Harriet Sherwood
The Guardian (Blog)
February 18, 2011 - 1:00am

I went to Nablus in the West Bank this week to try to find out whether young people there were in revolutionary mood similar to their counterparts across the Middle East.

But before I even spoke to anyone, I was struck by the bustling and relaxed atmosphere in the city, famous not so long ago for its suicide bombers and nightly incursions by the Israeli military to round up militants and demolish the homes of their families.

The economic revival across the West Bank, and increased security control by Palestinian Authority forces, has included Nablus in its sweep. And earlier this week the Israeli authorities dismantled the notorious Hawara checkpoint at the entrance to the city, where Palestinians seeking access to or from the city - for work, study, shopping, family visits, medical treatment - were kept waiting, often for several hours. Many were denied passage.

In Nablus itself, young Palestinians I spoke to were full of admiration for their Egyptian brothers and sisters but doubtful about whether similar pro-democracy protests were in prospect in the West Bank.

Officially, of course, there already is democracy here - the Palestinian Authority (PA) has just announced that long overdue elections for the presidency and legislature will take place by September (though it has also warned they may be postponed again if Hamas boycotts them). But democracy means more than elections: freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, a free press, equality and so on.

Several of those I spoke to glanced over their shoulders to see who might be taking an interest in our conversation, and some were reluctant to give their full names. The PA is thought to have recruited a network of informants, reporting on dissent among neighbours, friends and even family. Hardly a hallmark of democracy.

"People here are afraid to express themselves," said Ahmed, 18, a civil engineering student at the local university. But, he added, internet sites were buzzing with congratulations for the Egyptian protesters.

Asked if pro-democracy protests could spread to the West Bank, Mahmoud, 27, said: "Inshallah [if God wills it]. I'm not against the PA, I'm against oppression." He was held by PA security forces for six months, and then released without charge, and the experience had embittered him.

But, he said, "the situation here in Palestine is very different compared to Egypt because of the occupation. We feel we have no chance to change the situation. The Israelis are always trying to restrict or prevent change."

Across the Arab world, he said, young people faced the same problems: lack of economic opportunity, absence of social recreation and inhibitions on political expression.

Youssef Qarqesh, 24, said people's biggest concern was to end the division between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. "It affects the way we are seen in the world - other people say if the Palestinians are not united, how can they have their own state?"

He didn't think that an uprising along Egyptian lines would happen in the West Bank. "It's completely different. In Egypt there was a tyranny - they had no choice but revolution. Here we are an occupied people."

Mohammed, 22, a recent graduate who now works in his father's glass shop, said: "They say that the PA will do things better here after Egypt, to reduce the pressure on people." The lack of job opportunities was the main problem, he said. "The vast majority of people graduate from university and then sit at home."

Could that prompt unrest in the West Bank? "Things will happen if the pressure continues," he said.

Naim al Rajabi, a 19-year-old studying to be an anaesthesia technician, said young people were not organised but there was some political expression on Facebook groups. What happened in Egypt, he said, was the result of a "hidden rage for 30 years".

Corruption in "the system" meant that if you didn't know the right people, it was difficult to get work, he said. "I can't feel optimistic while we're living under occupation. But if people revolt, they will revolt against both Israel and the PA. This is what I expect."

On Thursday, hundreds of Palestinians protested in Ramallah to demand reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. It was organised on social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, "to bring down divisions". Those behind this week's protest are said to be co-ordinating with people in Gaza.

Both the PA and Hamas usually prevent or break up demonstrations that they have not called. That may be changing as political leaders cast an eye over their shoulders at what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, and what is now happening elsewhere in the region. As across the Arab world, the Palestinian territories have a large proportion of young people who frustrated by economic, social and political restrictions.

The Israeli military is reported to be preparing for the possibility of dozens of simultaneous protests against the Israeli occupation across the West Bank, although it anticipates that any wide-scale movement would not take off until the autumn. But one lesson of the past few weeks is that it's impossible to predict what might happen.


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