Unity calls stifled in West Bank and Gaza

Palestinians in Bethlehem call for unity, 15 March. (Luay Sababa/MaanImages)

RAMALLAH, occupied West Bank (IPS) - Tens of thousands of Palestinians from across the political spectrum took to the streets throughout the West Bank and Gaza on Tuesday to mark 15 March, “the day of rage” to protest the political division between Hamas and Fatah.

Relations between the two are complicated by what transpired in the aftermath of 2006 elections. Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic resistance movement, won the polls in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. An international observers’ team, chaired by former US President Jimmy Carter, certified that the elections had been clean and transparent.

Initially, Hamas formed a “national unity” government. But successive political clashes with President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement led to a total rupture. Abbas dismissed the Hamas government, confining it to the Gaza Strip, and formed his own government.

But the protests this week indicated that Palestinians want political unity and they want it now. They are fed up with the antics and bitter rivalry which divides the Fatah-dominated West Bank from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

So determined are they that a dozen Palestinians also embarked on a hunger strike five days ago. They declared they would not take any more food until Hamas’ Gaza-based leader Ismail Haniyeh and Palestinian Authority (PA) president Abbas met in an endeavor to sort out their differences.

Three of the hunger strikers collapsed on Tuesday and required medical treatment but resumed their strike shortly thereafter. They have been sleeping on the streets through the cold nights in the center of Ramallah with a group of their supporters.

“We will stay here however long it takes. We are patient. If we have to sleep in the cold and continue to endure attacks by ‘Fatah thugs’ [supporters of the PA who have carried out intimidatory tactics against political opponents] then we will do it,” Faris Shomali, 18, one of the protestors and a university student told IPS.

“We need new Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections. But unity between Hamas and Fatah has to be established first,” student Musab Sirhan, 20, told IPS.

On Tuesday the pro-unity protestors in Ramallah endured attacks from Fatah supporters of the PA. A group of plain-clothed security officers surrounded the demonstrators and tried to break up the gathering.

Protestors were arrested and beaten up by PA security forces and monitored by PA intelligence. As IPS spoke to the activists, several cars with intelligence officers inside monitored our movements.

A foreign photographer was attacked by Fatah supporters of the PA, and other journalists were physically forced to delete photos of the 15 March protest in Ramallah.

Last month this IPS reporter was verbally abused and physically intimidated from taking pictures of rallies in support of pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia by Fatah supporters while an attempt to trip her up was made.

In an effort to make Tuesday’s demonstration appear anti-American, PA’s Fatah supporters also burnt the American flag, and some dollars while shouting anti-American slogans. Protestors tried to drown them out by blowing whistles and calling for Palestinian freedom.

“We knew that pro-PA elements would try to disrupt our protest in Ramallah. We ordered people attending to wave only Palestinian flags and not any factional flags. We reiterated that the theme of the protest was Palestinian unity over and above petty partisan politics,” Shomali told IPS.

“There are elements within the PA who are very scared of change and of losing their position, power and privilege in the face of inevitable change. This is why they are behaving in such a violent and desperate manner,” Sirhan told IPS.

Protestors in Gaza had similar problems when they were assaulted and forcibly dispersed by Hamas security forces and compelled to regroup at another venue in Gaza City.

But despite the difficulties, and violent opposition from diehard Hamas and Fatah supporters, it appears that the voice of the ordinary Palestinian in the street may be getting through to some of the Palestinian leaders.

Abbas, or Abu Mazen, as he is known, has announced that he will be traveling to Gaza in the next few days to meet with Haniyeh to discuss unity following an invitation.

“I am ready to delay the formation of the new government to give Hamas a chance to join,” he said in a speech at the start of a two-day meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization Central Committee.

The PLO is recognized as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

“I am ready to delay the formation of a government now if we reach an agreement tomorrow or the day after,” Abbas said in a speech broadcast live on Palestinian television.

Political analyst Dr. Samir Awad from Birzeit University, near Ramallah, believes this breakthrough is partly a result of the 15 March movement and the hunger strikers.

“The 15 March movement comprises mainly Palestinian youth who have initiated a momentum which I believe will eventually bridge the Palestinian political divide. The political leadership takes them seriously,” he told IPS.

“The protestors have qualities that stand out. They are young, they are not controlled by ideologues and have not been co-opted by any party so they can maneuver through the ranks and create common ground with other youth.”

“They are proving, like their counterparts involved in the revolutions in neighboring countries, that they are a political force to be reckoned with,” Awad added.

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