youth groups that has consciously modelled itself on the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts. Facebook and Twitter have provided a vital tool in other Arab countries for protesters to bypass the repressive atmosphere of their regimes and organise unprecedented displays of dissent. Palestinians too have begun testing ways to harness the new media. However, the mass demonstrations seen elsewhere have not yet materialised.

Part of the reason can be explained simply by Palestinian exhaustion. Decades of struggling against Israel, only to see the occupation entrench itself ever more firmly on the Palestinian homeland, have been deeply dispiriting. Even during the long years of the second intifada, Israel successfully expanded its colonies in the West Bank and began chipping away at traditional Palestinian strongholds in East Jerusalem close to the Old City and its holy places, such as Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan.

Much of this recent activity by Jewish settlers – half a million of whom are now living on occupied Palestinian land – has taken place while the Palestinians have supposedly enjoyed the support of the world’s only superpower, the United States. Over the past two years Palestinians have understood that even the White House cannot extract from Israel a small concession like a settlement freeze to keep the peace process on track.

But there is another important reason for the low profile of ordinary Palestinians: an uncertainty about where the battle for liberation should begin. One Palestinian analyst, Khaled Abu Toameh, who writes for the rightwing Israeli newspaper the Jerusalem Post, explained the problem this way: “When and if the Palestinians revolt, they will be shooting in all directions: against Fatah, Hamas, Israel, the UN, the US and many Western powers and Arab regimes that allegedly turned their backs on them all these years.”

That confusion has been all too apparent in the various social-media campaigns launched by idealistic young Palestinians.

One Facebook page, for example, has encouraged Palestinians to scrawl anti-occupation messages, such as “Free Palestine”, on their currency. The shekel is itself a symbol of the occupation and Palestinian economic dependency: Israel controls Palestinian trade and the money in circulation. The initiator of the Facebook campaign, Salah Barghouti, a resident of the West Bank city of Ramallah, said he hoped that, because Israelis and Palestinians use the same currency, defaced notes will circulate widely.

“Our goal is that these currency notes reach Israeli politicians and even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, so that they get the message,” he said. It is, however, far from clear why anti-occupation slogans on a 100 shekel note will significantly alter Netanyahu’s – or the Israeli public’s – thinking.

Another campaign, later banned by Facebook, called for a third intifada to be launched on May 15 – the anniversary of Israel’s creation in 1948 on most of Palestine. Although the page attracted hundreds of thousands of “Likes”, it highlighted a major problem for Palestinians using the new media to foment a revolt.

Comments and debates on the website suggested that many of the page’s supporters, if not its anonymous founders, were Palestinians living in exile rather than those able directly to challenge the occupation. Many wanted to know how best the millions of young Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan or Syria could make felt their demand for the liberation of Palestine. The page proposed that they demonstrate on their local borders with Israel. But that places them in a confrontation not with the Israeli occupation, but with the Jordanian, Syrian and Lebanese security forces.

Yet another campaign – the most visible and successful to date – was launched by a group that has come to be known as the March 15 movement, consciously modelling itself on the January 25 movement in Egypt. It sidestepped the issue of freeing Palestine to lobby instead for a reconciliation of the deeply divided Palestinian national movement. Its slogan: “The people want an end to division.”

In making a priority of political unity, the March 15 movement assumed, almost certainly correctly, that it is a precondition for a successful third uprising. But there were other grounds for making this the focus of their campaign.

One is economic. Palestinian protesters share the same social profile as their counterparts in Egypt. Most are university-educated, sometimes having attended overseas colleges, but have struggled to find work in the stagnant economies of the West Bank and Gaza. They believe the Fatah-Hamas division has contributed to the lack of employment opportunities, with the two factions bolstering their bases of support with a cronyism that rewards only loyal party members.

Another reason is that, unlike the rulers of most Arab states, the Palestinian leaderships can claim a degree of democratic legitimacy. Both Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Abbas in the West Bank were chosen in free and fair elections. New elections are overdue but the reason has been the impossibility of conducting a vote while the two factions are effectively at war (as well as under Israeli occupation). Reconciliation paves the way to elections and greater accountability.

Protests tolerated for a few hours

The demonstrations in March were held in central squares in cities across the West Bank and in Gaza City, with protesters told to carry the Palestinian flag, not the banners of the political factions. The turnout was far from impressive compared to those, for example, in Cairo: in Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron and Bethlehem, a few thousand attended, while more than 15,000 came out in Gaza City.

But even these poor numbers were misleading. The Gaza protest, in particular, was effectively hijacked by Hamas loyalists. And as soon as the camera crews and most of the crowds had left the squares, the core of protesters were either harassed, beaten or arrested by Hamas and Fatah security forces. A few hours of protest were all that either faction wanted to sanction.

More significantly, in demanding unity from their leaders, the demonstrators turned their back on the goal of liberation – either from the Israeli occupation or from their own homegrown rulers. Instead of following the Egyptian and Tunisian models of demanding the overthrow of their oppressive regimes, the March 15 movement instead urged greater cooperation from their leaders.

The problem of political and geographic division has plagued the Palestinian national movement since its head, Yasser Arafat, died four years ago. Since then, Fatah and Hamas have appeared content to govern their own fiefdoms, as Israel and the United States sought to entrench the split.

But in recent months that state of affairs had grown increasingly untenable for the two Palestinian factions. The March 15 demonstrations, though small, hinted at a much wider mood of dissatisfaction among Palestinians at their leaders’ loss of direction. Hamas and Fatah began to fear that the protests might quickly escalate. The Cairo agreement appears to reflect a calculation by both that reconciliation represents their best hope of clinging on to power.

Abbas, in particular, had every reason to push for unity. Until Mubarak was deposed, the Palestinian president had suppressed any Palestinian demonstrations in solidarity with the Egyptian masses. Mubarak was Abbas’ most important ally in the Arab world and his one bulwark against Israel. The Arab League too is now in no position to help Abbas in his struggles to drag Netanyahu back to the peace process. Its leaders are consumed with their own problems as they wait to see which of them will survive the coming months.

So Abbas has been alone on the world stage, his Palestinian Authority’s struggle overshadowed by events and its credibility at rock-bottom after the so-called Palestine Papers were leaked by Al-Jazeera, showing his negotiators secretly and cravenly giving in to most Israeli demands.

The only escape from his predicament – faced with a seemingly permanently stalled peace process – is to internationalise the Palestinians’ conflict with Israel. This he plans to do by seeking recognition of statehood at the UN in September. But the move will be no more than symbolic unless he gains wide international support and legitimacy as the president of a Palestinian Authority that properly represents its people.

Significantly, as soon as Mubarak was toppled, Abbas changed tack, calling for new elections. And then, following the March 15 demonstrations, he made a further concession by offering to travel to Gaza to meet Hamas for unity talks. His prime minister, Salam Fayyad, a technocrat popular with the White House but with no local electoral support, promised to form a new, more inclusive government. Fayyad said he would ensure his cabinet was more representative by consulting with Palestinian youth through – of course – Facebook. It is still far from clear whether Fayyad can survive as prime minister in the interim government that follows reconciliation.

Hamas’ assessment is different but has nonetheless pushed it, less enthusiastically, towards reconciliation. Its agenda of armed resistance currently looks much less appealing to Palestinians, both as Abbas appears to gain the upper diplomatic hand against Israel at the UN and after ordinary Tunisians and Egyptians have proved that non-violent revolts can be effective.

Tensions surface in Cairo

And like Abbas, Hamas is increasingly isolated in the Arab world. Its exiled leadership under Khaled Meshal fears it may soon lose its traditional base in Damascus, under the protection of Syrian president Bashar Asad, whose rule too is rocked by mass uprisings. Egypt, which is trying to reassert its pre-eminent role in the Arab world, is an ideal sponsor for both Hamas and Fatah – the very reason why the new government in Cairo was able to broker the deal.

Importantly for Hamas, the pressure of Egyptian public opinion means the post-Mubarak government has to be more sympathetic both to Hamas’ agenda of resistance to occupation and to the humanitarian plight of ordinary Gazans. That explains, in the wake of the unity deal, the announcement by the Egyptian foreign minister, Nabil Elaraby, that the Rafah crossing into Gaza was soon to reopen – effectively destroying the Israeli-US policy of a sea and land blockade. That move, Hamas hopes, will reinvigorate its rule in Gaza and help it to arm its cadres against future Israeli attacks.

Nonetheless, the pitfalls of Fatah-Hamas unity are many. The fragility of the reconciliation was hinted at by a dispute at the signing ceremony in Cairo, when the proceedings had to be delayed because Hamas’ Meshal insisted on sitting on the podium alongside Abbas rather than in the hall with other Palestinian delegates.

Netanyahu has already indicated that he is keen to use the new interim Palestinian government as a justification for continuing his avoidance of talks. Israel is also likely to put the unity deal under enormous strain by using every tactic available to prise the two factions apart again. This may include denying the PA tax monies to pay workers’ salaries in Gaza and the West Bank; lobbying Washington and the European capitals to end aid payments to the PA; refusing to maintain security coordination with the PA; and reviving targeted assassinations against Hamas leaders.

In addition, even if in September a large majority of UN states do recognise Palestinian statehood within the 1967 borders, Israel will do its best to ensure the Palestinian strategy is a hollow one. Israel has threatened to make its own unilateral moves in retaliation, which will include increased settlement building and a possible annexation of the main settlement blocs. It remains unclear how the Palestinians will be able to create a unified Palestinian state, with free movement between the West Bank and Gaza, without Israeli assistance. And Israel has the infrastructure in place to ensure large swaths of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, will remain off-limits to most Palestinians.

If unity cannot be sustained, or hopes of meaningful statehood are not realised after September, ordinary Palestinians are likely to conclude that the grassroots revolt must be revived and directed at the true authors of their misfortune – Israel.

Israel, however, is not sitting back. Its army, according to reports in the Israeli media, is deeply worried that the Palestinian Facebook generation may launch a civil-rights movement – and do so non-violently. The model is already available, both from the first intifada that predates the creation of the Palestinian Authority and from the years-long protests West Bank villagers have been carrying out against Israel’s land-grabbing wall in places such as Bilin and Nabi Saleh.

So far each village has been left to fight in isolation for its farmland against the might of the Israeli army. But if the city-based March 15 movement can make an alliance with the villages and they coordinate their struggle, the result could be powerful indeed. One March 15 organiser, Fadi Quran, says their plan ultimately is to develop new tools for fighting the occupation – in addition to boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) – through non-compliance and mass protest.

The Israeli army is readying for just such a scenario, though, according to its assessments, it is unlikely to occur before September. It has set up rapid-response teams, located on vantage points overlooking Palestinian communities in the West Bank, to break up mass protests at an early stage. The chief concern is that Palestinians may march towards the settlements, checkpoints or the separation wall. Israeli commanders have warned that they will open fire in such circumstances, whether the marches are peaceful or not.

The German version is available here

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