Palestinians in Gaza react to Egypt, Tunisia uprisings

Palestinians in Gaza gather in solidarity with Tunisia, 16 January 2011. (Pam Bailey)

As news of the uprisings in a growing number of Arab countries spread like wildfire around the world, residents of other countries struggling under their own oppressive governments and soaring unemployment were celebrating on the streets, on Twitter and on Facebook. The occupied Gaza Strip was no exception.

“We, as Palestinians, salute the Tunisian people and any Arab nation rising against injustice,” said Saber Zanin, coordinator of the Local Initiative Committee for Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip. However, perhaps the most excited were the youth of Gaza, who saw the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan as evidence of the latent power of their generation.

“There was much excitement from what happened. I spent the whole day just following up with what was going on in Tunisia and I was actually very proud with what the people have done,” said Sameeha Elwan, a 23-year-old blogger, shortly after the uprising there. “It gave me some hope and I got back the faith I have in people.”

Jehan “JeJe” al-Farra, a 20-year-old English literature student, said immediately after the Tunisian uprising, “The message I got from the Tunisian movement is that the people are the cause of change. If there is any change you want you have to do it yourself. If you wait on the world, you will have to wait and wait and wait. The only way you can do anything is to revolt.”

The biggest challenge facing the Arab world today is youth unemployment. According to Foreign Policy magazine, North Africa and the Middle East now have the highest percentage of young people in the world. Sixty percent of the region’s’ people are under the age of 30, twice the rate of North America. And with the unemployment rate at 10 percent or more, the area also has the highest regional rates of joblessness; for young people, it’s four times that.

However, it’s even worse in Gaza. The Sharek Youth Forum (recently shut down by the Hamas government), reported that approximately 60 percent of youth between the ages of 15 and 30 were unable to find jobs in 2009 despite a high university matriculation rate.

In the West Bank, appointed Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad immediately saw the parallels between Gaza and Tunisia and spent more than two hours on 16 January talking to forty Palestinian journalists at his Ramallah office about the economic situation and living conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He attempted to reassure the journalists that economic conditions were good in spite of reports on the rise in consumer prices and relatively high unemployment and poverty figures.

The Gaza-based, Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government, as well as Islamic Jihad, organized demonstrations in downtown Gaza City celebrating the Tunisian uprising. In a statement to the Ahlul Bayt news agency, a Hamas spokesman said the movement “respects the will and choice of the Tunisians and assures it will stand by them.” Fathi Hammad, foreign minister in the Gaza-based government, added, “We are with the Tunisians in choosing their leaders, no matter what sacrifices it takes.” He didn’t seem to consider the possibility that the same power could be turned against his party which won the last Palestinian legislative election to be held, in January 2006.

However, Muayed Elmishal, a leader of the Sora youth group in Gaza, saw a similarity between the Tunisians’ frustration and that of young Palestinians: “The Tunisian people suffered dictatorship for long years, and promises of democracy and freedom were never delivered. The Palestinian people are experiencing the same thing: After the democratic elections in 2006, never repeated until this moment, we have two separate governments — one in the Gaza Strip and the other in the West Bank. This has caused deep frustration among the Palestinians and made them feel desperate to do something.”

The authors of the Gaza Youth Break Out manifesto — which published on Facebook an angry call for help that lashed out at Hamas, the United Nations, the United States and Israel — agreed. “There is an uprising coming to Gaza,” said one, who asked not to be named due to fear of retaliation.

Despite this frustration, nearly everyone in Gaza is in agreement that there is one big difference between Tunisia and Palestine: the fact that Palestinians are under occupation by Israel, which they view as responsible for the majority of their problems.

“The Tunisian people have problems with big corruption in their government; that’s their main problem,” said Ghassan al-Khaldi, a civil engineer, shortly after the Tunisian uprising. “We may not like our government, but the Palestinian people have one primary enemy — Israel, which takes our lands, our dreams, our sons.”

Egypt, however, is a different story. Its government cooperates with Israel in keeping the people of Gaza imprisoned within their cramped, occupied territory. Opinions about what they want and what will happen as a result of the ongoing uprising in Egypt vary within Gaza — ranging from euphoria, to skepticism that Mubarak would actually fall, to concern that the alternative to Hosni Mubarak will be an Islamist government like Hamas, which has become unpopular among many Palestinians in Gaza.

Wasim Zaher, member of a new youth group called Yala, said “I don’t think the uprising in Egypt will make Mubarak fall but I hope it will make him and the Egyptian government correct their policies for the Egyptian people and toward Palestine and Gaza.”

Whatever the assessment, there’s no doubt people in Gaza are watching closely as the people power moves closer to their border.

Pam Bailey is a peace activist and communications professional from Maryland who recently received a Community Human Rights Award from the UN Association of the National Capitol Area. She can be contacted at peacenut57 A T yahoo D O T com.

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