Isabel Kershner

February 24, 2011 - 1:00am

Young Palestinians watching the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the region have no shortage of their own protest-worthy causes.

Palestinian youths took to the streets of Ramallah in the West Bank to call for unity between Hamas and Fatah.

There is the 43-year Israeli occupation; frustration with the entrenched and aging leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization; lack of freedoms under the competing Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza; and more recently, anger over last Friday’s American veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity as illegal, a move that they said showed the “double standard” of the United States.

But in recent days, Palestinian students and youth activists have been finding a voice and a focus, coalescing around a single popular issue that they believe will help the Palestinians in all of the above: ending the schism between the West Bank, where the mainstream, secularist Fatah dominates the Palestinian Authority, and Gaza, which is under the control of Fatah’s rival, the Islamic militant group Hamas.

“This split weakens us,” said Hatem Abdul Rahim, 26, from Nablus, who volunteers for Sharek, an independent Palestinian youth organization with headquarters in Ramallah and Gaza. “It leaves the door open for the occupiers to do whatever they want.”

Sharek, which provides youth activities and programs, organized its first protest against the split and for national unity in mid-February in Ramallah. At the time, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas were both preventing demonstrations in support of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia because they worried about being seen as taking sides in Middle East disputes and about the protests’ spilling out of control. But national unity is a consensus issue among Palestinians, and one to which the rival leaderships say that they subscribe.

This seemed like an appropriate time to present new positions, said Hazem Abu Helal, 27, a youth activist at Sharek, in an interview, because “the dictatorships surrounding us were the reason for the situation we are in now.”

Sharek held a news conference this week in Ramallah to present a youth manifesto, adopting the slogan, “The people want an end of the schism,” an adaptation of one resounding across the Middle East, “The people want an end of the regime.”

The rivalry between Fatah and Hamas worsened after the Islamic group won parliamentary elections in 2006 in the West Bank and Gaza, which are separated geographically by Israeli territory. A year later, after months of factional fighting, Hamas seized full control of Gaza, routing forces loyal to Fatah and compounding the divide.

Repeated Egyptian-brokered efforts at reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah have failed. But the renewed call for unity, spearheaded by the young people, seems to be catching on.

On Thursday, hundreds of Palestinians converged on Manara Square in Ramallah for a peaceful rally for national unity. In an unusual gesture, the diverse political groups that were participating put aside their own symbols and all marched under the Palestinian flag.

“Ending the division has become more urgent because of the American veto,” Suheil Khader, a Palestinian union official, said at the demonstration. “We would rather be hungry than pay with our dignity.”

Demonstrations against the veto and for national reconciliation have spread to other parts of the West Bank. And given the demand in the region for more government accountability, leaders in both the West Bank and Gaza have appeared eager to respond.

In the past few days, Palestinian officials have started talking about new efforts for unification. Ismail Radwan, a Hamas official in Gaza, said that his movement was consulting with national groups to find a new basis for national reconciliation. Nabil Shaath, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, said he was in contact with Hamas figures and would be heading to Gaza soon.

Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, is floating the idea of forming a new unity government including Hamas, which could pave the way for national elections and for a more comprehensive reconciliation agreement.

If Hamas was committed to maintaining a cease-fire with Israel, it could retain its security control in Gaza and share in the other, practical functions of government, according to Ghassan Khatib, spokesman for the government in the West Bank.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian official and aide to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, spoke positively of the youth initiatives for national reconciliation in an interview with the official Voice of Palestine radio on Wednesday. “We also support and encourage them,” he said, “as they represent the Palestinian people’s will.”

Any genuine reconciliation, which still may be a long way off, would further complicate the prospect of peace with Israel. But the Palestinians suspended short-lived negotiations last September after Israel refused to renew a moratorium on construction in West Bank Jewish settlements.

As Mr. Khatib put it, “Do you see any negotiations that we should be worried about?”

Among the jumble of grievances, the youth activists complain of oppression. Mr. Abu Helal noted that youths who had called on Facebook for protests in solidarity with the Arab revolutions were summoned for questioning and said that his organization had been dealt with harshly by the security forces in both Gaza, where it is currently banned, and in the West Bank.

But many Palestinians in the West Bank seem generally satisfied with Mr. Abbas’s administration, which has restored law and order after years of chaos.

Mr. Abbas called for elections by September but Hamas immediately rejected the idea. Mr. Abbas now says that they can take place only if they can be held in the West Bank and Gaza at the same time.

Unlike some regional despots who have ruled for decades, Mr. Abbas is not an autocrat and has been the president only since 2005. He has said that he is not keen to run for another term, and he has on occasion threatened to quit.

“Abbas and Fayyad are very good for us,” said Muhammad Abu Ghazaleh, the owner of a jeans store in Ramallah. “They gave us security.”

As for ending the split with Gaza, he said, “Of course, all Palestinians want that.”


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017