RAMALLAH, Occupied West Bank -We are still preoccupied with demonstrations and their dispersal in this part of the world. After the immediate shock and anger died down last Wednesday, however, one could not help but notice the European, mainly French, scent that wafted from Al-Manara Square in Ramallah where the Palestinian Authority once again suppressed a demonstration of support for the Egyptian people that evening. A few hours earlier, in the same streets, supporters of Fatah had held an undisturbed demonstration in support of the Egyptian government and President Hosni Mubarak.
In the past three years, two experienced French security experts have been working with the Palestinian Special Police Force. They have turned it into one of the best trained, disciplined and equipped of all the Palestinian security forces, according to the European Union's Police Mission in the Palestinian Territories (also known as EUPOL COPPS ), which has been training the local force since January 1, 2006.
"The SPF is the main anti-riot and crowd control section within the Palestinian Civil Police," states the Internet site of EUPOL COPPS.
The training is specifically aimed at ensuring a proportionate and non-lethal use of force when dispersing crowds and demonstrations (or as the universal language of rulers defines them: "riots" and "disturbances of public order" ). The special force also learns proper conduct and ethics - and all these make it the "jewel in the crown" of local forces, as Julio de la Guardia, spokesperson for EUPOL COPPS, described them last week.
There are three instances for overseeing the conduct of the police, de la Guardia explained, should there be complaints that is has overstepped the mark and used excessive force. Was there, for example, excessive use of force last Wednesday - or was the exaggeration perhaps in the order itself to disperse the demonstration?
The 30 demonstrators who were the first to arrive at Al-Manara Square, a little before 9 P.M., saw a group of policemen without batons. They assessed that these were members of the SPF. One demonstrator, N., said he was pleased there were photographers present - but afterward it transpired that these were police photographers. "We were waiting for additional people to come," he said.
The depressing pictures from Tahrir Square in Cairo are what got these young people out of their homes, even though they knew the Palestinian Authority had explicitly forbidden any show of support for the uprising in Egypt.
The spokesperson for the Palestinian security forces, Adnan Dmeiri, said later that the PA supports freedom of expression, but that the demonstrations could lead to chaos. The priority for Palestinians was to empower popular resistance against the occupation and to work for independence, he added.
"We had not yet done a thing," N. said about the events on Wednesday night. "A number of policemen in uniforms began arguing with one of the demonstrators, apparently on purpose, so as to create a pretext for arresting him. They took his identity card and then began dragging him in the direction of the police station. At that stage, our numbers had swelled to 100. Quite a few of us started chasing after the policemen who were dragging him off, while other policemen formed a ring around them to protect them. A while later, they were joined by additional policemen, this time with batons, who started moving in the direction of the demonstrators. At that stage there were some 300 of us. I heard someone say on his mobile phone that there were ajaneb (foreigners ). That is probably what you call a mistarev (a soldier dressed like an Arab ) - someone who was pretending to be a demonstrator, but was from the security forces."
According to Human Rights Watch, a policeman said there were police detectives on the scene as well as officers from the Palestinian preventive security force and the general intelligence service - all of them plainclothesmen. Whatever their identity might have been, Human Rights Watch said the dispersal of the demonstrators involved beating and kicking. Journalists who took pictures were dragged away. (Haaretz was told by SPF sources that they had no information about any special occurence that took place on Wednesday ).
Seventeen countries from the EU and Canada are supposed to contribute more than 8 million euros to the Palestinian police this year, but De la Guardia told Haaretz that it is difficult to assess how much will be earmarked specifically for the SPF.
These lines were written on Saturday at one o'clock in the afternoon, about an hour before a demonstration was due to be held in Ramallah (and a number of other West Bank towns ) in support of the anti-government protesters in Egypt. As has become customary, it is not clear who the initiators are because the information about such activities is passed along via Facebook and email.
A few hours later, upon my return from the square, I can report that PA's political echelon understood that it was impossible to stop this demonstration: Too many people, including both nonpolitical figures as well as political activists, were ashamed at the absence of Palestinian expressions of sympathy for the Egyptian protesters, in the best-case scenario, or at their government's solidarity with Mubarak, in the worst case.
The protest lasted for some two hours and included a march, in which Dr. Hanan Ashrawi - a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee and of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's party - participated, along with Dr. Ghassan Khatib, a member of the People's Party who also directs the media center of Fayyad's government. There were some 1,000 people marching, including the heads of left-wing parties, chanting the slogan heard in Tunisia and Egypt: "The people want the fall of the regime!" Among the protesters were also two or three well-known members of Fatah.
Toward the end of the protest, a slogans quarrel erupted. "The people want the fall of Abbas!" chanted a number of students, apparently from Bir Zeit University, referring to Mahmoud Abbas, president of the PA. They were immediately countered by the chant: "The people want an end to the inqisam" (the internal Palestinian rift; in Arabic those slogans sound much better ).
Eventually, when hardly any demonstrators remained at the square, a group of youths appeared out of nowhere with flags of Fatah and pictures of Abbas, chanting: "The people want Mahmoud Abbas!"