Ignoring the Green Revolution

With so much at stake, why don't Palestinians care about Iran?

OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images
OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images
OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images

Last Friday in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where old men sat at sidewalk coffee shops with cards and hookahs, and the city's upper crust sipped cappuccinos to trance music in upscale eateries, Palestinians spoke of the dollar's fluctuations, Israel's latest military activities, and even Michael Jackson's passing. They touched on nearly everything -- with one notable exception: the volcanic protests in Iran. Whereas the drama on the streets of Tehran has captivated the world, here, the news was hardly noticed. "We have bigger problems of our own," was the collective reply from one cafe.

Palestinians are accustomed to their double curses of occupation and corruption, and they're used to watching an unending routine of election protests elsewhere in the Middle East. This time, however, their indifference is harder to explain. Although Israelis see Iran as their greatest threat, Palestinians tend to view it as their best international protector. Power shifts in Tehran, whether through war or internal unrest, could have reverberations in Palestine. A weakened Iran, for example, might offer less support for Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, thereby tipping the balance of power in favor of its Western-backed rival faction, Fatah.

So why the quiet? Disbelief in the possibility of change, support for Iranian incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's aid to Hamas, and perhaps misconceptions about Iran itself are likely at work. What's more, many Palestinians view turmoil in Tehran as nothing more than an internal issue, a "wave that will pass," in the words of Hamed Idrees, an officer with Fatah's Palestinian Authority forces in Hebron.

Last Friday in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where old men sat at sidewalk coffee shops with cards and hookahs, and the city’s upper crust sipped cappuccinos to trance music in upscale eateries, Palestinians spoke of the dollar’s fluctuations, Israel’s latest military activities, and even Michael Jackson’s passing. They touched on nearly everything with one notable exception: the volcanic protests in Iran. Whereas the drama on the streets of Tehran has captivated the world, here, the news was hardly noticed. "We have bigger problems of our own," was the collective reply from one cafe.

Palestinians are accustomed to their double curses of occupation and corruption, and they’re used to watching an unending routine of election protests elsewhere in the Middle East. This time, however, their indifference is harder to explain. Although Israelis see Iran as their greatest threat, Palestinians tend to view it as their best international protector. Power shifts in Tehran, whether through war or internal unrest, could have reverberations in Palestine. A weakened Iran, for example, might offer less support for Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, thereby tipping the balance of power in favor of its Western-backed rival faction, Fatah.

So why the quiet? Disbelief in the possibility of change, support for Iranian incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aid to Hamas, and perhaps misconceptions about Iran itself are likely at work. What’s more, many Palestinians view turmoil in Tehran as nothing more than an internal issue, a "wave that will pass," in the words of Hamed Idrees, an officer with Fatah’s Palestinian Authority forces in Hebron.

Even as a muted debate about the election emerges, one would be hard-pressed to find a Palestinian who wouldn’t favor Ahmadinejad’s fiery denunciations of Israel to a quieter, perhaps more democratic, Iran. Palestinians favor nearly anyone who is anti-Israel. They see Ahmadinejad as a leader who doles out social and economic support to poor villagers in his own country — and to Palestinians through financial and military aid to Hamas. Palestinians get immense satisfaction from seeing their bully, Israel, get bullied by Iran. So long as Ahmadinejad is around, there’s little chance that Israel will attack Iran, they argue — "because Iran is strong," as the popular mantra goes.

It’s no surprise, then, that the theory of Western-orchestrated protests is the most common explanation for the events in Tehran on the Palestinian street, particularly among the young or those who cannot see further back in Iranian history than the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Ibrahim Shamsani, a 30-year-old merchant in Ramallah, has been closely following the post-election uproar in Iran that has left tens of reformist protesters dead. "No problem. Let them finish off every one who is against Ahmadinejad," he says.

Yet some observers contend that misconceptions about Iran not inertia or affection for Ahmadinejad are more to blame for this type of reaction. The parallel between cries for freedom in the Palestinian territories and among protesters on Tehran’s streets is often missed, says a half-Iranian human rights worker living in Ramallah who spoke anonymously to protect her family in Tehran. "Many Middle Easterners think that Iran is conservative, religious, and democratic," she says. "What Palestinians don’t know is that Iranians have been living with frustration for so many years and that the fraud of these elections has given them the opportunity to express their frustrations," she explains.

Another story is emerging among a smaller group of Palestinians who are well versed in Iranian history and politics. Journalists in Ramallah say that the rift is evident in Palestinian Arabic-language newspapers, where columnists unanimously see the young generation in Iran as an aggrieved party demanding its rights. Columnists writing there don’t speculate about a Western conspiracy. Others who are well-read share this pro-protester view.

For most Palestinians, it matters little that, while Palestine is entirely Sunni, Iran is a Shiite theocracy; Iran’s support of the Palestinian struggle overshadows sectarian divisions for many people.

But others perceive Iran’s attempts to spread its influence across the Middle East as less benign. Khader Torkman, a Fatah loyalist in Jenin, sees Iran’s support of Hamas as a power play, a way for Iran to pull puppet strings from afar. "Until Yasir Arafat died, Palestinians refused the idea of letting other countries or policies influence us internally," Torkman said. "I don’t have a problem with Iran, but when Iran enters into our internal policies and uses us as a tool, it is not in the interest of the Palestinian people. The effect of Ahmadinejad all over the Middle East is harmful."

Yet even among those who question Iran’s ambitions, given the choice, there is no hesitation over which side they support. As Torkman put it, "I prefer the dominance of Iran to America and Israel."

Lubna Takruri is a freelance journalist based in Ramallah, West Bank.

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