Hopes High, Hopes Dashed in Palestine

Protests on March 15 in Gaza and the West Bank turned out to be much ado about nothing.

I had dared to dream, to hope that March 15th could captivate the world's attention the way Tahrir Square had a few weeks ago.

I was aware that such dreams could be naive, but I wanted to believe that March 15th could kick-start a double-edged revolution in Palestine, ending the division between Hamas and Fatah, and building a broad, grassroots platform to struggle against the Israeli occupation of all Palestinian territories.

The protests of March 15th were chiefly organised on Facebook, with many pages calling for an end to the division and to congregate on the designated day.

One page, "The Third Intifada", had attracted 170,000 members at the time of March 15th. Another West Bank based page, "Let Us End the Occupation", had around 15,000 active members.

It was a forum for open discussion and reiterated calls for national unity. It looked like March 15th would result in a huge domestic turnout in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, and Gaza City.

Palestinians in the Diaspora were also encouraged to come out to protest in support on the same day.

What was noteworthy about this movement was that it was almost exclusively a youth-led initiative. Evidently, a more outspoken and savvy Palestinian youth were growing increasingly frustrated by life under the regimes of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

Ironically, the democratic elections of 2006 had brought us to the lowest point in the history of the Palestinian struggle, as bloody civil infighting, human rights violations and the severe suppression of dissent by both the PA and Hamas were overshadowed only by Israel's siege on Gaza and the rapidly increasing theft of West Bank land.

It felt appropriate then, that as youth-led revolts spread throughout the Arab world, Palestine's youth should organise their own day of rage. And as some of these revolts achieved successes despite intimidation and killings, it seemed criminal to stand idly by and not participate.

The demands were simple: the release of all political prisoners held by the governments of the Gaza strip and the West Bank, the formation of a fully representative and democratic Palestinian National Council, and of course total reconciliation between the PA and Hamas.

March 15th arrived. As I walked to Ramallah, memories of January 25th and February 17th filled my mind. But then a few niggling thoughts surfaced.

How exactly are we going to end the division? By massing in a square a la Tahrir? What about our own originality? Are we seriously expecting those who are divided to suddenly give up their personal interests and unite because we would be protesting in the streets?

If we honestly wanted unity, why did it take us five years to think of something so simple? Why did we need the recent revolutions in the Arab world to stimulate us?

As I arrived in Manara square, my hear sank. This certainly was not a sizable turnout. At most, there were about three thousand people. Three thousand people to end the division and the occupation.

And it became pretty clear that the resolve of the organisers to ensure their movement not be co-opted by any political party was being severely tested. The PA-owned ministries let out their employees early to participate.

Fatah thugs were present, sporadically attacking the crowd and on at least one occasion beating up women. Plainclothes police were also at hand.

A group of Fatah supporters swarmed through the crowd, chanting pro-party slogans and gaining brief control of the loudspeakers to play their own factional music. The rest of the crowd attempted to shout them down by chanting nationalistic slogans.

Then the loudspeakers began blaring out nationalistic songs, but that only helped to drown out the chants of the crowd.

The result was a mostly immobile crowd, holding up their Palestinian flags standing around without a visible aim or purpose.

Some of those living nearby cut holes in the large pro-unity posters adorning the sides of surrounding building so they could watch the spectacle below from their balconies.

Young men were joining hands to dance dabkah. Other guys draped themselves over the loudspeakers and encouraged them on, waving and singing along.

To my left, a group of teenage boys sat in a circle with one of their friends dancing in the middle for them. Was this the birth of a serious political movement, a platform for conscious youth striving for a better future, or a party?

I circled the Manara square twice. It was mostly empty on one side. I edged away.

For something that was planned from weeks on end and had attracted such widespread attention online and in the media, March 15th was outstandingly anticlimactic.

There was barely an element of seriousness about it at all; I saw more heart, passion, and genuineness from the protest here in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution last month.

And yet I had honestly wanted to believe that March 15th was going to be a historic day for the same reasons Tunisia and Egypt erupted - the decades of oppression, the large unemployment rates, the incessant dehumanisation of Palestinians under the hands of Israel. How naive of me.

It seems inappropriate to ask, but is this a serious movement? Where were the youth leaders? Where were their demands? What this protest succeeded in doing was to disorient many people, placing doubt in the effectiveness of the kind of people power that had inspired the world. But Palestine is not Egypt or Tunisia.

So is this it? Are we to choose between sitting around in the streets, hoping for our leadership to finally talk to each other as Israeli settlers expropriate more of our land? Or shall we skip the politicians and take up arms against the Israeli military ourselves in what's guaranteed to be a losing battle?

We seem to not have the ability to defy our current situation, suffering under the world's last colonial occupation, its collaborators in the West Bank and the authoritarian rule in Gaza.

It seems that rather than inspire us to revolt, these forces have combined to leave us politically passive.

The youth behind March 15 no doubt have noble intentions, but they need to be more creative and more vociferous in their tactics.

Before asking people to head to the squares in Ramallah and Gaza, we must ensure they have the political awareness needed to create a revolution.

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