A new generation of Palestinian activists are less interested in forging a state than in winning their rights.
- By Rachel ShabiRachel Shabi is a freelance journalist reporting from Israel and the Palestinian territories. Her first book is We Look Like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel's Jews from Arab Lands.
Promises were made, and it looks like they’ll be broken.
U.S. President Barack Obama said he believed a Palestinian state could be created by September 2011. Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2010, he laid down a challenge to formulate an agreement that would make it a reality.
That same deadline was set by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad for his state-building plan, which was intended to create the institutions for a viable Palestinian state.
But U.S.-brokered negotiations have been a miserable failure, and September is now fast approaching. Palestinian leaders have declared their intention to push for recognition in the U.N. General Assembly, where they can expect overwhelming support. The United States is expected to block the move in the Security Council — and, of course, Israel will not alter its policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip because of a U.N. resolution.
Now, with the Palestinian dream of statehood stymied at every turn, a new generation of activists are adopting fresh tactics to win their rights.
"September is a moment of truth for us," says Diana Alzeer, a 23-year-old social activist from Ramallah who cites the revolution in Egypt as inspiration. "We see that a dictatorship of over 30 years was gone in two weeks. So why not for Palestinians?"
Alzeer is part of a network of global Palestinian activists that form the "March15" movement — named for the date when thousands took to the streets of Gaza, the West Bank and Jersualem to call for Fatah and Hamas, the two dominant Palestinian parties, to end their bitter division. But the movement also proves that the Palestinian street is growing disillusioned with its long-dominant political factions. "That’s the big difference now," says Alzeer. "We are not led by parties. Most of us don’t belong to any."
March15 is a loose network of young, social media-friendly activists organizing globally and injecting new life into the Palestinian popular struggle. Healing political divisions is one step on the path of creating a united, non-violent protest movement, they believe. Another goal on that same path, some activists say, is to resuscitate the PLO’s legislative body, the Palestinian National Council — and allow all Palestinians, regardless of geography, to elect representatives. And for some, the idea of pursuing a Palestinian state through asymmetric negotiation with Israel is simply outdated.
"What’s the use of state if you can’t have the political rights that go with it?" asks Fadi Quran, a 23-year-old coordinator of Palestinian youth groups in Ramallah. "The demands of the new movement that is slowly but surely beginning to surface are freedom, justice and dignity — that both Palestinians and Israelis should have the same opportunities and the same rights, as equals."
This year also marks the 20-year mark of the start of the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis in Madrid in 1991 and led to the landmark Oslo Accords — a process that, in all that time, has yielded few results. Those Palestinians who have grown up in the "Oslo years" have grown deeply cynical as the peace process faltered and failed to deliver. And Obama’s spectacular climb-down last year over Israel enforcing a freeze on settlement expansion was, for many, the final nail in the coffin of a negotiated solution.
Young Palestinians now see more hope in the democracy movements sweeping the region, and draw parallels in their opposition to corrupt, unrepresentative politics and a stifling lack of opportunity. "This whole generation in the Arab world is more educated and its main goal has been to break away from the older generation and create something new for themselves," Quran says.
This sentiment is borne out in public opinion surveys. Though Palestinian national sentiment is notoriously difficult to measure, the Norwegian research firm FAFO recently found that Palestinians believed corruption had increased significantly over the past three years. What’s more, FAFO discovered that support for both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh have slumped in 2011.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian push for statehood at the United Nations may not get many cheers on the ground. Quran argued that, even if successful, a U.N. statehood seal would be no more than a moral victory. "There will be no full sovereignty, no contiguous land, no Palestinian control over large swathes of the Palestinian population — nothing that you need to be state," he says. "If there is a huge fuss and a declaration of statehood, a lot of Palestinians will say it is a big joke and that we are sick of people playing with our destiny."
The shift among some protesters, from statehood to equal rights, has also put women center-stage. They are increasingly leading the Friday afternoon marches against the Israeli separation barrier and Jewish settlements in the West Bank. A small group of active Palestinian women focused on such protests say they take regular inquiries from new female activists, inspired by images of young Palestinian women facing down Israeli soldiers. They also explain that they earned their protest stripes during the March 15 demonstrations in Ramallah, when they formed human shields around male activists, taking the blows from security officials who at first attacked, later defended, and finally joined them
"These are guys who would usually never listen to a woman and her opinions but now they are with us, working together," says Lina, a 27-year-old woman from East Jerusalem.
For her, it’s all in line with the new goals of the movement. "It is about complete, dynamic change, rather than the same people running the system," she says. "This is not about territory any more, but about rights — and the same rights for women."
Already, this movement has altered the format of Palestinian protest movements. On May 15, March15 was involved with coordinating border protests of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria, linking those to simultaneous demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza. The striking display of unified protest marked Nakba Day, the Palestinian commemoration of their displacement in the war that created Israel.
At least 14 people were killed and hundreds injured as Israeli forces opened fire on these mass protests – Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas declared a three-day mourning period for those killed. But the March15 movement had made its mark. As Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook pointed out in an article for The National, "the scenes of Palestinian defiance on Israel’s borders will fuel the imaginations of Palestinians everywhere."
Quran argues that the unity of the protest movement is an antidote to the current politics of division. "We thought it would take longer to convince Palestinian youth from different locations around the world to get together," he says. "But all we had to do was get in touch with them."
Activists predict more change is coming. "Non-violent protest won’t be political activities or just about the [Israeli separation] wall or settlements," says Sami Awad, director of the Holy Land trust, a Bethlehem-based, non-profit organisation that works on Palestinian community building. "We want to expose the inequalities that Palestinians face — from water distribution to education to movement and freedom of worship."
This is not about giving up on Palestinian statehood entirely, but rather a strategic decision to put it on pause. "Until the equal rights of Palestinians are recognised, we will not be able to find a political solution," says Awad. "For now, that can wait."