The Palestinian Facebook Movement: Can it take up the baton of revolution?

by Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka | Challenge Magazine Apr 14, 2011

The popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world have also stirred Palestinian youth. After a long period in which Fatah and Hamas held a monopoly in the political sphere, a popular movement of young Palestinians is gaining wide support with its slogan, “The nation wants an end to division”—meaning the division between Fatah and Hamas. On March 15, when the slogan went up for the first time on Facebook, thousands responded by marching in the streets of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

This initiative has shaken both Hamas and Fatah. They responded with a series of initiatives aiming to “embrace” the young movement after failing to suppress it with blows and arrests. One such initiative was taken by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh who called on PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to visit Gaza in preparation for unification. At first, Abbas agreed, but he immediately began adding conditions which soon led to controversy. A Hamas leader in Damascus, Mohammed Nazal, spoke strongly against the visit (March 19), a reflection of the confusion and bafflement of the political establishment in the face of the young Palestinian movement.

A third way and the First Intifada

At the heart of the new movement is a proposal that Palestinians should return to the methods of the first, unarmed, intifada – similar to what has recently been happening in many Arab states. This, they believe, is the right way to achieve the political and social aspirations of the Palestinians, and an alternative to the two failed strategies previously attempted: armed struggle and futile negotiations.

The movement is similar to the movements leading the revolutions in the Arab world: these are educated Facebook youth. Most have a liberal or leftwing political background because of the ongoing struggle against the Occupation. Furthermore, many don’t see themselves in politics in the future because they have lost their faith in politics and politicians. Some work in NGOs which have taken the place of political parties.

Nidal Atallah, one of the movement’s coordinators, said their activities began immediately after the outbreak of the uprising in Tunisia, when they organized demonstrations in solidarity with the Tunisian revolutionaries. During the revolution in Egypt, the movement was joined by new groups which formed spontaneously via Facebook, and in the same spontaneous way March 15 was declared a day of struggle against division within the Palestinian Authority.

Despite the sensitive situation under occupation, young Palestinians have plenty of reasons to revolt against their leadership. Their slogan, “The nation wants an end to division,” has something in common with the slogans heard in Arab states: the nation declares it has a will of its own which must be taken into account. But the second part seems different from calls heard elsewhere for the regime to step down.

However, the motivation behind the call to end the schism is the same as the motivation behind the uprisings in the Arab world: lack of faith in the leadership, disgust with the political system, suppression, and lack of freedoms and social justice.

“The division causes great tension,” Atallah says. “The entire Palestinian issue is precarious, without a solid base, because of the schism between the factions, which have lost the nation’s faith. This schism has led us to an unbearable situation in the struggle against the Occupation, as well as in the domestic, social and economic spheres, where we face severe problems of unemployment, poverty, housing and education.”

People are furious with Fatah and Hamas, but until now nobody has dared voice this anger publicly. Furthermore, there is no agreement among Palestinian youth about what the slogan means. Some demand that the Oslo Accords be annulled. Some demand the PLO’s Palestinian National Council be elected anew, to be the supreme authority for taking decisions on the struggle’s strategies and self-determination. Some see attempts to revive this moribund body as a delusion.

Reading between the lines, it is evident that young Palestinians hold both sides responsible for the division. The slogan indirectly expresses the lack of faith in the authority of the PA and the Hamas government alike. “The PA is not fulfilling our political aspirations because of the schism and because its area of authority will be no more than the West Bank and Gaza,” Atallah says. “It is unable to take any wider strategic initiative which would represent the entire Palestinian nation in every place. For this reason, the PLO’s Palestinian National Council must be elected anew.”

“It’s obvious that the leadership has failed, and the paths it chose, whether negotiations or armed struggle, were misdirected because they didn’t use them in the right way,” says Fadi Qor’an (23), an MA student. “Otherwise Palestine would already have been liberated. There is a third way, non-violent popular resistance, which brought down Mubarak, South Africa’s apartheid government, and colonialism in India. We Palestinians have the example of the first intifada, the only period which gave us some achievements and gave us back parts of Gaza and the West Bank, even if only symbolically. If the first intifada had continued, and we hadn’t been crushed in the Oslo bear-hug, we would have achieved even greater things.”

Bringing down the Oslo Accords

Everyone I spoke to confirmed that the people rejects the Oslo Accords, yet Atallah and Qor’an both stop short of declaring their support for annulling the agreements or for bringing down the PA. Why do they avoid such declarations?

“There is a lot of opposition against the PA apparatus, but we mustn’t forget that the PA employs people in the West Bank and Gaza and pays their salaries,” Qor’an says. “The livelihoods of a million people are dependent on the PA. Where will they go if it falls?”

“This is what prevents the formation of a consensus around the call to bring down the PA,” Atallah adds.

“Some of the difficulties in Palestine stem from the fact that Hamas and Fatah leaders don’t present themselves as politicians but as freedom fighters, former prisoners,” Qor’an says. “This is different from the Egyptian National Party or the Muslim Brotherhood, for example.”

Here lies one significant difference between the PA and the Hamas government on the one hand, and the Arab regimes on the other: The PA and Hamas are “regimes” without a state. Both movements were quick to adopt the manners of state, dressing themselves in official uniforms before the basic mission had been accomplished: liberation from Occupation. Both rule, but they have no sovereignty. When the regime lacks the most basic elements of sovereignty, such as freedom of movement and an independent economy, there is nothing left for Hamas and the PA to do except squabble over the regime – even if it is just an empty shell. Thus, instead of being part of the solution, they have become part of the problem. They cause escalation, and deepen the Occupation, with the schism which has torn Palestine apart for four years, threatening geographic unity, weakening the Palestinian position vis-à-vis Israel, and undermining the social fabric of Palestinian society. This strange situation of lords without sovereignty, rulers without a state, is the result of the Oslo Accords. Here is the logic behind the claim that annulling Oslo is the key to ending the occupation.

Ali Abeidat, unlike the other young Palestinians we talked to, is an activist in a leftwing party. He is bursting with claims against his party and the Palestinian Left, which should have stirred up the Palestinian street but failed in its task. “What we need today is not an end to the division but the removal of those causing the division – in other words we need to annul the cause of the division, which is the PA,” he says. “Everyone is sick and tired of the negotiations carried out by the PA for 17 years without results, which have made it no stronger than a spider’s web. The only solution is to dismantle the PA.”

The disagreements between the factions, he says, are so deep that there is nothing connecting them, and any unity between them will be just a formality. “If they unite, their goal will be to divide the spoils between them and to silence the young voices calling for unity,” he continues. “Unity won’t end the Occupation. Only dismantling the PA and returning to direct Occupation and [Israel’s] Civil Administration will enable a struggle to be waged against it. We need to take up non-violent resistance today, without giving up other possible ways of acting.”

“A unity government does not meet our demands,” Atallah and Qor’an both agree. “We’ll stay in the squares [demonstrating] until a date is set for elections to the National Council. A hug between Khaled Mashaal and Nabil Shaath is not our heart’s desire, because we understand that the schism runs too deep. But we mustn’t forget that the leadership of the two movements does not completely represent their supporters. That’s why our basic demand is democratization of the political life in these parties and the representation of the will of the people via the National Council.

“Reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is important, but we’re aiming for greater things. We aim to struggle against the Occupation and for our liberty in a principled way which adopts logical means containing no sectarian or personal considerations. We have built up social networks and we have knowledge of the media and the tactics of non-violent popular struggle. Our basic aim is full freedom and social justice.”

A Democratic Palestine threatens rightwing Israel

The schism is the result of the Oslo Accords, which put an end to the first intifada and created the Palestinian Authority together with the corruption that has accompanied it. Hamas came to power as an alternative to Fatah’s corruption and its inability to bring an end to the occupation via negotiation. From that moment, the internal struggle over the Palestinian regime took the place of the struggle against the Occupation. It sharpened the political and ideological disagreements between the factions, which ceased serving the Palestinian nation and began representing external interests – whether those of the Israel-Saudi Arabia-US axis, or those of the Iran-Syria axis.

In this context, it’s worth recalling that the Oslo Accords did not just subordinate the PA to Israel; they also destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers, who had worked in Israel until the Accords closed off the territories and denied them freedom of movement, thus sentencing them to poverty. The Oslo Accords and their economic appendix (the Protocol on Economic Relations, known as the “Paris agreement”) have prevented any possibility of economic growth and development in the Palestinian territories. This has meant that a large part of the people is dependent on the only remaining source of income: employment in the PA for absurd wages, which makes them hostage to the PA apparatus.

Whatever the political alternatives which grow from this new movement, there is no doubt that the Palestinian nation must reformulate its demands and annul the legitimacy of the PA, which has long since been just a fig leaf for Occupation and settlement. Non-violent resistance and a return to the methods of the first Intifada such as strikes, barriers against the army, ongoing demonstrations and civil disobedience, together with clear democratic demands, could be the path most appropriate to the new winds blowing through the Arab world – winds which have gained tangible achievements and brought down tyrannical regimes that had ruled for generations.

Democratic Palestinian activity would be a serious problem for the Israeli government, because the demand for an end to the division includes the potential for dismantling the PA and annulling the Oslo Accords. Dismantling this framework would expose the fact that the Occupation continues. It would place Israel in direct confrontation with a nation that resists in non-violent ways. Israel will be left without excuses to perpetuate the Occupation and the settlements. The world is sick of Israeli dissemblance. It is also sick of its rightwing, racist government. The formation of a popular Palestinian force taking the Arab uprisings as an example and adopting non-violent struggle can tilt the balance in favor of the Palestinians’ rightful demands.

Political freedom and social justice

Young people in the Arab world succeeded in effecting deep social and political change. But we must not forget that it wasn’t just Facebook that propelled the uprisings – it was Mohamed al-Bouazizi, the unemployed Tunisian academic whose social and economic situation had become unbearable. We must also remember the central role played by textile factory workers in al-Mahala al-Kubra in 2007 and 2008 in Egypt. These workers went on strike and took to the streets. They were the first to burn a picture of Mubarak and were the first to courageously point out the connection between economic misery and political oppression. For this reason they gained the support of the Facebook youth who called themselves “the youth of April 6,” the date on which the workers went on strike. These workers continued to organize and foment until the moment when their struggle was adopted by Egyptians throughout the country.

The suffering of the Arab world is twofold: it stems from the suppression of political freedoms and from the lack of social justice. Unemployment, poverty, and the appalling state of the health services, education and culture embitter the lives of millions of Arabs just like the Palestinians. If the young Palestinians call for real change, they must hold out their hands to the workers, to the unemployed, and to all those who have been pushed to the margins of society, neglected by the national leadership and the Islamic leadership alike


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