Palestinians call for unity protest on 15 March

Youth in Gaza pose for a photograph soon after the 2008-09 Israeli assault. (Matthew Cassel)

GAZA CITY, occupied Gaza Strip (IPS) - A look at the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings that succeeded in ousting long-entrenched dictators confirms a universal truth: it is the youth who are leading the way in forcing reform in the Middle East.

In the occupied Palestinian territories, particularly the troubled Gaza Strip, youth are a potential ticking time bomb. Palestinian youth in the Gaza Strip make up the biggest segment of society, with more than half of the 1.8 million inhabitants under 18 years of age.

Like their compatriots in Tunisia and Egypt, Palestinians in Gaza have been inhibited from fully participating in shaping their future by an autocratic, often oppressive government — one that has not held free elections since 2006.

Unlike youth elsewhere, though, they are struggling under an additional layer of restriction — a four-year-long blockade imposed by Israel with the cooperation of Egypt.

Talal Okal, a Gazan political columnist who has written for Palestine’s al-Yom newspaper for 15 years and Dubai’s al-Bayam for five, said through an interpreter, “Even before the events that split our government and pit Hamas and Fatah against each other, youth weren’t well organized. They didn’t get much support from outside, or inside. The political factions were only interested in using them as employees or fighters.”

After the schism in 2006, the situation worsened. Youth groups previously licensed by the Fatah-led government in the Gaza Strip were dissolved by the new Hamas administration, and communication with the West Bank was effectively severed as Israel imposed its blockade.

In the wake of the 2008-09 winter Israeli invasion, however, new youth groups started to come to life, even as Hamas shut down the oldest, called the Sharek Youth Forum. Now, as “revolution fever” sweeps the region, Gaza youth are feeling a new energy.

An attempted “Day of Dignity” on 11 February — called by an anonymous, pro-Fatah group to protest Hamas restrictions — was disbanded before it ever really began. Suspected organizers were interrogated, and police blanketed the street corners.

However, a broader coalition of youth has now coalesced around plans for a 15 March sit-in, demanding that Hamas and Fatah halt their propaganda campaign against each other, include all Palestinian factions in a restructured Palestine Liberation Organization, force their senior representatives in the two governments (West Bank and Gaza) to resign their posts, and call new elections after agreeing to work together.

“Abu Yazan,” the nickname adopted by a 24-year-old student who is one of the leaders of GYBO (Gaza Youth Break Out) and one of the organizers, has been in touch with Palestinian youth leaders in the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and even as far away as France, and similar sit-ins are being planned there.

“We aren’t going to leave until they meet our demands,” he says, adding that he and his co-organizers are reaching out to the leaders of the Egyptian protests for advice. “People here are so depressed about the two political movements. We want one government, one security system. Put everyone on the election books and those who are clean will stay.”

Not all youth in Gaza like the idea of protesting against Palestinians’ own governments, saying the real enemy is Israel. Mohammed Herzallah, 21, a coordinator of Soora — at two years old, one of the oldest and largest youth groups in Gaza — says, “The best thing for youth to do now is to focus on our biggest problem: the siege. Yes, we have internal problems, but we need to stay focused on our most enduring threat.”

He, like many others, believes that the division within the Palestinian community is encouraged by Israel, and thus the occupation must end before unity can truly be achieved and sustained.

Abu Yazan and other youth leaders, however, insist that unity is required to effectively resist the occupation and that political reform would significantly improve quality of life in the meantime. The slogan for the 15 March event is “End the division. One people against Zionism.”

Gazan youth groups are near unanimous in their support of the Palestinian Authority’s call for elections, although — as Abu Yazan points out — that will be impossible until the two parties reach some kind of unity agreement. Hamas has come out firmly against Fatah’s plan for September elections, and without its participation, they would be a farce.

Ali Abdul Bari, a 24-year-old leader of Esha (Wake Up), a liberal, secular group devoted to promoting human rights, tells a story to illustrate just how deep the divide is. His group posted a sign demanding elections near the destroyed Palestinian parliament building in downtown Gaza City. It was removed by Hamas ninety minutes later, despite the permit they had obtained. Later, many group members were interrogated or had their backgrounds checked.

“We have taken what happened with Hamas and Fatah as a lesson,” says Safwan Thabet, 22, a member of the youth group Genesis. “If given the chance, we will stay unified. We are all Palestinians. If any conflict happens again over an election, there can’t be any killing; we will just throw flowers.”

Meanwhile, there is broad agreement that the blockade against Gaza is the primary cause of their suffering. Many youth leaders interviewed are not optimistic that the regime change in Egypt will reverse its longstanding collaboration with Israel’s blockade of Gaza. “The military [in Egypt] have already said they will honor all prior international agreements,” observes Mohammed Ashekh Yousef, 22, a leader with the youth group Fikra (idea).

Bari is more optimistic. “Soon, Egypt will have elections and the people who made the revolution will elect representatives to control the government. They are Arabs and Muslims and will support us in our call for freedom.”

He adds that the Palestinians must be clear, however, that what they want is not more aid, but independence and freedom. “The media talk about Gaza as a center of starvation, but that’s not true. What we are lacking is our freedom: We have a sea, but we can’t use it. We have air, but we aren’t allowed to build an airport. We want to be able to depend on ourselves. And it’s not just Gaza; we want to be part of Palestine.”

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