On Saturday, 5 February, cities around the world and throughout the Israeli-occupied West Bank held demonstrations in solidarity with the people’s uprising in Egypt against Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade-old regime. In Ramallah, security forces belonging to the Palestinian Authority attempted to pacify a protest of 2,000 persons.
In the West Bank, demonstrating solidarity takes on a dual and potentially treacherous significance, as Palestinians can easily indict their own government for similar charges heard from Egyptians and earlier, Tunisians. The fate of Egypt has direct consequences for that of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, where elections for the Palestinian Authority have not been held even though the terms of office for the legislative council and president have long since expired. Egypt has also played a key role in internal Palestinian politics, actively supporting Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction against rival Hamas.
The PA has notably distanced itself from the events in Tunisia and Egypt, while Palestinian television has reportedly entirely ignored Egypt. Moreover, the PA has squashed attempts by Palestinians to express solidarity with their sisters and brothers in Egypt, bringing to light the repression and fear Palestinians face.
Much suspense surrounded Saturday’s demonstration in Ramallah. The PA had previously used aggressive tactics to break up earlier attempts to hold anti-Mubarak demonstrations in Ramallah, intimidating and arresting organizers, and people were anxious to see how Saturday’s demonstration would play out.
But despite the anticipation of a police crackdown, Saturday’s protest went off “smoothly,” with hardly a uniformed policeman in sight, although plain-clothed police were embedded throughout the crowd. While a sense of calm prevailed, it came at the expense of genuine freedom of expression. Saturday’s demonstration in Ramallah exhibited the effects of the PA’s repressive policies in the occupied West Bank.
Just before 2pm on Saturday, demonstrators filed into al-Manara circle in downtown Ramallah, while reporters and photographers swarmed around prominent politicians and political figures, including Mustafa Barghouti and Hanan Ashrawi. As people arrived at the demonstration, they warmly greeted friends and the mood was upbeat but tense.
The first chant broke out at precisely 2pm, a punctuality that would signify the orderliness that would characterize the day: “Raise your voice, Arab masses! Dignity or death, we need a true unity!”
A bespectacled man standing with his wife in the crowd translated the chant and explained, “This is to show solidarity and to show parallels between the situation here and there. Some of the banners here say dictatorship breeds corruption, which can apply here.” He responded cautiously and kept his answers non-specific.
Another man at the demonstration was less forthcoming. When asked if he saw any parallels between Egypt and Palestine he answered with a nervous laugh, “That’s a loaded question, what, are you trying to get me in trouble?”
His initial response was telling of the trepidation surrounding Saturday’s demonstration.
As noted, since the outbreak in Egypt, Palestinian security services have used a spectrum of intimidation tactics to repress mobilizing in solidarity with Egypt in the West Bank. At a demonstration the previous Wednesday, the police beat up six men and arrested several more; the crowd was not permitted to take photographs; phones and cameras were confiscated; and security men kept a video camera on the small group of protesters. One activist compared the police’s behavior to Israeli soldiers in Bilin, who take photos of activists’ faces and then use them as evidence to later arrest Palestinians or detain internationals at the border.
Last week, one young man was arrested after he created a Facebook event for a demonstration outside the Egyptian diplomatic mission in Ramallah.
The PA’s undemocratic policies have not gone unnoticed; Human Rights Watch condemned its use of violence against peaceful protests.
Omar Barghouti, a founder and director of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and who attended Saturday’s rally, commented on the PA’s crackdown. Baghouti said he is not at all surprised to see how the PA is reacting to the uprising in Egypt: “Unelected, authoritarian regimes tend to stand together. They are very scared of popular mobilization especially in light of the Palestine Papers,” a reference to the thousands of pages of leaked documents published by Al Jazeera last month showing the depth of dealings between the PA and Israel. “Authoritarian regimes agree on repression and have no interest in empowerment of people or mobilization,” Barghouti added.
After an hour of stationary chanting, the demonstration turned into a march. Leading the crowd with a bullhorn, young men chanted: “From Ramallah to Liberation Square [Cairo’s Tahrir Square], sending a message of love and appreciation!”
The crowd, imbued with renewed energy and empowered by a gust of spirit, took on new life and began to march down Rukab Street from al-Manara. Young and old faces beamed with smiles as they echoed the chants.
However, momentum was quickly stalled when a man shouted, “People want Abbas out!” and “People want an end to Oslo!” Immediately, those around him quickly hushed him, telling him to change the chant.
Majd, an activist and organizer who declined to give her last name, explained to me, “There is no doubt that they quieted him not because they disagree, but because they didn’t want the police to crack down.”
“I think that people are very afraid. Being under occupation makes us forget that the PA is an extension of the Arab dictators. We forget because we focus on the occupation by Israel,” she added.
Majd explained why she thought the protest was carried out as planned, with hardly any overt police interruption: “This protest wasn’t stopped because all of these political leaders were here talking to the press, because the election campaign is happening. None of these politicians were here on Wednesday [the demonstration that was violently broken up]. This one is being permitted to just let the anger out.” The Palestinian Legislative Council announced that the first local election since 2006 will take place this July.
On why the PA has been suppressing other protests, Majd said “This is the real point: if anything has to do with policies against the PA or if anything will lead to something bigger, against negotiations, against repression here, then it will be stopped. They don’t want this to grow up because it will become a movement against oppression.”
The protest started winding down at 4:30pm, at which point there was a final release of tension that had been bubbling beneath the order. A skirmish broke out as a few men called out “People want the Abbas regime out!” Before much more could happen, they were whisked away by plain-clothes police and a louder group overtook their chants, yelling vehemently “We want the Abbas regime.” They rallied freely, as people watched, mostly bewildered, and then started to disperse. It has been suggested that these “skirmishes” were entirely orchestrated by security forces within the crowd. A video of the incident was posted on YouTube.
Most walked away from the demonstration hearing young protesters chanting in support — or perhaps in defense — of the current regime in the West Bank.
“This is very sad,” Majd said. This has nothing to with Egypt.” Majd shook her head, looking at the chanters.
Approximately 2,000 individuals attended the day’s protests, which is a huge spike in numbers compared with earlier demonstrations.
But Majd did not see the day as a success. “I’m not happy. I see all these political agents,” she said. “I’m not happy because the PA is a dictatorship. We of all people should support a people’s struggle for self-determination but there has been no direct opposition from the PA on what’s happening and has been happening to the Egyptian people.”
The coincidence of Al Jazeera’s release of the Palestine Papers — which reveals some of the most damning evidence of the Palestinian Authority’s collaboration with Israel — and uprisings throughout the Arab world, has thrown into relief the dearth of political cohesion among Palestinians.
The magnificent sight of the Egyptian people overcoming their fear and standing resolute, contrasts with how much fear and repression Palestinians themselves still have to confront.
Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in the West Bank. She can be reached at charlottesilver A T gmail D O T com.