By: Duha Almusaddar / RLS Project Manager in Gaza
This year marks the 10th anniversary since the 15th March Palestinian protests. Back in 2011, the youth in Palestine were inspired by movements calling for social change. The Arab Spring, much like in different states of the Middle East, had instilled a sense of hope among Palestinians.
However, the distinctness of the Palestinian context made the demands of the youth unlike others. After all, Palestine is under direct occupation that has it separated by the permits system. Among other things, the internal division following the 2007 Palestinian elections – namely the conflicting parties of Fatah and Hamas – urged the youth to work diligently in their call for unity.
Unifying the Palestinians, in this respect, seemed to have gained prevalence. From the perspective of young Palestinian activists, it was a priority to resolve the internal issues rather than demanding to bring down the broader political system. Ultimately, not resolving the internal division would endanger the Palestinian struggle for liberation.
“The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions were an inspiration to us because they initially started as peaceful youth protests that resulted from a feeling of injustice, oppression and a desire to change the reality by the youth, so we thought we can do the same …. Palestine is the only area still under direct occupation, so as youth we thought we could be a tool of change. However, at the time the factions didn’t seem to be interested in ending the division, to achieve national unity and make it a reality. Most of us were affiliated with political factions but we set aside the parties’ hats and put on the greater party, that is Palestine, which is what unifies us and brings us together. And this was our slogan: Palestine is greater than us all. Even though we were from different parties, we had a common discussion table and a common goal.” (Samah).
Accordingly, the young people organized themselves and mobilized towards putting an end to the political split between the political factions. On the 15th of March 2011, Palestinian youth – both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank – went out to the streets to voice their demands. They called for an actual reconciliation (between Fatah and Hamas) by which to enable all forces to focus on the main issue: The Israeli occupation.
Although the youth in the Gaza Strip had obtained all the required permits to hold their protest, yet they were met with violence and arrests by Hamas. It was evident within the first days of the protests that the young activists were undergoing oppression. Unfortunately, due to the harassment, frequent arrests and surveillance, as well as the continuous oppression of freedoms, many of the organizers have left the Gaza Strip but still remain connected to Gaza.
“After 10 years, we still live in the aftermath of what happened and its impact, whether physical or mental. The oppression that ensued following the protests pushed many of the activists to leave, due to loss of hope and the constant pressures of being followed and harassed. This experience has made some of us revise the tools in our activism, for example going to the street when there is no security, or we don’t feel that these streets belong to us, or that I even don’t have a right to be in the street… is stupid.” (Samah).
The experience of the 15th March protest (as it became to be known) taught the youth lessons about the need to change their approaches. They learned, for instance, that it is not possible to go to the streets when it is known that there will be no protection. This meant that they had to rely on cultural activities, such as by writing, using arts, and participating in international events to speak about Palestine. Essentially, the youth have come to feel that politicians no longer represent them, nor that they have trust in them. They know that the road to change is slow, and that they have not made tangible results on the ground, but they still try to seize any opportunity for change and engage in whichever way to make their voices heard.
“The 15th March activists are still in communication until today. The movement did not end, but it has changed its tools. For example, some activists are considering running for elections, and some left to develop themselves while also trying to help people in Gaza. Others take part in conferences to talk about the Palestinian cause and other events (sports and cultural). We also requested to be part of the reconciliations talks. There was an attempt by some youth who were in Cairo during one of the reconciliation talks to deliver their demand for actual change – not just another round of talks … [The demand was] that we want to feel that you [Palestinian factions] are heading towards change, of ending the Occupation, and bringing change to people’s lives. We [activists] are still in contact, the youth who are independent still have their messages, and the ones affiliated with parties also try to deliver theirs. It is not possible to see the impact, but still there are attempts. After 10 years, as Palestinians we only have hope and the faith in our rights, which are the main drivers for change whether towards internal issues or the end of occupation.” (Samah).
By and large, the Palestinian protest demonstrated the capacity of the youth to mobilize people, and they were also joined by families. Undoubtedly, much of the reason that they so visibly manifested themselves on the ground was due to the fact that almost every person in the Gaza Strip has been affected by the political division. This was also combined with the awareness that the political division poses a serious impediment to the Palestinian cause, as it shifted the focus from addressing the occupation and demanding liberation towards emphasizing on internal problems instead.
What about the Upcoming Elections?
“Elections are on the horizon. It is possible to happen and might not happen. It is a democratic right and a need after 14 years of being ruled by those without any legitimacy at the PLC and ministry levels. Let us be a bit optimistic that we can change through the elections. The talks about a national list is laughable as we are tired the current parties. So holding elections with the main parties together means the elections is not taken seriously. The list system is unfair. For example, I don’t think there will be a list of women only, as they won’t have any kind of support.” (Samah).
The possibility for having elections this year comes at an intriguing time for Palestinians. President Abbas has issued a presidential decree in January 2021 to hold Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections; Presidential elections and Palestinian National Council (PNC) elections. This comes after 14 years of internal political division and numerous failed reconciliation attempts with no change at the political level. Even though many of the young generation have been longing for a such step and to feel as part of a democratic process, yet they had hoped for it to be held differently and under better circumstances.
“The 15th March protest’s main demand was to end the Palestinian political split by finding clearly defined mechanisms for power transition and defining the priorities of the Palestinian people, as well as enabling Palestinians to reunite and manage their affairs without parties’ interests. The problem with elections now is that they are coming in an atmosphere that is not suitable for democracy, or for reasonable competition. As activists, we have lost all faith in the parties’ leadership and factions’ calls. What we need as Palestinians is to focus ending the occupation, as well as addressing issues that are of priority to Palestinians (refugees, prisoners, rule of law corruption etc). Then the talk about the elections between two parties who want to split positions and roles and nothing more without a clear vision of our issues that are stuck for decades, only then the street can choose its leadership.” (Asad).
Unfortunately, Palestinian youth (from the left) had hoped that the elections would bring about an alternative, especially from the progressive left. However, once the candidacy lists were shared, their hopes have faded once again, as neither new left opposition was developed – nor were youth properly included in the parties’ lists.
Elections Under Occupation and Political Division
“I was hoping that elections can be held for all Palestinians all over the world; elections for the central councils of the PLO and national council, activate its organizations and empower Palestinians to hold elections inside the Palestinian territory. We are at a time that must overcome all obstacles, but those holding the current Palestinian leadership seats is a generation which its era has ended and should give the leadership to those who are more earnest and connected to the current developments. Otherwise, the Palestinian state will continue to be in the same condition and will not make any progress. However, for this to happen the intellectual youth who can confront the political parties and politicians need to take the lead and not fall in the usual traps of political parties. Elections now is not seen as a realization of democracy in Palestine as it will only renew the legitimacy for those without a legitimacy, dividing roles among themselves and cut the opposition. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that we oppose it. We hope that this time they manage to get out of this dark tunnel that we have been forced into. If they fail, then things won’t go well.” (Asad).
When considering the possibility of having elections in 2021, one observation that is being shared among Palestinians is whether elections within the horrid reality of the Israeli occupation could change the circumstances on the ground – or whether they will have an added value:
“Some consider the Oslo Accords to be dead and so there is no justification for holding elections. Others see the need for an election at the PNC level as more important than the PLC. Some are worried that the internal conflict will be renewed and the results of the elections will not be accepted. Nevertheless, I believe that it is an opportunity to change faces and try to get out of the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip as well as the illegitimacy of the current PLC and leadership; despite my lack of conviction with President Abbas’ rationale for holding elections now, which I think is to renew his legitimacy and his faction [Fatah]. This comes after such a long time had passed and everything regarding Palestine has not just been put on hold but also retreated, now that we’re witnessing Arab normalization and other crises without any movement or progress. I believe that failure this time with the elections will have severe consequences. However, I have faith in people’s awareness in which they can create their own solutions” (Asad).
“I don’t see that elections under occupation and division will make a change. So long as the PLC and PNC are in deadlock, those taking control are the factions; the political parties who are in power. That is why I believe real change comes from the political parties, at the leadership and decision-making level. Many legislations were passed by the PLC (concerning women, children, people with disabilities, etc.), which had not been implemented. I hope that the next PLC will make a change. I’m not happy with the acknowledgement that for change to happen it needs to be via the political factions. I hope for a change, but the situation of the ground pushes me to believe political parties must change within first in order to have a real change and abide by the laws. The political parties should follow the decisions made by the three authorities and not vice-versa … Nonetheless, I believe even under occupation we should try to continue with our lives as normal in all aspects of life to show the world that this population under occupation has the right to live like the rest of the world without occupation. These people under occupation have skills and capacities that enable them to be part of the global community towards change.” (Samah)
Youth’s Role in the Upcoming Elections
Despite youth’s conflicting views of the elections, several young persons have expressed that they see this as an opportunity to engage in the democratic process, and some indeed have signed up to run.
“I urge everyone who is eligible to vote to participate in the elections. If you don’t like any of the lists, go and put a blank paper. This way you’ll have used your right including not giving your vote, so make it count! If a lot of people go with blank votes, this will be a message for those leaders in political parties … I hope that people support the youth list [list consisting of young activists] but I’m not very optimistic, as we are governed by party politics, so even if youth took seats in the PLC, what will they be able to change? Nonetheless, the run for elections is a means to participate in the democratic process, to run to vote to deliver to the factions the message that you’re not the only ones here. My refusal of being part of a list is that I will be governed by the list’s programme but I want to have my own voice to be heard and free – even if I’m member of a party. I see change coming from within the parties, so I urge youth to run for their parties’ elections to be part of the political office of the party. Even if the parties won’t allow them, they must impose themselves as they are not tools. Parties must allow for new blood. They must acknowledge that youth are more aware of the situation as they are the ones living and impacted by it, and that the methods of dialogue have changed. Today people want to hear from the people not the politicians. I believe the next stage should be to pressure parties and factions to engage youth in the political bureau and decision-making positions. This is not just limited to involving youth, but also the CSOs and all those with new thinking.” (Samah).
The Elections Youth had Hoped for:
As noted, the elections of 2021 (whether they will be carried out or not) have so far been disappointing for Palestinian youth. Having partaken in the protests of 2011, the young activists had been anticipating for the stronger and new option. They had hoped to get out of the Hamas and Fatah control, yet they realize that independent youth lists are unlikely to do well in the elections. The left parties have also failed to provide a new alternative that youth can support. At the end, youth aspire for the best, but based on what they had witnessed since 2007, they are worried the worst might happen if this election does take place in the current inhospitable environment that will only serve leadership legitimacy and not the people’s right to a better and free life.
Asad, General Coordinator for the Gaza 15th March protest at the time. Interviewed on 10th March 2021.Samah, Journalist and activist. Interviewed on 21st March 2021. Duha Almusaddar is RLS Project Manager in Gaza.