Issam Rimawi/Flash90

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Conditions Ripe for a Palestinian Spring?

The waves of mass demonstrations that swept through Tunisia and Egypt have so far passed the people of the Palestinian territories by. But those events have inspired a youth movement which may have a chance at mobilizing the masses in the first entirely nonviolent Palestinian resistance. There is today a significant amount of frustration across a broad segment of Palestinian society. The peace process with Israel appears incurably stalled, and there is deep anger at the continued failure of Fatah and Hamas, the disputing political factions, to deliver on their promise of reconciliation. “I’ve never seen the West Bank like this before, it’s a ticking time bomb,” says Fadi Elsalameen, a youth leader based in Hebron. “I’m predicting very soon you’ll see every sector of society join in a mass peaceful protest in Palestine.”

The leaders of Palestine’s “March 15” youth movement, a number of whom were interviewed for this article, have attempted to leverage growing discontent into large-scale protests. So far, they have been unable to replicate the success of their Cairo counterparts. The largest demonstration on 15 March 2011, from which the movement takes its name, saw only a couple of thousand turn out in Ramallah, and around 10,000 in Gaza City. “In Palestine, there’s protest fatigue,” says Robert Blecher, director of the Arab-Israeli project at the International Crisis Group. “It’s not going to catch fire until there’s a clear goal.”

The emergence of a clear goal might be imminent, however, says Fadi Quran, a prominent activist who spoke to me from his base in Ramallah. “We’re confronted with competing goals – should we focus on peace with Israel, or on resolving our internal disputes?” he explains. “But Palestinians are realizing that the first goal has to be mending our own house.”

Fatah and Hamas signed a reconciliation agreement in April 2011 calling for elections to a national unity government the following year.

Elections originally scheduled for May 2012 have been indefinitely postponed, and it is doubtful if there will be a robust movement on reconciliation anytime soon. As it becomes clear that another promise has been broken, frustration with the leadership is likely to come to the fore. “The regime bought some time with the reconciliation agreement,” says Khaled Elgindy, Fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But if the reconciliation process falls apart, that’s when I think you’ll see a real surge (in popular action). I suspect this year will be a defining moment.”

Robert Blecher of International Crisis Group is skeptical of a Palestinian Spring in the near term. “You need to distinguish between frustrations and ability to mobilise,” he says. “There’s a huge degree of frustration, but there’s no political force here to translate frustration into action.” For Blecher, the main obstacle is the division between Hamas and Fatah. “For a true uprising, you need a credible leadership.”

The March 15 movement is not a tight operation. It consists of a loose organization of around 250 groups or “cells” connected on Facebook. The movement can draw on support from hundreds of civil society organizations formed during the past sixty years of non-violent resistance, but there is no leader figure, nor a strong organizational structure. “You have people who hold signs,” says Blecher. “They haven’t set up dense political networks.”

This could, however, arguably have been said about Egypt as well. The organizers of Egypt’s revolution were similarly networks of youths brought together by social media. According to the self-description on Facebook of the largest group, the April 6 movement, most members had no political affiliations. “But there had been coordination and discussion between the leaders of the April 6 movement and leaders of other groups such as Kefaya, Ghad and We are all Khaled Said,” says Dr. George Joffé, Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge. “This provided the essential leadership without which there could have been no revolution.”

March 15 activists have not yet coordinated with other actors in the same way. But the rapid emergence in 1989 of the Unified Command, the alliance that directed the first intifada, out of a series of uncoordinated groups points to the potential of Palestine’s disparate resistance organizations.

The smaller size and geographical segregation of the Palestinian population throws up another obstacle to a popular uprising, the success of which will inevitably be judged on turnout. “We tried to put up tents and take over a square in Ramallah,” recalls Quran. “But there are less than 70, 000 people in Ramallah, compared to 21 million in Cairo. Movement in the West Bank is restricted and Gaza is isolated. Even though thousands of people showed up, we looked weak.”

But the movement’s strategies are evolving. “We failed in Ramallah because we tried to apply the same strategy to a different context,” says Quran. He sees the Palestinian Spring coming in the form not of marching millions but a population-wide campaign of civil disobedience. He says the strategies will be innovative, but won’t reveal more.

The great promise of popular action is that it will be peaceful, Mustafa Barghouthi, the politician and figurehead of the nonviolence movement, told me in a telephone interview from Ramallah. Palestinians have never fully captured the hearts and minds of the international community, he says, because even overwhelmingly peaceful movements like the first intifada were tainted by peripheral acts of violence. “The Arab Spring has convinced people of the power of nonviolence, and established that there should be only one form of struggle in Palestine.” Barghouthi believes that even amongst members of Hamas, who have traditionally preferred rockets to rallies, there has been a shift. “I remember meeting with Hamas leaders years ago, and they would dismiss it as a ‘woman’s struggle’,” he says. “Now, there are some who fully embrace non-violence.”

It has proven difficult in the past to prevent initially peaceful outings turning violent when protestors have clashed with the Israeli Defense Forces, but the March 15 leaders are adamant the new generation can. “This is not the generation of the stones,” says Fadi Elsalameen, referring to widespread rock throwing during the first intifada. “For a year we were glued to Al Jazeera and watching how the Egyptians protested, and the one thing they kept shouting was ‘salmiya, salmiya, salmiya’ (peaceful, peaceful, peaceful).”

No one really knows why Mohamed Bouazizi’s history-making act of self-immolation sparked the Tunisian revolution, while four martyrs before him went unnoticed. Similarly, no one can predict if or when the Palestinian youth movement will gain momentum. But the conditions for an outbreak are ripening. “People don’t see a future, they don’t see a path,” Fadi Quran reflects. “So this is a powder keg waiting for a spark.”