Uprisings inspire Palestinian street

More than 1000 people, predominately Palestinian youth, rallied in Ramallah on February 17 to call for unity between Fatah and Hamas, the two main Palestinian factions. Inspired by the mass popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Palestinian youth organised a Facebook campaign to demand the establishment of a national unity government and to end the three-year division between Fatah and Hamas. According to a report by Agence France Press (AFP), the youth demanded that the two factions achieve a reconciliation deal by March 5.

The unity call comes in the wake of attempts by both Fatah and Hamas activists to incite “Facebook revolutions” against each other. A call by Fatah activists to overthrow Hamas was backed by Fatah Central Committee member and former director of the Palestinian Authority (PA) General Intelligence, Major General Tawfiq At-Tirawi. The Palestinian news agency, Maan News, reported on February 3 that At-Tirawi issued a statement in support of the Facebook call for the overthrow of Hamas, saying that Palestinians in Gaza should take their cue from Egypt and call for the end of the “dictatorship that restricts their freedoms”.

After the failure of the Facebook campaign to overthrow Hamas in Gaza, Fatah activists report that the Fatah leadership has given them permission to participate in a unity campaign, both on Facebook and on the streets. According to the Jerusalem Post of February 16, Fatah gave a green light to its activists to participate in “The People Want an End to Division” campaign. However, the subsequent unity rally organised by Palestinian youth was attacked by PA security forces, and at least one protester was detained.

Confused manoeuvres

Fatah’s attitude to the Facebook campaigns reveals the increasingly fragmented and opportunistic manoeuvring that has marked not only the politics of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah since January but also the Palestinian Authority. Rocked by the publication by Al Jazeera of the “Palestine Papers” and the popular uprisings taking place in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, Abbas and the Fatah-dominated PA have tried to stave off increasing criticism of their failed peace negotiations and lack of accountability.

After the initial publication of the Palestine Papers, which described discussion of unprecedented concessions to Israel by Palestinian negotiators, including around the right of return for Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem, Fatah launched a series of rallies throughout the occupied West Bank to defend Abbas and the PA. The rallies and Fatah officials’ rhetoric sought to paint Al Jazeera as a Zionist agent hell-bent on destroying Palestinian unity. Within weeks of the publication of the papers, however, chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, fell on his sword, resigning to take responsibility for the papers being “stolen” from his office - papers which Fatah had previously called forgeries.

While the increasing unpopularity of Abbas and the PA stems in part from their failure to secure any gains for the Palestinian people via the US-backed “peace-process”, it also is a result of Abbas, Fatah and the PA being seen as corrupt and unaccountable.

Since June 2007, when Hamas took control of Gaza, Abbas and Fatah have ruled the West Bank and the PA, with the backing of Israel and the USA, under an illegal extension of the Palestinian Basic Law’s state of emergency provisions. Under the initial emergency laws (which allow a maximum of 60 days for a state of emergency), Abbas appointed US favourite Salaam Fayyad as prime minister, along with a cabinet of unelected technocrats. Fayyad’s Third Way platform received less than 3% of the vote in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections. Fayyad and Abbas no longer have a mandate, Fayyad’s term in the Palestinian Legislative Council having expired in January 2011 and Abbas’ term as Palestinian president in 2009.

With the popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world, Abbas and Fatah have alternated between a range of repressive tactics against their own people and calling for unity and new elections.

Demonstrations banned

Maan News on February 4 noted that PA security forces “violently shut down a rally in Ramallah in support of the Egyptian people and detained at least two demonstrators”. Maan continued: “Protesters said the event had been peaceful until police broke out batons and started pushing women at the front of the group back and away from the city center”. According to Maan, “PA forces also shut down a rally outside the Egyptian embassy in Ramallah on Sunday, after calling in one of the organisers for questioning multiple times a day earlier”.

On February 3, PA security spokesperson Adnan Ad-Dmeiri banned all “unlicensed gatherings” in solidarity with the people of Egypt and Tunisia. Ad-Dmeiri defended the ban in a statement saying that the priority for Palestinians was “to empower popular resistance against the occupation and to work for independence”.

Support for Mubarak

The PA security forces’ crackdown on support for the Egyptian and Tunisian popular uprisings came after Abbas rang Hosni Mubarak to affirm solidarity with the Egyptian dictator. According to a statement issued by his office, Abbas expressed keenness for “security and stability” in Egypt in his call to Mubarak on January 29. The Jerusalem Post noted that Abbas had not only phoned Mubarak but had also been “one of the few Arab leaders to phone ousted Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine bin Ali before the latter fled to Saudi Arabia”.

Following the statement by Abbas’ office, a range of Fatah-controlled web sites adopted supportive stances towards Mubarak. While rallies opposing Mubarak were banned by the PA security forces, Fatah-initiated rallies in support of Mubarak went unhindered. Veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass in a February 3 article in Haaretz asked, “Why isn’t the PA supporting the Egypt uprising?” She noted that not only had the PA banned demonstrations in solidarity with the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings but that “Palestinian television has virtually ignored the events in Egypt”.

In the Gaza Strip, Hamas also sought to crack down on anti-Mubarak rallies.

Support

However, ordinary Palestinians and Palestinian organisations came out solidly in support of the Egyptian masses. On February 3, the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) campaign inserted a banner on its home page supporting the Egyptian masses. Quoting from the poetry of Abu al-Qassim Ash-Shabbi, whose words became an anthem during the Tunisian popular uprising, the PACBI banner stated: “Your struggle is ours, as ours is yours. Your freedom is ours, as ours is yours”.

Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the PACBI campaign, in an interview with Maan News on January 31, said that the “heavy-handed suppression of the youth-initiated and led peaceful celebration of the Tunisian uprising’s overthrow of the dictator, Ben-Ali, indicates where the PA’s loyalty lies”. Barghouti went on to say: “Autocratic, unelected regimes tend to identify with one another, it seems. The glaring difference here ... is that the PA is trying to ‘rule’ by decree while we are still under foreign occupation.”

On February 4 the Popular Committees Against the Israeli Occupation issued a press release in support of the Egyptian masses saying, “The Palestinians are watching what is happening across the Arab world in general and Egypt in particular with great pride”.

On February 5, in defiance of the PA ban on rallies, at least 2000 Palestinian protesters gathered in Ramallah’s Manar Circle in solidarity with the anti-government rallies in Egypt. Protesters carried banners and placards, including banners calling for the downfall of all repressive regimes and saying, “From Ramallah to Tahrir Square, the people want change”. Despite the rally being peaceful, it was attacked towards the end by PA security forces.

Dr Mahmoud al-Aker, the general commissioner of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, in an interview with Israeli journalist Amira Hass that appeared in Haaretz on February 3, noted that the primary reason the PA had sought to repress the demonstrations was because of its close ties to the Mubarak regime and its fear that popular demonstrations would spin out of control. Al-Aker went on to say that the PA had “turned into a subcontractor of the occupation”. According to al-Aker, a key mistake of the PA was to abandon the demand for the right to self-determination, which “encompasses everything” and instead to concentrate only on establishing a state. Both Netanyahu and Sharon also talked about a state, but one “without land, water and borders. Everything in enclaves ...”.

Despite Abbas and the PA’s attempt to suppress Palestinian support for the popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world, the uprisings have inspired the Palestinian people. As al-Aker notes in his interview with Hass, Tunisia and Egypt will bring to the Palestinian struggle a chance not only to revitalise the Palestinian struggle but also to “bring it back to where it belongs - not to a government or a ‘state’ but as a movement of national liberation”.