Listen to the People

Everyone is glued to their television sets. The scenes from Egypt’s Tahreer [Liberation] Square, from Alexandria and from Suez are mesmerizing, especially for us nostalgic Palestinians who know what it feels like to revolt against an oppressive regime.

At least we used to. The relative silence of the Palestinian street towards the historic events in the Arab world is perplexing, even to the most unfazed among us. While there is no doubt whatsoever that hearts and minds are in the right place, the question is why we are also not out on the streets in solidarity. The answer will vary, of course, depending on the respondent.

For young and zealous protesters in the West Bank eager to wear their hearts on their sleeves and show their solidarity with their Arab brethren, the finger of blame is squarely on the Palestinian Authority and its security forces. It is not as though our people have not felt the call of their fellow Arabs in Tunisia and Egypt and the pull of their cause against the oppressive regimes of their leaders. On the contrary, after the first week of protests in Tunisia, when it was clear the Arab world as we know it would be turned upside down, the Palestinians took to the streets. It was not long, however, before they were told to go home by the police and security forces who, no doubt, were acting on orders from above.

Now that Egyptians have regained hope that they too can be the catalyst for change in their own country, they have taken over the streets. Again, Palestinians felt the urge to join hands (metaphorically) with their Egyptian brethren and again, they were turned back at the door of the relevant ministries after requesting a permit to congregate.

What will the Egyptians think of us? The Palestinian Authority has reacted in much the same way as any other Arab country –” with its own interests in mind. The Palestinians are in a position very different from any other Arab country in that it is still under Israeli rule, the overriding layer of oppression for all Palestinians regardless of position. It was against Israel that Palestinians revolted so many times. The two major Intifadas targeted Israel’s occupation and we expected the Arab peoples to support us. When they didn’t, we criticized them. But they also rose to the occasion when they could. People in various Arab countries took to the streets during Israel’s invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008, they protested when they believed Al Aqsa was in danger and they wrote songs about Palestine and the courage of the Palestinians. Let us not forget that most Arab peoples live under very undemocratic leaders who do not allow the freedom of expression, even if with the Palestinian people. When Arabs in Egypt,

Jordan or Tunisia take to the streets in solidarity with Palestine, they are doing so at their own risk –” not so much because their leaders are so unsupportive of Palestine per se, but because they fear the anger will turn inward. Home revolts have always been these leaders’ biggest fear, one which is now being realized as we speak.

Now it is their turn to look to us for support and we are not delivering. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has, for some reason, chosen to play it safe, much to the chagrin of the people. President Mahmoud Abbas is, for all practical purposes, a world leader with political and strategic interests including with Arab leaders such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. If, contrary to predictions, Mubarak does not fall, Abbas does not want to pay the price for allowing his people to stand in solidarity with the demonstrators. The Palestinians know what it means to feel the bite of an embittered Arab regime. During the 1991 Gulf War, late President Yasser Arafat and many Palestinians stood by Saddam Hussein- not necessarily because they were enamored with his style of rule but because he was the embodiment of resistance to western influences. However, when Saddam was forced to retreat with his tail between this legs and the war was decisively over in favor of the Western allied Kuwait, the latter was less than happy with the Palestinians’ choice of sides. As a result, the Palestinians paid dearly. Kuwait froze Palestinian bank accounts and kicked Palestinian nationals out of the country. The tremors were felt for years and perhaps, this time around, the leadership in Ramallah is merely looking to avoid this uncomfortable situation altogether.

However, it is a fine but tense balance. All peoples, Palestinians included, have a right to express their opinions and solidarity with whomever they please. Is this not the hallmark of democracy and free nations? Is it not enough that Israel is unrelenting in its oppression of the Palestinians and has proven –” thanks to the so-called Palestine Papers –” that it really doesn’t want peace?

The Palestinians are at a crossroads of sorts. Internally, the leadership is struggling to maintain its good name both internationally and among its own people after the leaked documents. At the same time, the winds of change are blowing across the Arab world like never before. In Tunisia and in Egypt, the people have proven that their will and their word can make changes they only dreamed of before. If the Palestinian leadership wants to maintain that fine line between acting as a government (and the interests that entails) while still receptive to the needs and wants of its people, it will have to respect their right to expression. The Palestinians have always prided themselves on the assumption that as a revolutionary people who have lived under the brunt of exile, oppression and occupation, they are more open, aware and tolerant of society’s plurality. This is not the time to discredit that assumption.