Tens of thousands of Palestinians rallied for national unity across the occupied West Bank and Gaza on March 15. The rallies, led by Palestinian youth and inspired by the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, sought to bring to an end three and a half years of bitter division and rivalry between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas.
In Gaza, at least 3000 Palestinians began gathering in the Square of the Unknown Solider on March 14, the evening before the scheduled unity rally. By the morning of March 15, tens of thousands had joined the demonstration, with estimates of the size of the rally ranging as high as 100,000.
More than 10,000 Palestinians rallied throughout the West Bank, including 4000 in Ramallah and 2000 each in Nablus and Hebron. Smaller rallies took place in other Palestinian cities, including a rally of approximately 1500 in Bethlehem.
While protesters in both the West Bank and Gaza carried a range of placards and banners, the most common slogan read simply: “The people want to end the division”.
Years of division
In January 2006, Hamas candidates won a majority of seats in elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), ending Fatah’s political control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) since its inception in 1996. In response, Israel, the US and the European Union imposed an economic and financial embargo on the PA in an attempt to undermine the democratic choice of the Palestinian people. The blockade pushed more than 85% of Palestinian households below the poverty line.
As the blockade devastated the Palestinian economy, the US channelled millions of dollars to Fatah leader and PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Most of the funds were earmarked to bolster Abbas politically, but some were for the training of hundreds of presidential guards to ensure that Fatah remained in control of the PA security forces. In the months after the PLC elections, Israel arrested at least 33 members of the PLC, the majority of whom were elected on Hamas’ Change and Reform ticket.
In October 2006, fighting erupted between armed Hamas and Fatah militants. Under pressure from the Palestinian street and jailed Palestinian resistance leaders to end these armed clashes, the two groups agreed in February 2007 to form a “national unity” government. This government, however, was short lived, as the US and Israeli rulers continued to push Fatah to carry out a “hard coup” against Hamas. Over a period of one year, fighting between Hamas and Fatah killed more than 450 Palestinians and wounded 1800.
Throughout May 2007, a Gaza-based Fatah warlord, Mohammed Dahlan, used the PA Preventive Security Service to provoke clashes with Hamas. In June 2007, Hamas-led forces in Gaza quickly overran Dahlan’s CIA-trained thugs, seizing control of the coastal strip. In retaliation, Abbas declared a state of emergency, dismissed the Hamas-led national unity government and installed a PA cabinet headed by Salaam Fayaad, whose Third Way party held only two seats in the 132-seat PLC.
Inspired by Tunisia, Egypt
The youth-led unity movement began in February, when Palestinian youth in Ramallah and Gaza organised demonstrations calling for unity between Fatah and Hamas. Inspired by the mass uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the Palestinian youth organised a Facebook campaign to demand the establishment of a national unity government, calling for demonstrations to be held on March 15.
The demands of the March 15 demonstrations included the holding of democratic elections for the Palestinian National Council, in which all Palestinians could participate, including Palestinians living inside Israel and those living in other countries around the world. The youth also demand the release of all political prisoners held by Hamas in Gaza and by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. In relation to the demonstrations themselves, the March 15 Coalition demanded a ban on all factional or party flags and called for the Palestinian flag to be the only one flown.
While the Palestinian Authority and a range of Palestinian political parties – including Fatah, Hamas, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Palestinian People’s Party and the Palestinian National Initiative – all issued statements praising and supporting the youth initiative, the leaders of the youth coalition organising the rallies have fought to ensure their movement was not coopted by any political party or group. In a statement issued by rally organisers a week prior to March 15, they noted that the various groups had been “attempting to legitimise themselves by falsely stating that they are the main organizers behind this event”. The statement rejected those attempts, saying “[we] do not welcome attempts by leaders to redirect efforts”.
In Gaza, Samah al-Rawah from the March 15 Coalition told the French news service Agence France-Presse that the Hamas Interior Ministry in Gaza had refused to give them a permit for the march, instead awarding it to a Hamas-dominated group called “National Campaign for an End to the Division”. According to al-Rawah, the reason many protesters gathered in the Square of the Unknown Soldier the previous evening was to avoid the cooption of the rally by any political faction. Similarly, in Ramallah, protest organisers refused attempts by Fatah to coopt the unity movement.
Despite assurances by both the Palestinian Authority security forces and the Hamas security forces in Gaza that the rallies would be allowed to proceed unhindered, the two largest rallies, in Gaza City and Ramallah, were attacked.
In Gaza, despite a ban on factional flags, more than 500 members of Hamas attempted to march into the rally carrying Hamas flags. According to eyewitnesses, when protesters attempted to stop them, the Hamas members began attacking protesters. Hamas security forces, rather than protecting the rally began to disperse it violently. March 15 Coalition members told Maan News that hundreds of Hamas security forces stormed the protest and tried to end it by force.
Maan also reported in its March 15 updated article that protesters and PA security forces clashed in Ramallah, when the PA attempted to gain control of the demonstration: “At least 20 people have been injured by security forces in the main square, and six were taken away in ambulances, our correspondent reported from the scene”. Ramallah protest organisers later issued a statement saying that four protesters had been arrested. Israeli journalist Amira Hass in her March 20 article in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz noted that while there had been widespread coverage of the Hamas attack on the Gaza Unity rally, very little had been written about attacks on the Ramallah rally.
Despite the attacks on the rallies, Palestinian youth have continued to protest and demand national unity. In Gaza, Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem, dozens of Palestinian youth in each city have continued to stage “sit-ins” in public squares, with many embarking on a hunger strike saying they will not go home until the division ends and national unity is achieved.