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?”
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.
“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.