Pushing for a Palestinian Tahrir
Feeling abandoned by their political leadership, Palestinian youth are pushing for change.
05 March 2011
On a cool January evening at the height of Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, Najwan Berekdar and a few friends were sitting at a smoky café in Ramallah, puffing on water pipes and strategising. "We were talking about what's happening in Tunisia, and we decided, maybe this is the momentum - we should use it," Berekdar remembers weeks later from her office at Sharek, a youth-oriented Palestinian NGO. "We were, like, five people. We were sitting with our laptops and we said, 'Okay, let's make an event.' We wanted something to encourage people to go out."
Within days, masses of Egyptians began filling Tahrir Square, and 27-year-old Berekdar, her friends and like-minded Palestinian youths were even more inspired. "We wanted to send this message that it is time for us to do something. And obviously we can do it. Look at other people. If they managed to do it, we can do it."
The demonstrations these Palestinian youths helped organise were quickly banned, sometimes with clubs, by a Palestinian Authority (PA) with deep historic and political ties to the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships. But then other groups began forming their own demonstrations. And Berekdar and her friends, through email loops and a face-to-face "thinking group" of about 20 academics and intellectuals, organised new protests. "We were suppressed by the PA a second time and a third time," she says. Soon Palestinian authorities began to investigate the group.
"One of our group members was called by the police, and by the intelligence, and by - I don't know, we have four security forces, I think," Berekdar says. (Actually, there are five.) "They stayed at his home until one in the morning." The mukhabarat assumed the young man was the ringleader, Berekdar recalls with amusement. They pressed him for details of the hierarchy of what is in fact a loose, ever-shifting coalition that only recently got a name: Hirak Shebab, or Youth Movement. It is an informal, mostly leaderless group - a concept the centralised PA does not seem to grasp.
As Berekdar spoke, at 1:30 on a recent afternoon, an email came in from a friend. About the demonstration that day at 6:00: Should they do it at Manara Square in the centre of Ramallah or outside the Muqata, the PA headquarters? Berekdar was not sure. Scarcely four hours before the event, she seemed unhurried, and confident of Hirak Shebab's ability to get sufficient numbers to show up at the last minute.
Berekdar is trying to involve young people, both unaffiliated and from different Palestinian parties, including Hamas. She estimates that so far about 2,000 people connect with the group's message pushing for democracy and fundamental change. "It's about changing the whole discourse of the Palestinians," she says. "It is time for us to start doing something. Because obviously the political leadership is not doing anything."
The 'pulse of Palestine'
In the revolutionary spirit spreading across the Middle East, Palestinian youth groups have become a small but important catalyst in a building wave of discontent with PA repression and complicity in a failed "peace process" backed by the US. The groups' actions are sparked not only by events in the region, but by the US veto of the UN Security Council's condemnation of Israeli settlements. A widening circle of Palestinian groups are calling for an end to negotiations with Israel, an end to the political division between the West Bank and Gaza and wholesale reform of the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Some advocate dissolving the PA completely.
"Fatah and Hamas have failed Palestinian society," says Nader Said, a Palestinian pollster and political analyst. Youth, he says, "represent the pulse and conscience of Palestine". In Gaza, Said says, young people "are the ones who have demonstrated in the middle of the shooting, covering their faces with paper bags," so that security forces would refrain from possibly shooting a brother or cousin. "They are the soul of the Palestinians," but by themselves, "they're not strong enough to carry the emancipation agenda."
Yet the message is resonating well beyond the youth groups. As Palestinians under a 43-year occupation watch their Arab neighbours fight for democracy, pressure increases on the PA to reform itself - or at least, to appear to do so. Faced with the threat of the US veto, the PA sought to burnish its resistance credentials by refusing to yield to American pressure to call off the Security Council vote. And Salam Fayyad, the prime minister, recently sent a message to Palestinian youth via Facebook, asking for input as he forms a new Palestinian cabinet. Within hours, he received hundreds of replies - some supportive, some sceptical.
"Now suddenly they're this nationalistic body that's clinging to Palestinian rights?" scoffed Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and former PA negotiator, in a recent interview. "They've put their finger to the wind, and realised that the wind has changed. Right now you don't want to be seen as the one nation that's clinging to the United States. So they had to do something."
But others say the pressure from emerging Arab democracies, and what one insider called the "betrayal" by the US, may force the PA to turn inward, and thus make the kind of core changes it has long resisted.
"We do not want an authority that is a buffer between the people and the occupation," says Qais Abu Leila, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a founder of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. "We need a Palestinian Authority that is part of the people and a continuation of the struggle against occupation." Abu Leila believes the shifting political landscape may force the PA to confront its increasingly undemocratic, authoritarian character.
"We are now facing the danger of the emergence of more or less police regimes" in Gaza and the West Bank. Under the PA, he says, "gradually the democratic checks and balances of government are fading away".
'A quiet colonisation'
Fundamental change within the PA, if it happened, would likely include a reassessment of its security cooperation with Israel. Some coordination of visas and safe passages, and movement of Palestinian police between West Bank towns, would continue, reformers say. More draconian measures seen as collaboration with Israel's occupation could be suspended. These include the extralegal arrest and detention of hundreds of Palestinians, and incidents of torture, documented by Palestinian human rights groups, in the name of fighting terrorism and preventing a Hamas takeover in the West Bank. Human Rights Watch recently called on the US and EU to suspend aid to the PA "pending concrete steps to end a culture of impunity for security service abuses, including torture".
But a Palestinian decision to suspend security cooperation would likely have huge financial consequences. In recent years the US has spent nearly half a billion dollars in training and "professionalising" key parts of a 25,000-strong Palestinian security apparatus under three-star American general Keith Dayton. The money flow would likely reduce to a trickle if basic principles of the arrangement were suspended. Some analysts believe the PA could survive possible cuts in US funding, especially if the EU stepped into the breach.
Others are sceptical. "The PA is a security subcontractor for Israel," says Buttu. Despite the pressure the PA is facing, she does not foresee any change. "The whole aim is to allow Israel to have a very quiet occupation, a very quiet colonisation."
"We alleviated the occupation from its responsibility," agrees Ali Jarbawi, a longtime critic of the authority who recently joined the government as the Palestinian minister of planning. "And they [Israelis] are living happily ever after when you go to Dizengoff Street and sip wine with the yuppies at these sidewalk cafés. As if the West Bank does not exist. As if Gaza does not exist. As if the Palestinians do not exist."
Jarbawi believes the two-year state-building plan the PA put in place in 2009, overseen by Fayyad, should be given a chance to work - but only until September 2011. Jarbawi insists there must be a limit to official Palestinian patience. "You can't keep the negotiation track open forever, and keep the dependency on aid also open forever, so the world is paying for the continuation of the occupation. And at the same time they are building settlements on the ground, eating what's supposed to become our state."
Jerusalem: 'The next Tahrir?'
After September, Jarbawi says, the Palestinian strategy could include an end run around the US, through an appeal to the other members of the "Quartet" - the EU, Russia and the UN - to recognise a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. Already nine Latin American nations have stepped forward. "Brazil, through this letter, recognises the Palestinian state on the 1967 borders," Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the then Brazilian president, wrote to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, in December.
Other options Jarbawi envisions include asking for an international presence in the West Bank, building a new, nonviolent intifada - "one million people walking down the streets, chanting for an end to occupation" - or even dissolving the very authority in which Jarbawi now works. "That has to remain a viable option," he says.
Abu Leila believes dissolving the PA is unrealistic. But he insists the pressure for reform has become too great to ignore. "There is an almost universal recognition that there must be radical change in Palestine, and that it must start with ending the division" with Gaza, he says, echoing comments by Berekdar and many others. He calls this step essential "in order to face the occupation and a hostile policy adopted by the US. The PA could organise the Palestinian society in a way that could fuel the struggle against the Israeli occupation. This is a meaningful option."
This may be starting to happen. In February, Tawfiq Tirawi, a member of the Central Committee of the PLO and until recently the PA security chief, called for "days of rage" protests against the American veto in the Security Council. "They consider themselves the masters of the world," said the man who until recently helped coordinate security arrangements with Israel and the US. "They [the Americans] call for democracy and freedom. They say that they want this for all nations of the world, but when it comes to the Palestinian people, it just evaporates. The interest of our people is the most important thing. We will say no to the Americans if it is not in the interest of our people."
Some Palestinians believe a nonviolent popular uprising is coming in Palestine - whether backed by the PA or not. "Resistance has always been a unifying force," says Hani Masri of Badael, the Ramallah think-tank. "The youth, they are telling the leadership, either you will be changing or you will be changed."
Masri and others are discussing mass mobilisations, including 50,000 to 100,000 Palestinians marching peacefully to Qalandia, the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah that now resembles an international border crossing. Beyond that, he asks, "why can't we turn Jerusalem into the next Tahrir?"
Weekly protests in the Palestinian towns of Bili'in, Budrus and Nili'in have already received international attention as focal points of a nonviolent Palestinian resistance. But whether mass mobilisations will actually take place to confront the Israeli occupation is another matter.
High price of confrontation
"The big question today is whether the Palestinian society has the juice to create a real civil disobedience, refusing-the-occupation campaign," says Gershon Baskin, the co-director of the Jerusalem-based Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, and a strong advocate of the two-state solution.
"There are 24,000 Palestinians working in settlements. Two Rami Levi supermarkets opened up in the West Bank, and many of the shoppers are Palestinian. If you're going to wage a campaign to simply say we're not cooperating any more with the occupation, then what that means is you're not going to work in Israel any more, you're not going to work in the Israeli settlements ... You're going to have confrontation with the occupation. And that has a very high price."
Would Palestinians, so dependent on the foreign-funded jobs and services that Buttu calls "donor heroin," be willing to forego the sharp reduction in aid that would surely accompany a new strategy of confrontation?
"In the short term we would really pay a heavy price economically," Buttu agrees. "For one thing, you wouldn't see people sitting around in nice cafés like this," she says, smiling ironically while sitting in Ramallah's Café de la Paix. But confronting the occupation "would definitely unite people who are not united now".
"Something could spark it," Baskin says. "Who would have predicted Tunisia, Egypt, Libya? But I don't see Palestinian society having the energy today to do it. Israelis and Palestinians today feel much more comfortable pushing a 'like' button on their Facebook page than going out to the street."
That may or may not be true. As major checkpoints have come down recently, the occupation has loosened around Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin, and relative freedom within a small portion of the West Bank has created a sense of limited breathing room. For some Palestinians, quality of life has gone up. Some say the "donor heroin" has created a sense of comfort, even complacency, in the small enclave inside the West Bank.
"If you look at our social situation, people in Ramallah don't care, mostly speaking," says Dina Shilleh, a 27-year-old piano teacher who returned with her parents from Serbia during the heady early days of Oslo. "If they can go out, they have their car, they have their house, they can dress nicely, that's kind of what it's about. There's a lot that's been sedated. Because in the end you want to live. It's like, hey, how long do you want to keep fighting? My grandparents fought, my parents fought. Am I gonna do it? My kids? It would have to be something that would really spark the people to get out of this numbness."
And yet, when Hirak Shebab organised demonstrations at Manara Square recently, Dina answered the call. "We need a new leadership," she says, recalling her chants against the occupation and in favour of democracy.
"We need a new idea."
Sandy Tolan is an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC, and the author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East.