Tim Whewell
BBC News
June 9, 2011 - 12:00am

In the front room of a house in the tightly-packed concrete slum that is Gaza's Jabaliya refugee camp, they are learning to dance.

A group of young teenage girls are stepping high in the air, hands on hips, as they practice the debka. Traditionally, it was performed by boys and girls together. But since the Islamist movement Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, mixed dancing has been stopped.

"I feel sad and depressed that I can't have freedom in my own country," says Roba Salibi, the university student who teaches the debka in her spare time. "The government puts pressure and does not allow us to do what we love."

Even to criticise Hamas so publicly is daring in Gaza.

But Roba has gone much further. She is one of a group of students who organised an unprecedented independent demonstration in March, calling on the movement to end its bitter, sometimes murderous feud with the rival secular faction, Fatah, and concentrate instead on a united struggle for Palestinian rights.

"We said we were sick of political games and we want to be part of a society more tolerant and open to new ideas," says Roba's friend Osama Shomer. "The ridiculous game between Hamas and Fatah has ruined every Palestinian life."

In December, Osama was among the authors of a deliberately provocative Facebook manifesto that cursed all the forces they felt were imprisoning Gazan youth.

Fighting uniformity

"That was the reason for the frustration," says another member of the group, Ruwan Abu Shahla. "No-one cared what we felt, what we had to offer, what we could be."

It was a passionate cry for both political and social freedom. Ruwan is one of only 15 or so female students, of a total of 9,000 at Gaza's al-Azhar University, who do not wear the hijab head-covering.

"The faction which is controlling us is trying to make every person be the same thing. A girl like me not putting on hijab is not acceptable."

"You used to look around to see if someone is listening, so we used to stay silent, not even to think," adds her colleague, Abu Yazan.

He was called in for questioning by Hamas after the publication of the manifesto.

During the March demonstration, many protestors were beaten by police. But three months on, the atmosphere in Gaza has changed, if only slightly.

"We made mistakes," says Hamas' deputy foreign minister Ghazi Hamad, referring to some of the Islamic restrictions imposed by his movement - an admission he would have been unlikely to make before this year's youth activism.


More importantly, pressure from the street helped lead to the reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah signed in Cairo in May, though mediation by the new Egyptian government and the current political weakness of both Palestinian factions, played a more important role.

“ Abu Mazen is committed to his regime, and we are committed to ours ”
Mahmoud Zahar, Hamas
Overnight, the pact brought new colour to the streets of Gaza. The yellow flag of Fatah - banned for the past four years - reappeared above rooftops alongside the green of Hamas.

But that has been virtually the only change.

The promised new joint government of technocrats which is supposed to govern both Gaza and the West Bank until elections next year, has still not materialised.

The parties are quarrelling over candidates for key posts.

Even if they do agree a brief interim administration, that will probably be the limit of their unity.

Mahmoud Zahar, the most senior Hamas leader in Gaza, is unequivocal.

"Abu Mazen (the Palestinian president and Fatah leader) is committed to his regime, and we are committed to ours," he tells me.

Zahar says Hamas will not consider itself bound by any progress Abu Mazen, also known as Mahmoud Abbas, may make in talks with Israel.

More surprisingly, he is critical of Abbas' plan to seek recognition of Palestinian independence at the United Nations in September - a move Fatah hoped would be strengthened by the unity deal.

One of the few things the factions have agreed on - to the frustration of the young people who pressed for a deal - was to limit the size of protests in Gaza on 5 June, the anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War, in order to avoid provoking Israeli forces.

Only a few dozen activists turned out to march towards the border, instead of the hoped-for hundreds or thousands.

Symbolically, they baked flat Palestinian bread and danced the debka - this time boys only - within range of Israeli guns.

But Abu Yazan, one of the organisers, did not hide his disappointment.

"Palestinians do want to come out," he said, "but they are afraid of the political factions, they are afraid of the Israelis. Everyone's working against us."

His group's slogan: 'Gaza Youth Breaks Out', is still no more than a dream.


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