March 15 marked the launch of yet another Arab youth movement, following those in Egypt on January 25 and in Libya on February 17. The aim of this youth-led movement appears simple: end the split between Gaza and the West Bank and between the PLO and Hamas.
Popular uprisings are not new to Palestinians who introduced the term Intifada to the world in 1987. In fact many in Palestine feel that they broke the barrier of fear – a prerequisite for going out in the streets against brutal, violent crackdowns – long before the youth in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain.
While Palestinians succeeded in expressing themselves against the Israeli occupiers, a much different set of challenges developed in the past five years. Since the 2006 elections and the violent Hamas-Fateh confrontations in Gaza a year later, Palestinians have had to deal with two differing powers: the Israeli military occupiers who are in control over most of the West Bank and the external borders of Gaza Strip, and the local Palestinian leaderships based in Ramallah and Gaza. And as expected, the challenge of facing Palestinian powers is much more painful and difficult than opposing the Israeli occupiers.
It was not easy to begin the March 15 movement. Calling for an end to the split was severely attacked as unpatriotic, on the premise that all Palestinians should be fighting the Israelis. Tens of groups were subsequently formed, having various slogans and calling for an end to the occupation and to the split between the Palestinians.
March 15 youth leaders, however, stayed on course, refusing to change their slogans and refusing to allow any partisanship to infiltrate their group.
Neutral observers were curious to see how this movement will develop, especially in Gaza where the Hamas-led government has been generally seen as more opposed to reconciliation than the PLO-led Ramallah authority.
On the eve of the movement’s launch and in order to prevent any attempt to sabotage their efforts, Gazan youth decided to sleep overnight in Gaza’s Unknown Soldier Square. Thousands of non-partisan youth did stream into Gaza’s central square, set up camp and a loud speaker. By March 15, however, they were confronted with Hamas-led activists pushing their way into the square, raising Hamas flags (in contradiction to the agreement to only raise Palestinian flags) and setting up much louder speakers. Realising that their purely non-partisan event was going to be diluted, the March 15 youth decided to move to another square in Gaza, called Kateebe Square.
Observers in Gaza estimated that tens of thousands attended the youth event, compared to a much smaller number for the Hamas event. During the day, a strange phenomenon took place: journalists and cameramen working for local and international media outlets received text messages on their cell phones warning them to be careful about what they broadcast. The intimidation by the de facto powers in Gaza was. As the sun started to set on Tuesday, the purpose behind the message became clear: security forces dressed like civilians and belonging to the Hamas-led government broke up the youth rally using batons and metal rods. Their tents were put on fire and the youth were chased all over Gaza streets. Journalists were also attacked, and their cameras and tapes were confiscated.
An official statement issued later in the evening by the ministry of interior said that an internal fight took place between former Fateh security officials and the youth organising the demonstration, which forced the security officials to intervene. The statement also said that the only licensed demonstration was in the Unknown Soldier Square and that it was scheduled to end at 5:00pm.
With a few exceptions, the local and international media were unable to show many images of the attacks. Al Jazeera’s 9:00pm broadcast quoted sources as saying that the demonstration in Kateebe Square was broken up, but showed no images of what happened. The Bethlehem-based Maan Network was attacked harshly on Hamas websites and in statements by the Hamas-led interior ministry for what it called "fabrications of the facts", Maan responded by saying that pictures don’t lie.
The demonstrations in the West Bank were less dramatic. All cities held rallies and activities, with most attention focused on Manara Square in Ramallah.
Politically it is not clear how these popular activities will translate into action. One recurring demand was that new elections for the Palestinian National Council take place as soon as possible, to usher in a new leadership. The demonstrators in Gaza stressed the need for local legislative and presidential elections, a call that Hamas has repeatedly rejected, stating that elections should happen after reconciliation and not instead of it.
Pressure also continues on Ramallah and Gaza leaderships to release political prisoners. Each side accuses the other of arresting activists, and both insist that they are only arresting individuals accused of security crimes, such as having weapons without a permit.
The attempts by Palestinians to cause a dent in the internal stalemate have yet to produce a serious breakthrough. It will be interesting to see how long the youth, especially in Gaza, can hold on, and whether their efforts will force political leaders to effect changes they have so far avoided making.