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As Democratic Uprisings Spread Through Middle East, Palestinians' (Unreported) Hunger for Reform Is Repressed

Palestinian activists, isolated by Israeli military checkpoints and walls, are connecting through Facebook, Twitter and mobile phone networks.

A large banner with a caricature of President Barack Obama hanging from a balcony overlooking Ramallah’s Al-Manarah Square on March 15 read: “He said: freedom to the Tunisian people. He said: freedom to the Egyptian people. He said: freedom to the Libyan people. But he did not dare say freedom to the Palestinian people.” 

Building on the momentum of the revolts that are spreading across the Arab world, Palestinian youth erected a protest camp in downtown Ramallah, as well as cities across the West Bank and Gaza on March 15. These young and politically non-aligned activists, unable to meet due to Israeli military checkpoints and walls, are connecting across the Occupied Territories and Israel through Facebook, Twitter and mobile phone networks. 

The so-called March 15 Movement is calling for the restructuring and convening of elections of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the release of all political prisoners in PA and Hamas jails and Palestinian national unity.  

After hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza City and thousands across the West Bank took to the streets in protest last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced plans to meet Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza.  

One of the key figures in the March 15 Movement is Fadi Quran, who along with nine others began a four-day hunger strike the day before the protest. He says the PNC is not representative of all Palestinians, and that “systemically it will lead to division,” like the current four-year standstill between Fatah and Hamas. Quran believes that if Abbas and Haniyeh meet, the leaders will attempt to form a power-sharing agreement, shuffling positions and dividing seats among the parties. 

Abbas and Haniyeh  have yet to agree on terms for meeting. Abbas is calling for the formation of a transitional government to prepare for elections. Since Hamas would likely receive a small minority of the vote, losing its hold over the Gaza Strip, Haniyeh has little incentive to back elections right now. Haniyeh insists on meeting for reconciliation talks.  

The March 15 Movement 

Currently Palestinian activists are pausing to see if the leaders’ plans will bear fruit. Nonetheless, it is clear from speaking to activists like Quran that the toppling of President Mubarak in Egypt and President Ben Ali in Tunisia has revived a sense of hopefulness among Palestinians. 

“After today things won’t be the same,” Quran said during Tuesday’s protest. 

But Stanford-educated Quran is also pragmatic. Asked if March 15 would be the Palestinians’ January 25 moment (the first day of massive popular demonstrations in Cairo), he responded, “I think things here are such that the changes we’re demanding will take a longer time to implement. In Egypt, the call was for Mubarak to step down. We can’t make that call [in relation to Abbas] right now.”  

PA Security Response 

President Abbas has negligible support from his public, and since Al Jazeera’s release of the Palestine Papers confirmed suspicions that the Fatah-led PA has been pandering to Israel (mainly by allowing settlement expansion, abandoning the right of return for all Palestinian refugees and backpeddling on claims to parts of East Jerusalem), he’s trying to suppress an all-out revolt like those sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa. Judging from Abbas’ tactics, he may have learned something from Mubarak himself. 

Over the last few months, during rallies in the West Bank in solidarity with the Egyptian and Tunisian people,  PA forces were brought in to lead their own chants, as well as to threaten and detain protesters. This week, the PA used a similar strategy to quell protests directed more squarely at local Palestinian leadership. 

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