Young Palestinian activists seek traction

It is one of the great ironies of the “Arab spring” that, as revolution has swept through the entire Middle East, laying waste to 40-year old regimes and pressuring others into differing levels of accommodation, the region’s model of instability, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has remained relatively calm. Although undergoing their own rumbles of civil unrest inspired by regional developments, Israelis and Palestinians have experienced nothing that might shake the foundations of their governments or the interminable status quo of Israeli occupation.

In Palestine, youth inspired by events elsewhere in the region organized demonstrations against the political divisions that have paralyzed their own political system, but failed in their efforts to galvanize a mass movement. A closer inspection into this attempt reveals much about the state of Palestinian society today and what can be expected in the future.

The youth-led protests in Palestine, otherwise known as the March 15 movement–in sync with the chronological labeling given to counterparts in the region–addressed two of the most problematic domestic issues facing Palestinian politics: factional division and reform of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Using social media as a trigger and an organizing tool, these activists attempted to galvanize the Palestinian population into action, a tactic that ultimately failed.

Unlike the revolution in Egypt, which was years in the making, the March 15 movement was planned only a couple of months in advance and lacked inroads into the Palestinian community as a whole. In Palestinian society, such organizing is traditionally done through political factions that have deep roots, which the young, independent youth organizers lacked. Moreover, when the demonstrations and other activities collected a little steam, the traditional political parties attempted to co-opt the nascent movement for their own aims. Moreover, the youth maintained a horizontal leadership that pulled apart under the strain of the various external forces and internal decision-making pressures.

From the outset, March 15 faced a severe challenge in trying to mobilize Palestinian society. Although the sentiments that motivated the young activists into action are extremely popular among Palestinians generally, at the moment the community is not fertile ground for large-scale political protest. Having paid the heavy cost of two intifadas in the past 25 years without seeing any gains, Palestinians are weary and not eager to launch another uprising of any kind.

Since the end of the second intifada in the mid-2000s, Palestinians have generally focused on trying to create semi-normal lives within what can only be described as an abnormal situation. Although the Oslo accords with Israel have calcified and the Palestinian Authority is only a semi-autonomous transitional government, it is also the largest employer in the occupied territories and few seem interested in its endangerment. The Palestinian Authority has also built a significant security apparatus that it has been willing to use against its own people, among them political dissidents.

If the March 15 movement accomplished anything, however, it was to demonstrate to the Palestinian Authority leadership that it is not immune from civil unrest and that widespread dissatisfaction with its decisions can spill into the streets if not addressed. After the initial protest brought thousands into the streets of Ramallah and Gaza, the Fateh-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas–which have been divided since 2007–quickly set in motion a renewed process of reconciliation.

This step taken by leaders two months into the protest was able to bring the demonstrations to a quick end by satisfying–albeit superficially–the principle aim of the protesters, whose movement had yet failed to gather significant momentum.

Despite being unsuccessful in their first attempt, the youth activists of March 15 have not disappeared. They still play a major role in other processes taking place on the ground. Many of the activists that were part of March 15 filtered back into the “popular struggle” launched by individual villages being encroached on by Jewish settlements and the separation barrier. They are active in the anti-apartheid Boycott Divestment and Sanctions struggle. Armed with a new appreciation for social media, they have since used it to magnify the protests’ visibility and reach a wide global audience. The village of Nabi Saleh, which has become a symbol of the popular struggle movement, is a direct example of where these activists have brought the local protest of a village of 500 on to a global stage.

Moreover, in the March 15 demonstrations and still today, these activists are acquiring valuable experience, as well as organizational and communication skills that could serve them well if the situation on the ground once again becomes ripe for collective action, a possibility that does not seem too far in the distance.

*This article was originally published in Bitterlemons International.

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