As Israel Tries to Bomb the Palestinian Spring Out of Existence, Could Egyptian Protesters be the Palestinians’ Only Hope?
As September arrives, there is an atmosphere of familiarity to the cycle of carnage following two weeks of Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Following an August 18 attack in the Negev desert near Israel's southern border city of Eilat, the old power politics of the Middle East are reemerging while the Egyptian people are left to keep the promise of the Arab Spring alive.
With a United Nations vote to recognize a Palestinian state fast approaching, the road to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) – the official representative body of the Palestinian people – becoming an internationally recognized government is being paved by Israeli bombs and Hamas' retaliatory rocket fire.
The PLO’s leaders stand poised to reap the prestige of a diplomatic upgrade while the reality of occupation intensifies on the ground. The Hamas government in Gaza, which has been widely criticized at home for its authoritarian rule, is again able to dominate the discourse of resistance instead of being a target of Palestinian opposition. Israel, too, stands to gain from a return to the cycle of violence and symbolic diplomatic gestures reminiscent of years past. Lately, evidence of everything that has changed over the past six months is hardly noticeable.
March 15 was the first major Palestinian response to the revolutions transforming Tunisia and Egypt and at first appeared to be a decisive turning point. “Today is the opening shot of a generational power clash, things won't be the same after,” leading Palestinian youth organizer Fadi Quran told me in Ramallah's central square during mass protests.
Collectively calling for the release of all political prisoners in the West Bank and Gaza and direct elections for the National Council of the PLO, a united youth struggle emerged across fractured borders and armed checkpoints. The political ramifications were immediately evident as the Palestinian Authority (PA), the West Bank administrative government of the PLO, and the Hamas government in Gaza made overtures at national political reconciliation.
The protests announced a “Palestinian Spring” focused on, Quran told me, a call by Palestinian youth organizations from the West Bank, Gaza, Israel and the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. With the goal of rejuvenating a divided Palestinian identity and transforming the liberation struggle, they called for political freedom, an end to the occupation, self-determination, social justice and the right of return for the 750,000 refugees Israel created in the 1948 war (called the Nakba or “catastrophe” by Palestinians) as well as their families. Within hours of our conversation, Palestinian Authority and Hamas security forces attacked Palestinian youth on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel also mobilized troops and lined the checkpoints and borders with soldiers. Still, it wasn't until the Nakba demonstrations in May (demanding Israel allow the right of return) and the anniversary of Israel's 1967 occupation in June that Israeli soldiers would open fire. At those demonstrations, where unarmed Palestinian youth flocked to the checkpoints of the West Bank, Gaza and Israel's borders with Lebanon and Syria, Israeli soldiers soaked the unity call in the blood of more than 20 Palestinians, in order to repress an emerging Palestinian protest movement on its borders.
The predictable cycle of violence following the Negev attack – which led to Israel’s air strikes on Gaza and retaliatory rocket fire into Israel -- has immeasurably aided the Israeli government. Pressed to respond to a mass middle class protest movement using the slogan “We don't care about security, we can't find housing,” Israel has found a Jewish nationalist rallying cry in a manageable conflict with Palestinians.
In the week leading up to its recent bombing campaign against Gaza, Israel began placing more landmines on its border with Syria, a site where unarmed Palestinian refugees have gathered twice since May to demand the right to return to the land from which their parents and grandparents were expelled. Already struggling to contain expanding Palestinian protests in the West Bank and keep up a blockade of Gaza, Israel seemed unable to cope with a popular struggle by Palestinian refugees.
The bombing has instead shifted focus solely onto Gaza and the armed resistance – consisting mostly of crudely made rockets that are barely noticed as they land in the desert -- instead of on expanding protests confronting symbolic borders and checkpoints to expose and confront Israeli segregation policies and divide and rule tactics.
“Now the leadership only represent themselves, not the youth,” Quran told me in March, just after PA police began clashing with university students. “There is no difference in what they want,” he added, referring to Palestinian Authority administration in the West Bank and the Hamas government in Gaza. “It’s just about power."
For Israel, the division of Palestinian power allows it to keep Gaza isolated, continue the colonization of the West Bank and Jerusalem, control its Palestinian citizens and maintain a heavily armed border to block refugees.
As Israel has worked to turn back the political clock and both the PLO leadership and Hamas have taken the opportunity to demonstrate their marginal and ultimately self-serving power, the Palestinian people may have only one hope. In an ironic twist of history that would have been all but unthinkable only eight months ago, Egypt is holding the door to Palestine open for the Arab Spring.
After Palestinian fighters launched a raid into Israel and then fled into Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, Israeli forces launched a cross-border attack that killed an Egyptian army officer and two security guards. In response, Egyptians poured into the streets around Israel's Cairo Embassy. Demanding Egypt end its normalized relations with Israel and that Israel cease all attacks on Gaza, the protests forced a reluctant Egyptian government to recall its ambassador in Tel Aviv for consultation, temporarily destabilizing relations with Israel's most strategic ally in the region.
Although the ambassador has since returned to his post, the response by Egypt's government demonstrates the continued tension between its ruling military council and the democratic popular will. It also highlights the power of the Egyptian people to directly change state policy through protest. Perhaps, the most important message for Palestinians to come from Cairo is that if they take to the streets to end their oppression, the Arab revolutions will be there to support them.