Unity rallies get off to rocky start

Published 15/03/2011 14:57

BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — Thousands of pro-unity protesters in Gaza City’s Unknown Soldier Square moved to the city’s Khatib Square on Monday, when a Hamas-organized rally arrived at the scene, dampening the calls for a non-factional call for Palestinian unity.

A much smaller protest in Ramallah, with estimates of about 3,000, gathered in the Manara Circle, called in tandem with Gaza for an end to Palestinian political division, which fissured that Palestinian leadership in 2007.

Organizers of the 15 March protests, which include a loose coalition of youth groups in the West Bank and Gaza, have called for the protests to remain focused on unity. The aim of the demonstration, they say, is the end of Palestinian political division through elections that include all Palestinians.

From the first organizing attempts, youth groups said they feared the protests would be hijacked by political parties seeking to blame their rivals for the failure to achieve unity, but said all efforts were being made to keep factions out.

Speaking by phone from the protest one man, who asked not to be identified, said about 200 Hamas members carrying flags and chanting Hamas slogans entered the square shortly before 11:30 a.m.

He said two demonstrators were hit with Taser guns and fainted as they shouted demanding the removal of all politically-affiliated paraphernalia from the area.

Ahead of the marches, communication from organizers insisted that only the Palestinian flag be flown at the events.

“Despite the Gaza government’s instructions to treat the demonstrators respectfully and not intervene, some hardliners tried to use the demonstration for factional gains,” one protester told Ma’an by phone. He called on the Gaza government Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to “stick to the promises he made yesterday.”

Organizer Hossam Khadra told AFP they had finally received a permit to demonstrate after previously being refused.

When the Hamas contingent arrived, one protester remarked on Twitter, “we r leaving ths isnt what we wanted ths prot to b.” Shortly after, the mass of people left the square for another location in the city.

Reports of limited political antagonism in Ramallah

In Ramallah, 3,000 gathered the Manara Circle, with early reports of Palestinian Authority security presence and some Fatah flags being raised.

More participants were expected in the late afternoon, as the work day came to a close, and observers were reassured that the rally was not being suppressed.

Palestinian Authority security at the rally were said to be staying on the sidelines of the event.

Ten hunger strikers slept the night in Ramallah’s city center.

“We are hunger striking to prove that we exist in the real world and not just online, and to show that we are ready to die to end the division,” organizer Fadi Quran told AFP.

“We slept here to prove that we are the ones running this campaign,” he said, while expressing concerns about other political groups trying to co-opt Tuesday’s rallies.

Governments promise to protect rallies

Palestinian factions, including the major rivals Hamas and Fatah, had pledged to protect pro-unity rallies both in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.

Officials said they supported the rallies under their banner, “The people want to end the disagreement.”

On Monday, Gaza government Interior Ministry spokesman Ihab Al-Ghussein said officials met and agreed that demonstrating youth would be respected and protected, ahead of protests planned for 15 March.

“We have been closely following the popular movement in Gaza,” Al-Ghussein said in a news conference from the site of the planned protests, the Square of the Unknown Soldier in Gaza City.

Maan News Agency: Unity rallies get off to rocky start.

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