Palestinians turning to Arab Street for inspiration

Thu, Feb 10, 2011

OPINION: Unfolding events in Cairo and elsewhere are feeding into Palestinian politics

GLUED TO television sets in Ramallah’s shisha cafes, Palestinians have been watching al-Jazeera television attentively as Egyptian people rise up from Alexandria to Cairo.

Looking on with admiration as tens of thousands fill the streets during the January 28th “Day of Rage”, cheers erupt through the cafes with every police retreat and every Molotov cocktail that lands on security vehicles.

It was fresh reaction of unity and optimism following the shame that rocked Palestinian society earlier in the week in the wake of al-Jazeera’s release of the “Palestine Papers”, the more than 1,600 documents  on the US-brokered peace process exposing the extent of Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) collaboration with Israel.

It might seem surprising that people across the West Bank are more engaged by a revolt beyond their borders than the revelation of betrayal by their recognised leadership. But as one person in a Ramallah cafe put it: “We are tired of dealing with the same old thing, this [the uprising] is something new.”

Although the Palestine Papers confirm the old Middle East that Palestinians have known and experienced for years, the partyless popular uprisings that started in Tunisa and now control Cairo have changed the region’s course of history – charting a new path for people fighting for freedom.

The start of Tunisia’s revolution in January caught the world by surprise, triggering the anxieties of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and the imagination of the Arab Street. Even before the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) hysteric reaction to the al-Jazeera releases, they saw the writing on the wall for representatives who chose their external partners over their people’s aspirations, banning and disbanding a solidarity demonstration with Tunisia in Ramallah’s main square.

This choice was made even clearer when PA security forces suppressed and dispersed two Egyptian-uprising solidarity demonstrations before a day of protest across the West Bank last Saturday – in support of the Egyptian protesters – that was popular enough to prevent overt crackdown.

Nonetheless, after hundreds gathered in Ramallah chanting anti-Mubarak, anti-PA and anti-occupation slogans, the march ended when a small group of Fatah supporters brought out pictures of PA president Mahmoud Abbas, chanting his praises.

As the crowed streamed out of the city’s main square, pro-Abbas supporters were joined in chants by members of the authority’s presidential guard.

“They’re undercover intelligence,” said Stop the Wall campaign co-ordinator Jamal Juma about the Abbas supporters as he left the demonstration. “They learn from their friends in Cairo.”

It appears there is little correlation on the Palestinian street between the papers and a Middle East in revolt, with people treating the televised revolution as an escape from problems at home.

However, Egypt’s Jasmine colouring may not only rewrite power relations in the Middle East but also be a process of reinvigorating a Palestinian imagination to demand what Israel and the US insist is impossible.

The start of this process could already be seen budding on January 27th. As Egyptians hit the streets for the third straight day, Palestinian students – many being the descendants of refugees – responded to the leaks by taking over the PLO offices in London. Demanding the democratic transformation and rebuilding of Palestinian representation, they called for a PLO that represents all Palestinians and fights for their inalienable rights.

As the papers finally lay to rest the US talks process and the myth of the 2000 Camp David meetings, Egypt’s revolt threatens to put an end to the 1979 Camp David accords and the means by which the stability of Israeli oppression of Palestinians is guaranteed by unpopular Arab regimes.

Indeed even Jordan, the third largest recipient of US military aid (after Israel and Egypt), is beginning to square up to its people who are demanding their democratic and human rights.

With an official 60 per cent Palestinian refugee population (unofficial estimates put the number closer to 80 per cent), Jordan turning Jasmine gives an indication of the potential combined impact of discontent with autocratic rule. The anger can only have been sharpened in the aftermath of the papers – especially sacrificing the right of return.

The anger of betrayal emanating from refugee camps, along with mass protests against poverty, high prices and authoritarian rule, could create the perfect storm. Palestinians in the occupied territories and Israel maintain strong family links with those in Jordan. They share a common sense of dispossession, both having experienced state repression.

If Jordan’s protests expand into a popular uprising, it will not only provide the rhetorical inspiration of a revolution for liberty and equality but Palestinians under Israeli rule will have a greater commonality of experience and cause.

Today there is a new Middle East being created, one in which rewriting the lessons of history and a shared future is weeks in the making. While Palestinians in Ramallah watch events unfold around them, like that of Palestinians in the rest of the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, cheering on the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen, a sense of optimism exists for the first time in a long time.

Ironically, as Palestinians look to the new region emerging around them, their optimism is rooted in the old Palestinian left-wing principle that the road to liberation comes through Cairo, Damascus and Amman.


JESSE ROSENFELD and NIDAL HATIM

Nidal Hatim is a Palestinian writer based in the village of Batir in the occupied West Bank. He writes regularly for the Arabic language online magazine Al Hiwar Al Motmadin

Jesse Rosenfeld is a freelance journalist based in Ramallah and Tel Aviv since 2007. He has written for The Nation , al-Jazeera English, the Guardian newspaper website opinion section, Comment is Free, the National , and Haaretz newspaper English edition

© 2011 The Irish Times