While throngs have taken to the streets to oust autocratic rulers and demand political freedoms in neighboring Arab countries, protests here and in the Gaza Strip have been much more modest and different in intent. People have demonstrated against the U.S. veto, in support of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and in favor of national unity between Hamas-ruled Gaza and the West Bank, dominated by the Fatah party.
What they have not done is call for the ouster of their own leaders.
“We are not happy. No one is happy. But the president and prime minister are doing their best,” said Abed Jabaiah, an appliance store owner, referring to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. “We are under occupation. We are not a state. The things we demand of our government, we know it can’t do because of the Israelis. Our revolution should be against Israel first.”
The quiet stands out
The relative calm among Palestinians stands out against the turbulence in places such as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, whose rulers have been toppled or are threatened. A handful of other Arab countries, including Syria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have also remained orderly, but the quiet here could be the most surprising, given the history of upheaval.
In Ramallah, as shoppers and cars jammed downtown streets, Jabaiah ticked off the reasons he saw for the quiet: Abbas, elected in 2005, is not an autocratic ruler who has seized and held power for decades; Palestinians in the West Bank enjoy a measure of free expression; and their standard of living is better than in many neighboring Arab countries.
The split between Hamas and Fatah also had a chilling effect on attempts to demonstrate against the leaderships in the West Bank and Gaza. Anti-government dissent in either place is often viewed as support for the rival faction — a sensitive point in the divided society. Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip in 2007 in a brief civil war, routing Fatah, which is the ruling party in the West Bank.
“If I want to demonstrate in the West Bank, it’s automatically interpreted that I served the interest of Hamas, and in Gaza that I served the interest of Fatah,” said Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian analyst and pollster. “Most people who want to revolt — not too many at this stage — hate both Fatah and Hamas and see them as failing in the tasks of building a democratic entity that respects freedoms and implements the rule of law.”
Demonstrations in support of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia were broken up by Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank and Hamas police in Gaza, with some protesters arrested and beaten, an indicator of concern that the protests could turn against the authorities. The “Day of Rage” on Feb. 25, initially called by Fatah, was apparently called off for the same reason.
Reaction to Egypt unrest
In the first stages of the Egyptian uprising, the Palestinian Authority, which had close ties with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, was wary of taking sides. But after criticism by human rights advocates of measures against protesters, Fayyad told representatives of local non-governmental organizations at a recent meeting that freedoms must be protected.
In another nod to the regional unrest and calls for democracy, the Palestinian leadership announced that it would hold presidential and parliamentary elections by September. But Abbas later said that no such vote could be held without Gaza, where Hamas rejected the initiative.
Abbas’s domestic standing has been bolstered by the recent U.S. veto at the U.N. Security Council, cast after he resisted pressure from Washington to withdraw the resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity. His refusal to negotiate with Israel unless it halts settlement building has also resonated positively among Palestinians, blunting anti-government sentiment.
“When the leader of the regime is seen to be standing up to the Americans and Israel, and when such a stance is a public demand, then people rethink what they intend to do regarding this leader,” Shikaki said.
Still, the demands for change sweeping the region have led groups of young Palestinians, many brought together through Facebook groups, to mount a campaign to end the Hamas-Fatah split — in effect indicting leaders of both sides for the persistent fissure.
Hazem Abu Helal, 27, one of the youth organizers, said the aim, outlined in a manifesto published last week, was not to bring down the Palestinian leadership but to reform it and promote greater democracy. The Hamas-Fatah rift, he said, had brought increased stifling of dissent, with both governing factions cracking down on opponents and shutting institutions identified with their rivals.
“The repression has gotten worse after the split. The thinking is that if you criticize, you’re not with us,” said Abu Helal, who works at Sharek, a nonprofit group that promotes youth programs and activities and has published its own call for unity.
“Division = Repression of freedoms, and that’s why I’m against it,” said a sign held by one protester at a recent unity demonstration in Ramallah.
The youth manifesto calls for establishment of a court that would hold accountable the leaders and parties responsible for the split, and it demands prosecution of officials involved in corruption. The document also urges new elections for the Palestine Liberation Organization’s highest decision-making body, a non-political governing administration for the Palestinian territories, and a grass-roots “struggle” against Israeli occupation.
“We have no regime we have to topple,” Abu Helal said. “Israel controls it all. Our basic problem is the occupation.”
Greenberg is a special correspondent.