Young Palestinian activists represent a potential new political and social force
By Joel Greenberg,
RAMALLAH, West Bank — When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas returned home to a hero’s welcome after applying for United Nations membership for a Palestinian state, Hurriyah Ziada was not moved to join the celebration.
A 22-year-old university student who is active in protesting the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, Ziada is skeptical that the statehood bid will bring any tangible change. Disillusioned with her leaders after years of fruitless talks with Israel and uninspired by the prospect of symbolic U.N. recognition, Ziada is part of a loose network of young activists who represent a potential new force in Palestinian society and politics.
A still-undefined, embryonic group of a few hundred across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the activists made their mark by organizing protests that peaked in March. Demanding unity between the rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, the demonstrations reflected disenchantment with both parties. The result was a reconciliation accord between the factions a few weeks later, although steps to carry out the pact have stalled.
To Ziada and her cohorts, the Palestinian Authority’s bid for recognition of a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with its capital in East Jerusalem, is a shriveled vision of what Palestinians at home and in the diaspora deserve. Although the main struggle, for Ziada, is against Israeli occupation, she also opposes what she views as the limited political horizons of the Palestinian leadership.
“We have to start a revolution,” she said, “so people can take their freedom in their hands. If the Palestinian Authority will not stand in the way, we don’t have a problem with them. But we can’t settle for the current situation.”
An alternative to statehood
Abbas’s government in the West Bank was eclipsed recently by Hamas, after it struck a deal with Israel for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for Sgt. 1st Class Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was held captive in Gaza for more than five years. The deal brought concessions from Israel that peace talks pursued by Abbas had failed to secure, bolstering Hamas’s claim that only armed action yields results.
More broadly, Abbas’s vision of negotiating the creation of a Palestinian state in areas occupied by Israel in 1967 is seen by Ziada and other youth activists as inadequate. They talk about human and civil rights, not territory, as the basis for their struggle.
“I don’t care so much about land as about gaining my own basic rights,” said Ziada, whose first name means freedom.
She and other activists envision a campaign similar to the American civil rights movement and the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. Their vision extends to Palestinian refugees in neighboring Arab countries and Israeli Arabs.
In the activists’ study sessions and discussions, the concept of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip competes with an alternative goal: one state that would also include the area of Israel, with equal rights for Jews and Arabs, and Palestinian refugees allowed to return.
With such dissenting views and independent activities, the young organizers pose a challenge to the Palestinian Authority and the ruling Fatah party in the West Bank, who view political action outside traditional party frameworks with unease.
Fadi Quran, an organizer who has joined Ziada in protest actions against the Israeli military, said the group’s activities have “chipped away at the legitimacy” of established parties. “When you have [independent] groups that are more ready to resist occupation, it means you don’t need the political parties, and that scares them.”
But others take a dimmer view of the young activists. “They have little influence on the Palestinian street, and their vision is unclear, while Fatah is a popular movement that reaches all sectors of society,” said Younis Abu Rish, a Fatah leader in the Amari refugee camp outside Ramallah.
Nonetheless, when young activists staged solidarity demonstrations to support the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, some of the gatherings were broken up by Palestinian police, signaling a nervousness that the protests could turn against the Palestinian Authority.
At a large demonstration in March demanding Fatah-Hamas reconciliation in Ramallah, scores of young men from Fatah youth organizations turned out, effectively commandeering the demonstration. Hamas did the same in the Gaza Strip, and club-wielding police later broke up a breakaway protest.
‘The right to move freely’
In a conversation at a Ramallah cafe, Ziada asserted that the Palestinian leadership’s vision could leave Palestinians with a truncated mini-state with limited sovereignty and no resolution of the refugees’ status. Quran said the restrictions under Israeli occupation could be “replaced by Palestinian oppression” in a state with an authoritarian government.
“When I have kids, I don’t want them stuck in the West Bank,” Ziada said. “I want the right to move freely. I want to go to Jerusalem, the city where I was born and to the village my family was kicked out from in 1948,” she said, referring to the displacement of Palestinians in the war that accompanied the creation of Israel.
Her family originated in the destroyed village of al-Falouja, in what is now southern Israel. Her father, a union organizer and member of a militant leftist faction during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, was arrested repeatedly and jailed for months without trial. In the second uprising, which erupted in 2000, her older brother, then a member of Fatah’s armed wing, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for his role in a shooting attack on an Israeli settlement.
Today, Ziada says, she runs up against a wall of apathy when trying to persuade people to demonstrate against Israeli soldiers and settlers. People of her parents’ generation, she says, “are exhausted.” Many young Palestinians are alienated from established political movements and have lost faith in their own ability to bring change, according to activists.
“People are sick of politics,” Quran said.
Unlike other countries swept up in the Arab Spring, where popular demonstrations were a novelty after years of harsh repression, Palestinians have staged two uprisings and years of protests, Ziada pointed out.
“They’ve been through all this before, they lost members of their families, and they want to keep what they still have,” she said. “They tell me, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re going to ruin your life, and nothing is going to change.’ . . . I tell them that the cost of getting rid of the occupation is far less than the cost of living under it for a long time to come.”
Building civic participation
The protests Ziada and other activists promote take a page from the popular tactics of the 1980s uprising, or intifada, when crowds of unarmed protesters took to the streets to confront Israeli troops, shopkeepers held protracted strikes, and one town staged a tax revolt.
The aim, organizers say, is creative nonviolent action to disrupt the Israeli occupation. Activists regularly join what they call “popular resistance,” such as weekly marches in villages against the seizure of land by Jewish settlers or against Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank, which has cut off many farming communities from their lands.
Ziada and other Palestinian youth organizers have attended meetings in Cairo and Jordan’s capital, Amman, in recent months with young activists from countries swept by the Arab Spring. They came away with practical advice on how to rebut criticism and rumors intended to discredit protesters, how to avoid direct confrontations with security forces, and how to rally support among citizens who have tired of politics or withdrawn from it altogether, she said.
One of the most useful lessons learned, Ziada noted, was that participation can be enlisted by focusing on pressing social and economic problems that affect people’s daily lives.
In the West Bank, Ziada and others have led street-cleaning projects, helped build mud houses for people whose homes were razed by the Israelis and run activities for children in areas plagued by violence. The community work, Ziada said, was meant to encourage a sense of civic involvement and break patterns of passivity and resignation.
“When you clean a street, you feel related to the street because you cleaned it yourself,” she said. “If you build something in the country, you feel that this country is yours. We have to build a strong society from the inside, and that will help us move to the next step.”