Kieron Monks
The Huffington Post (Opinion)
August 10, 2011 - 12:00am

I lived with core members of the Palestinian youth movement, and I always thought they could make a difference. Given the splendid cue of the Arab Spring, it seemed that the timing was perfect to launch an unrelenting campaign from the street to rise up and challenge the Occupation.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from every demographic marching on the checkpoints was a tantalising vision that felt attainable in those heady February days, when the miracle of Tahrir Square played from every television screen. After all, the Occupation tramples the liberties of each and every Palestinian, providing a powerful point of unity. Every Palestinian had witnessed the potential of mass dissent in neighbouring states; the moment was ripe to be seized upon by anyone with the charisma and determination.

Palestine's revolutionaries have both, predominantly formed of young, foreign-educated, middle-class idealists. Their backgrounds allowed them to understand the Occupation from an intellectual perspective - how it functions as a system of control - as well from an involved, emotional perspective - how it impacts on their lives.

Most have rejected the option of an easier life abroad, in favour of what they see as patriotic responsibilities, aware that they are empowered with the tools to make an impact. As one leading activist put it "if we don't do something, who will?"

I was struck by their energy and bloody-mindedness. Each day there would be outreach programmes in the refugee camps, or seminars preaching strategies of non-violent resistance. When the demonstrations came around, members of the youth movement would be at the front singing newly-written songs of resistance even as they were doused with chemicals and tear gas.

Yet from the start, and to the present day, the movement has been undermined by the dispiriting set of divisions embedded in Palestinian society.

As they grew in profile, they encountered domestic opposition, most seriously from the Palestinian Authority. The PA typically takes a firm line against nationalist protest, crushing the regular 'Open Shuhada Street' marches in Hebron, and attempts to reach Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

When the first small action took place in Ramallah this March, with just a few dozen expressing solidarity with Tunisia, the PA made a statement by arresting several and harassing others.

Activists subsequently became bogged down in tensions with the Authority, losing their focus on the main target: Israel's Occupation. Their first demands; for unity between the West Bank and Gaza, and elections in the Palestinian legislative council for the first time since President Mahmoud Abbas' legitimate term expired in 2006, were implicitly critical of their government.

They escalated the pressure through a series of a hunger strikes and a major demonstration in the central Al-Manara Square on March 15. The PA responded by flooding the demonstration with Fatah thugs, and the protest descended into ugly scenes of violence and sexual assaults.

Fearing a widening chasm between government and public, Prime Minster Sallam Fayyad made personal contact with youth leaders and assured them they would be allowed to protest. Shortly after, President Abbas met key demands by announcing the unity deal with Hamas and that there would be elections within a year.

Yet despite this détente with the PA, the movement still struggled to tap into mainstream support. Their perceived elite status cost them support from the streets and camps; one popular rumour emerged that their operations were directed from a well-known upmarket restaurant. Lingering antipathy with the Authority placed a barrier between them and the public sector, which accounts for 40% of the Palestinian workforce and touches the rest.

The activists kicked against their pigeonhole, positioning themselves as patriots representing an all-inclusive movement. Efforts were made to expand the support base beyond Ramallah, and to connect with existing protest movements in Bi'lin and Nabi Saleh.

They sought to be faceless, in order to counteract the venomous claims that this was about ego or power. It has been a key point of strategy that there be no official leader or hierarchy, and the group has never been given a name.

It was expected that shifting the focus to Israel and the restoration of historic rights would rally support. On May 15, Nakba day, after a frenzied awareness and recruitment campaign, the youths realised a part of the tantalising vision, marching on the Qalandia checkpoint, through which most Palestinians cannot pass, that separates them from Jerusalem.

Although the event was well attended, it was ultimately a disappointment. Thousands of activists were lost to an impromptu PA-organised 'celebration' of the Nakba. The training sessions for non-violent resistance failed as kids from nearby Qalandia camp resorted to the 'traditional' resistance of throwing stones and burning tyres. There were numerous complaints from motorists that the demonstration was preventing them from getting to work.

This last, seemingly frivolous form of opposition highlighted a flaw in seeking to replicate the Egypt model. The revolutionaries of Tahrir Square had the desperation of ordinary Egyptians to fuel their campaign, in a country where despite an abundance of resources, almost half were living on less than $2 a day.

In the West Bank, boosted by an unsustainable but lucrative aid economy, business is booming with Sallam Fayyad announcing 9% growth for the last year. A population scarred by generations of war and poverty has finally found a form of stability.

While quality of life has normalised for most West Bankers, for an elite few the Occupation has become big business, particularly those at the top of the NGO bubble. For these influential businessmen, there is no motivation or need to struggle.

The great Israeli journalist Amira Hass famously said "the collective suffering of a population will always be a bed of nitroglycerine". In the West Bank, it appears that anger over a lack of self-determination has been neutered by an abundance of comforts.

As Palestine's youth movement enters its fifth month, frustration at the level of opposition is fracturing their own unity. Confusion reigns as to whether to demand independence in line with September's UN vote, or to pursue civil rights through a one-state solution. The problem of leadership in a faceless movement has emerged, and there is a feeling of impotence before the might of Israel's military.

For too long a timid PA has allowed national aspirations to quietly subside, fostering de-politicised alienation that is proving a formidable barrier to penetrate. Now that the Arab Spring has lost momentum, it is a huge challenge for Palestine's youth movement to keep growing and persist with their progressive, enlightened campaign.

Should they fail, their disappointment should prompt a wider concern. Non-violence would appear to have failed as a strategy, leaving a vacuum for the cheerleaders of armed struggle to exploit.


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