Palestinian security forces block protesters - AFP
Palestinian security forces in Ramallah block protesters trying to walk to the settlement of Beit El to mark Land Day last Wednesday. Photo by AFP
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The protest tent calling for an end to the political split between Gaza and the West Bank - erected more than two weeks ago by young people who fill it night and day - has become part of the landscape at Ramallah's al-Manara Square. But some feel the tent's presence has become a burden. Last Wednesday evening, a group of muscular young men, which happened to appear at the square at the same time as Fatah's Shabiba (youth activists ), assaulted the protesters. But there is more to it than the assault itself.

At 8 P.M., an actor and a singer brought in from Jerusalem had just finished performing at the square; entertainment is another strategy used to attract attention to the protesters' anti-sectarian message. As the crowd began to disperse, three young people remained inside the tent and five sat outside reading, studying for university exams and chatting. Other activists associated with the March 15 group that had erected the protest tent, named for the date of the first demonstration to end the division, were on their way back from a Land Day protest in Nabi Saleh.

Suddenly a large, cheerful group appeared in the square: members of the Fatah party's youth movement bearing yellow Fatah flags. They were celebrating the party's victory in elections at Bir Zeit University, which were boycotted by its main rival, Hamas.

And in the blink of an eye, the square turned into a mass of clashing bodies, raised fists and shouts; the round tent collapsed on the people inside, books were thrown every which way, mattresses and blankets were scattered, a large banner saying "Yes to reconciliation, no to division" was ripped to shreds and placards were torn down.

An eyewitness said the upheaval began when a member of Fatah tried to set the tent on fire. Young people from the March 15 group tried to keep him at a distance and began filming what was happening. Other Fatah youth movement members beat them, tore down the tent and trod on everything and everyone underneath it. People who had been sitting inside the tent, wearing black and white kaffiyehs around their necks, were pulled to safety on a side street, shaking with rage and fear. "They accused me of belonging to Hamas," one said, pulling out his Fatah membership card.

A large crowd of thugs, most of them wearing black shirts and black and white kaffiyehs, gathered around the remaining protesters, shouting. Some passersby called out "shame," but were afraid to get involved and separate the two sides.

Police officers who arrived from the station - located just 150 meters away - were in no hurry to oust the attackers either.

"We weren't expecting anything like this," a police inspector was heard explaining to a woman who had asked, "Why didn't you stop this? You are always here, in uniform and plain clothes." The policeman also said fellow cops had been attacked.

Afterward, the gang moved to the center of the square, raising yellow flags and shouting "Abu Ammar" (Yasser Arafat ) and "Long live Palestine." One announced, "We are the Shabiba [Fatah youth movement], we came to celebrate our election victory and were attacked. Security forces surrounded us."

He invited the celebrants to remain seated on the asphalt and wait for Fatah Central Committee Chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul to join them and apologize. In this way, he revealed the connection between the security apparatus, ostensibly an all-Palestinian force, and Fatah. Reports identifying the assailants as members of the Shabiba disappeared in both the official and self-proclaimed independent Palestinian media. The governor of Ramallah, Dr. Laila Ghanam, also a Fatah member, promised to track down the instigators of what she termed the "confusion," claiming they were "private individuals."

In the end, the members of the youth movement left without al-Aloul making an appearance. A shocked silence returned to al-Manara Square. In the stillness, the young March 15 protesters began to raise the tent, gather the scattered contents and clean up the area.

Privileged protesters

A few hours earlier, the same security forces had prevented some 50 members of the al-Manara group from demonstrating at the City Inn junction at the blocked northern exit of Ramallah. They forced several protesters into cars and drove them to the upper middle class neighborhood of al-Tira, perhaps indirectly commenting on the reputation of the demonstrators as privileged youth.

Participants in the aborted City Inn protest believed they were carrying out an appropriate Land Day demonstration. Their slogan, "Popular confrontation of the occupation will end the split" - referring to the rift between Fatah and Hamas - hints at the differences of opinion even within the al-Manara groups. For some, the words "end the split" have lost their meaning. This is mostly due to the fact that Fatah and the Palestinian Authority have embraced the slogan "end the division" as if they had nothing to do with it in the first place.

In Gaza, on the other hand, members of parallel protest groups deplore the marginalization of the initial call to "end the division." They believe that the West Bankers underestimate the state of confinement in which they live, due to Israel's siege policy. The division intensifies the siege. Only an end to the split between Fatah and Hamas will enable a fight against the blockade - that is, a struggle against their imprisonment.

But in the West Bank, many think the demand to "end the split" contains an unnecessary emphasis on internal matters, bordering on forgetfulness over who the real enemy is: the Israeli occupation.

'Friendly suggestions'

At the end of February, a new kind of event was planned to remind everyone who the enemy is: a demonstration that was to begin March 5 and continue indefinitely, next to or inside the Israeli Coordination and Liaison Office, a unit of the Civil Administration, which issues travel permits for Palestinians. The Palestinians have nicknamed the Civil Administration's headquarters "Beit El" ("House of God," in Hebrew ) after the name of the nearby Israeli settlement.

The initiators are members of the popular committees in various villages, who have borne the burden of popular confrontation with the occupation for the last eight years. Many are Fatah members. They informed the al-Manara groups, who expressed interest.

But then the Fatah Central Committee learned of the plan. According to several different sources, some rushed to the office of the PA president and Fatah chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, to warn him against such actions. One source claims that the demonstration was presented to Abbas as a weapon in Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's alleged competition with him. The warning was followed by telephone calls to the planners, who were given a "friendly suggestion" not to carry out the initiative. According to sources, Ghanam, Ramallah's governor, also opposed the move. Under massive pressure, the plan was shelved.

Staying away from Beit El

The Fatah spokesman responded by telling Haaretz that it was a "Facebook initiative" only, which was not materializing, and therefore there was nothing to oppose. "Fatah supports the popular struggle against the occupation, and it is a fact that its members take part in demonstrations in Bil'in and Na'alin and so on," he said.

The governor's office said they are unaware of such a demonstration, but in principle opposes "friction."

And a member of the Fatah Central Committee told Haaretz before the Land Day demonstrations: "There are people interested in creating chaos in the cities of the West Bank. We don't want to return to the security anarchy that reigned in the past. Whoever wants to conduct a popular, unarmed struggle should go to Area B [under Palestinian administration, and where Israel controls security] and Area C [where Israel has full security and administrative control], such as Na'alin and Bil'in."

When asked what was, then, the difference between Area C near Bil'in and Area C near Ramallah (where the Civil Administration headquarters are located ), this senior Fatah member, who has a security background, said "the demonstrators intended to [hold their] sit-in in a square under PA control, to drag the Palestinian police into a response to [potential] Israeli firing of tear gas or rubber bullets as a deterrent. Who can guarantee that no agent provocateur will show up and fire a bullet in the air, causing everything to get out of control?"

Haaretz was unable to receive a response from Abbas' office.

Even people who support this sort of initiative, some of them veterans of the first intifada, found it to be an immature plan.

"The young people wanted to copy [Egypt's] Tahrir Square" demonstrations, a Fayyad associate who opposed the idea, told Haaretz. "But at Tahrir, they examined everyone who entered the square so there would be no weapons, hot or cold. But could they do that here, to ensure that participants would be entirely unarmed? I doubt it."

Young members of the al-Manara groups heard, on another occasion, that Abbas said "I don't care if they tear up my picture at al-Manara. But they shouldn't go near Beit El. That I won't allow."

"This is exactly the problem," an al-Manara activist told Haaretz. "The body that is supposed to represent us is the one that prevents us from demonstrating against a symbol of the occupation - the Civil Administration."

And so, groups of young people at the protest tent are working to revive an old idea: to create a new and genuine representative body for the entire Palestinian people - in Gaza, the West Bank, the Diaspora, and "48" (Israel ). Elections for the National Palestinian Council will be held on the basis of one-person, one-vote, they say. "We still have to work on the technical details," they admit.

Elections carried out on such a basis, they are convinced, would return power and decision making to the people. They are coordinating with PLO members living abroad to advance the same idea, and plan to go to "every city, town and refugee camp and develop the idea in joint discussions."

One of the young people told Haaretz, "The demand for new elections says to everyone, from Abu Mazen [Abbas] all the way to Ismail Haniyeh, that we've had enough. The initiative threatens all the existing political parties and their leaders, because we are also demanding transparency and accountability. Leadership that does not succeed in moving us toward liberation will be asked to step down."

These are messages of opposition to the paralyzed and fossilized internal order to which so many members of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization have become accustomed, and from which they benefit. The seeds may be small, but they have great subversive potential.