Imperfect revolution: Palestine’s 15 March movement one year on

23 March 2012

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What was the 15 March movement really about?

(Issam Rimawi / APA images)

On 17 February 2011, a group of young activists gathered in one of Ramallah’s nondescript cafés to plan for a revolution. Some already knew each other, others didn’t. They Skyped with four activists from Gaza in a meeting that initially focused on translating efforts on social media to action the ground, with the aim of reigniting the Palestinian street into demanding its rights from the oppressors once again.

This was the overture to the short-lived “15 March” movement, as it was dubbed by the local media after the event that took place on that day last year. The movement called for national reconciliation and used the rallying cry of ending the Hamas-Fatah division. Large protests took place in Gaza City and in Ramallah, where they were subsequently hijacked by Hamas and Fatah supporters and security forces, respectively. Many of the 15 March protesters were beaten up.

The movement petered out relatively quickly, and on the surface it seemed like that was that, just another unsuccessful minor chapter in Palestine’s history of factions, youth groups and political blocs. But who were the activists who called for the protest, and what was 15 March really about?

Breaking the mold

Before the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, different activists had contemplated arranging a big event on a particular day. Hamas’ stronghold on the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority’s control over the West Bank severely stifled freedom of expression and curtailed individual rights, creating a tense atmosphere not unlike that of a police state. Speaking out — however casually — against the wrong political faction would result in an arrest, a beating and threats. Youth activists were determined to break through the mold of autocratic rule by their own leadership, which they saw as an arm of the Israeli occupation.

As the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt played out, a few solidarity protests were organized by the activists in Ramallah. Demonstrators were beaten up and harassed by the Palestinian Authority’s preventive security forces. A protest or demonstration couldn’t take place in the West Bank without getting an approval or a license of some sorts from the PA. At the same time, many Facebook groups and pages against the Fatah-Hamas division and Israeli occupation began to appear, boasting tens of thousands of followers.

Ebaa Rezeq, an activist from Gaza, found out about the initiative from blogs and Facebook, before friends asked her to be a part of the group. “They were only starting work by talking to drivers, salesmen, families at home, schools and universities, trade unions and associations,” she recalled. “It wasn’t about getting youth groups and activists recruited; it was about getting the public involved and this was one of the reasons why I believed in this movement.”

Somehow, the date decided on for the protest was 15 March. The two main organizing groups with assertive roles were in Gaza City and Ramallah. Activists in Gaza decided to base the event around ending the division between Fatah and Hamas, which harmed them more than it did to the Palestinians in the West Bank.

A shallow slogan?

However, not everyone agreed that ending the division was the priority. Murad Jadallah, a member of the youth group Hirak Shababi al-Mustaqil (Independent Youth Movement) stated that there was no doubt the slogan “The people want an end to the division” was shallow to say the least. “It does not offer any implication as to what caused the division — which was the result of the absence of a unified national resistance strategy, not because there was one government in Gaza and another government in the West Bank — but at the same time it was a unifying slogan that that was easy for people to repeat.”

Activist Fadi Quran concurs that the slogan, modeled after the famous Egyptian chant of “The people want the fall of the regime,” was a soundbite that the local media could carry more effectively. The group in Ramallah wanted something that addressed and unified all Palestinians, because, as Jadallah put it, the last twenty years of the “peace process” had solidified the reality into geographical splits and concessions, in addition to disenfranchising refugees from the political process. Therefore, the demand for Palestinian National Council elections was introduced, with every Palestinian regardless of where he or she is based having the right to vote.

“Calling for PNC elections was not something new,” Jadallah pointed out. “The Hirak Shababi or other youth groups didn’t invent this call. It is merely a translation of the political concept introduced at the beginning of the 1990s, ‘Reorganizing the Palestinian house.’ That time period demonstrated that the Palestinian house, the Palestine Liberation Organization, had no democratic foundations as the mechanisms of decision-making were undertaken by an executive body within the PLO based on dictatorial ones.”

Hunger strike dynamics

Two days before 15 March, a hunger strike and sit-in by the youth began at Manara Square in Ramallah’s city center. Activists got wind of news that Fatah, along with other political parties, was planning to co-opt the event. Therefore, a pre-emptive action was necessary in order to convey the message of PNC elections louder than the parties’ mantra.

Maath Musleh spent 21 days on hunger strike. There were initially nine hunger strikers, but dozens more slept at Manara Square. Some were politically affiliated, others were not. They were attacked on more than one occasion by PA security thugs, and had their tent burned down. Musleh achieved seniority in the tent set-up because of his commitment to the hunger strike, and was determined not to impose any kind of structural leadership in the tent. The hunger strikers began to form their own dynamics, and pushed forward two more demands: the release of all political prisoners held by Fatah and Hamas, and an end to the propaganda wars implemented by both factions against each other.

“There were some people in 15 March who were against our hunger strike,” Musleh said. “They were convinced we were in over our heads.”

Tents were set up in the centers of Nablus, Bethlehem, Jenin and Gaza City. The coordination between the activists was poor and fragmented. Fadi Quran attributes that to what he calls the “tyranny of completely horizontal groups.”

“We didn’t have a clear process for decision-making, which largely fell on those who were capable of pushing their ideas forward. In many cases that fell upon me, but I wouldn’t say it was leadership as much as tyranny, unfortunately — something I’m learning from.”

There were three different driving forces involved in 15 March: the hunger strikers, the other groups in the different cities, and the Ramallah-based group that numbered around thirty activists. As a result, there were a lot of demands coming from three dynamics without consulting each other first which contributed to obscuring the main message they had all set out to achieve, unity of all Palestinians through PNC elections.

“We learned that we couldn’t mobilize people by calling them to stand with us,” Quran said. “We have to introduce ourselves, make our plans known, what we stand for, what we were working on and towards. This much wasn’t even clear to the people within the group, so how were we supposed to let youth be part of something we still weren’t clear on?”

Media circus

The reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah was signed on 11 May, an empty gesture that changed nothing. Before that, five activists from 15 March met with PA president Mahmoud Abbas. As they entered the office, a media circus was waiting for them. The activists asserted that they would not speak in front of the cameras, thus blocking the media stunt, but which the PA still later used to create divisions by telling the protesters at Manara Square that the activists who met with Abbas saw themselves as leaders of the movement.

None of the activists expected the meeting with Abbas to change anything. They presented him with their demands: PNC elections, an end to media incitement and the release of political prisoners, which they had a list of. Abbas was flippant in his reply, blithely telling them that the PA holds no political prisoners. Needless to say, the meeting was unproductive.

The lack of strategy was telling, and that reflected in the disintegration of relations within the movement and between other groups. Mistrust, frustration, breakdown of communications, certain activists making decisions on behalf of the group without informing them beforehand were evident as a result of the absence of principles and values that were not firmly set at the beginning.

Maintaining momentum

“We were lucky that Land Day [30 March] came,” reflected Musleh. “Then we had a protest for Prisoners’ Day on 17 April, which kept the momentum going. Every Friday we’d hike through the mountains to protest in Nabi Saleh, but mobilization was nonexistent.”

The Hirak Shababi activists knew that Manara Square wouldn’t transform into Tahrir Square overnight. Palestinians are exhausted after more than six decades of suffering and sacrifice. Tensions between 15 March and Hirak Shababi accumulated, with the former accusing the latter of being politically affiliated and doubting its motives.

“Hirak Shababi has two features that explain why a year later, we’re still a movement whereas 15 March fell apart,” explained Jadallah. “Historically, Palestinian political parties derive their legitimacy and credibility from affiliation to a party or faction, and the experience of getting arrested by Israel. There was a fear on 15 March’s part of being swallowed up by Hirak Shababi, thus eliminating their qualities of leadership which were based on their English language proficiency, and their reliance on social media.”

One year later, the situation in Gaza remains dire. And freedom of expression is still repressed, according to Ebaa Rezeq: “In addition to receiving regular summons for interrogations, activists like Asmaa el Ghoul got a lot of death threats for writing critical articles about the situation. Mahmoud Abu Rahma [of the human rights group Al-Mezan] was stabbed by masked men for criticizing the resistance. It’s extremely dangerous to write while in Gaza.”

Breaking the fear barrier

Over in the West Bank, the mood is more optimistic. The number of activists has grown, and 15 March broke the fear barrier that made people think twice before protesting in the street. Jadallah stressed how the need for continued coordination gave birth to other initiatives, such as Palestinians for Dignity (against Israeli-PA negotiations).

The groundswell is not just in the West Bank. The 15 May Nakba Day protest commemorating Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was coordinated with Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, with some of the protesters succeeding in crossing the borders to Palestine. Later on in the year, in Haifa, a group with a large followers’ base called Hungry for Freedom originated from the September-October general prisoners’ strike.

“The right message should be directed to the appropriate place,” Jadallah said. “We need to regain the situation of directly confronting the occupation because that will cost Israel dearly, as well as uniting all Palestinians.”

“There is a collective identity we’ve developed,” Quran said. “This identity may look very disintegrated on the surface but at its core is a collective entity of youth who disagree on many things but agree on much more essential values.” The question is how to preserve that. Following his recent arrest while taking part the third annual Global Open Shuhada Street protest in Hebron, Israeli soldiers interrogated him about how the major protests were coordinated. “I know something is right when the Israelis are panicking about it,” he said.

Regardless of all the accusations of being a failure, 15 March managed to bring the cause back to the rest of the Palestinians. The past year involved an ongoing process of experimentation, always subject to adaptation and evolution. The street has become a place of expression of people’s interests, and community organizing has built awareness and injected Palestinian society with the spirit of volunteerism and resistance that Salam Fayyad’s state-building policy managed to corrode. For all of the revolution’s imperfections and trials, Palestinian youth are putting us back on the course to liberation.

Linah Alsaafin is a recent graduate of Birzeit University in the West Bank. She was born in Cardiff, Wales and was raised in England, the United States and Palestine. Her website is http://lifeonbirzeitcampus.blogspot.com/.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the June 6, Naksa Day marches instead of the 15 May Nakba Day marches.

Comments

“We learned that we couldn’t mobilize people by calling them to stand with us,” Quran said. “We have to introduce ourselves, make our plans known, what we stand for, what we were working on and towards. This much wasn’t even clear to the people within the group, so how were we supposed to let youth be part of something we still weren’t clear on?” this is extremely dangerous, you don't start something claiming it is a revolution when anything is not clear, revolutions start spontaneously, but certain planned small things push for it to happen, and that takes time, the PA succeded in co-opting this movement it seems. and many people thought this movement will be something and turned out to be something completely different. I honestly doubt that "15 March managed to bring the cause back to the rest of the Palestinians." this sounds like an enthusiast's opinion, yes the march 15 was planned to be something but it turned out to be something else, and since they did not get what they wanted and have stopped working on it or doing anything new, yes it is a failure!

Bobz, are you aware of the many different youth groups that have sprung up across the West Bank, Jerusalem and '48 territories? Probably not, because they are working based on what their communities want and need, not on overthrowing the PA or some other grand scale plan. Also, it is true that the PA plainclothes policemen infiltrate protests, but at least people are protesting again whereas before you had to get permission to do so.

I was not trying to say they did not accomplish anything, but it definitely was not a success, it may have not been a 100% failure, but more or less it was.The media circus as you call it was a lot more than just that, the pa channel played "the people want to end the division" songs on its channel, the pa said that this is the revolution they want and this is exactly what they are asking for, they are trained by the C.I.A, they are pros at co-opting now I am sure, therefore what main point is that there needed to be more planning, planning that takes everything into consideration, planning that can lead to a true revolution, a strategy, involving the workers most importantly, university students. study what went on in Tunisia and go into small details and groups like Takriz that helped lead to a revolution, and have been active since before 1998 using the internet and on the ground action, they even designed an entire website making it seem like it is official Ben Ali's website but changed minor things, they also printed posters of the president and changed minor things in the background, like not having that typical photo of him in the background.... they should look at activists in Egypt, like @3arabay and interviews with him and others, they've been planning for YEARS, at least since 2006, that is six years, they talked to soccer fans that go to cheer for their teams like Ahli and Zamalek fans (same in Tunis) , and workers in factories.
I know most the people involved in March 15th are highly educated people, but they needed to be more patient, and wait! Palestine is at a time where any tiny mistake could be DEADLY. no matter the intentions,the main reason I think this was not a revolution was because it was not against the PA or Hamas in fact it called for them to join powers and oppress us meanwhile they are both corrupt, of course the division is killing us, but they are helping them kill us.

When I was there last year, I noticed at the beginning there were thousand, that all disintegrated very fast, for the reason I said before; people expected something and now see something else.Today whenever I mention March 15 people say "ah those are fateh, right?" this is due to being co-opted and not planning, because I know they are not. There may be a lot more action than before, but what Palestine needs is a way to mobilize the masses, the real sha3b, who today and for the most part seems dead, the fire in the heart of most youth has been put out, by Israel, and PA trying to seem like a state and making everything seem shiny and pretty when underneath the surface everything is ugly. some things me have changed since march 15th, but they said it themselves, not everything was clear, they weren't really connected, how are they supposed to end division if they themselves are DIVIDED? some people who were part of this movement are totally inactive with it today, why is that? obviously we also need to learn from past experiences and mistakes in Palestine ( besides the point but also not criticize everything and certain things without fully studying it) also we need to make sure absolutely no co-opting happens which is hard, you have america, Israel, PA, Hamas, 100 other things, and we saw how they worked in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria today, taking advantage of all those revolutions, which are ongoing. We need to be patient, one very important question is how come Online activism has not been as effective in mobilizing people in Palestine as anywhere else? first, because we need to mobilize outside the internet, because we need to involve Hasan, and Sami, and Sahar, and i do not know who, and because none of those sides mentioned America PA Hamas Israel want a revolution here, and because PA and Hamas do not want to end division, and won't end it, because all those sides benefit from it, except for the people.I am sure they attempted to mobilize in many ways

I mostly agree with what you're saying, but don't like the Egyptian and Tunisian references. Palestine is not like Egypt or Tunisia. Palestinians have gone through ethnic cleansing, four wars, two intifadas, civil infighting all in 64 years. They are exhausted, they have sacrificed so much, and they are currently more occupied than ever before. That explains the desensitization, the somewhat defeatist attitudes of the older generation, especially when the political parties/factions that most Palestinians swore by in the 60's and 80's have taken on a mercenary quality intent only in paying lip service to the cause while wallowing in their own self-interests.
Basically, a movement takes years to build and from bottom up. March 15 didn't know that. They didn't know a lot of things. But it's true that more nonpartisan youth are becoming active in their own way, and when the networks are somehow linked together, something substantial will come out of it. Community organizing is integral to building trust between people, so that next time there is a protest, these people will stand by you instead of the handfuls in present reality. It's a long process, years even, but it's starting.

your right, and i didnt mean to follow egypt and tunisia's footsteps, but to study them, and their examples of mobilizing people, who were more or less desensitized too, and hopeless, but rose up, also the civil right's movement, Nelson Mandela and apartheid in south Africa, (I'm sure some of the march 15th have studied these). we also have to know more about our own history, I'm sure that a lot of march 15 activists have not fully read the Oslo accords but only see its results, or books that "sayed al ra2is" abu mazen wrote! ( to further understand his plan and policies and israel's deals and more) the charters of every movement, I am not trying to say that they are dumb or anything like that, no, but now we have to work with all our potential and I believe that learning from past experiences might be key.
what i meant by those references was the need to study past examples and learn from them, but you are absolutely right our struggle is not similar to any other struggle in the world, with the Israeli colonization and PA + Hamas we are one of a kind! (which is why we need to look at almost every other example there is of peaceful and non-peaceful resistance and see what might and might not work for us)
much respect to your effort and amazing articles Linah, keep it up!

Thank you Linah for this article. It is great to learn more about the youth movements in Palestine. As a Palestinian in the shatat, I was very heartened to hear about the call for PNC elections. It would be a way to reenergize the PLO and for Palestinians worldwide to finally be represented by our national institutions.

Thanks for the excellent article. No one said change was going to be easy. Experimentation is an intrinsic part of the process. These efforts give me great hope for the future!

Dear Linah
Congrats for the informative article on the youth movements in Palestine. I feel they are a great step forward. Ok, Fatah-Hamas unity is limited. Nevertheless the call to set free all political prisoners, hold by both Fatah and Hamas, is critical. Furthermore the call for elections for the PNC may bring unity where it is most needed: the unity between the Palestinians in the 48 occupied territories, the ones in the 67 occupied territories and the diaspora. Today the PA represents (or misrepresents) only the ones in 67 territories. The Nakba is carried out by Israel on daily basis across the historical land of Palestine not only in the 67' occupied territories.
That is why the unity of all these movements: Palestinians for Dignity, Open Shuhada St, Land day and Nakba day, be them larger or small, globally or locally, may bring up Free Palestine.