Palestinian security forces blocked youth protesters from accessing the Muqataa and beat them with batons at a demonstration against negotiations with Israel, 2013. (Photo: Allison Deger)
Last summer when negotiations resumed between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, hundreds of Palestinian youth took to the streets of Ramallah to protest the Palestinian Authority decrying the talks. In fact August 2013 saw a string of protests from the city center to the Muqataa, the seat of the Palestinian government. And each protest ended the same: the youth were beaten and arrested, undercover agents moved through the crowds, and some dissidents were even taken into police custody from hospital beds.
Today, the April 29th deadline to produce a U.S. engineered framework looms and talks teeter toward collapse. Israeli and Palestinian officials have skirted their limited commitments. Israel is refusing, or delaying, releasing the last round of Palestinian prisoners while the Palestinian Authority (PA) signed 15 letters of accession to United Nations treaties.
At the same time, the youth movement in Ramallah has also retracted. In a series of interviews I did last week, the once-vocal protesters said they do not believe their representatives will listen to their grievances . Since 2011, under the banner of various groups—the March 15th Coalition, a now defunct group that called for reconciliation between Palestinian political factions and Palestinians for Dignity, an also defunct association that sought the end of the Oslo Accords and its economic sister, the Paris Protocols-- these activists have protested the PA without getting any concessions, they said.
Below is a compilation of interviews with young people living or working in Ramallah. Two are activists, one is not. While I spoke with others, some were fearful of the repercussions of talking with a journalist and would not agree to an on-record interview. Attending any gathering of more than ten people is illegal under Israel’s military code over the West Bank, and Palestinian police have arrested and harassed some of the demonstrators.
Bassel, 30, al-Walaja—”without an occupation, or a woman, ha!”
“Things weren’t really planned,” reflected Bassel, 30, an activist from al-Walaja a village outside of Bethlehem, involved with the summer demonstrations. “The idea was to try and step up the struggle against the PA and stop the negotiations.”
‘ I always knew and believed that the PA was an arm of the occupation. But you can’t just have those thoughts, you need to go through the full experience of the confrontation and practice to demonstrate your thoughts.’
Bassel’s political awakening dates to childhood, “My aunt she’s the first one who started to invest in my education about Palestine. Then in 1995 they [the Israeli army] came and took our lands near our house to make a road for settlers.” In 2006 more land was grabbed from al-Walaja to construct the separation barrier around the settlement of Har Gilo. What remained of the village’s agricultural land, excluding an orchard with the oldest known tree in the world, was expropriated in 2013 for an Israeli national park [PDF] nestled over the Green Line.
“So when I was just ten years I was in my first clash with Israelis and I started to feel the direct confrontation and oppression,” said Bassel. By the time he was in high school, four of his classmates had become suicide bombers and three were at the start of life-sentences in Israeli prisons. Was that atypical, to have so many classmates involved in Palestinian armed groups during the second Intifada? “Yes it was unusual,” responded Bassel.
Later Bassel was active protesting the PA in the March 15th Coalition. “The two-year period of the youth activities, it did its partial goal of asking those existential questions about common values. Who are we as a people and what role should we take?”
But now he said, “the whole conditions of the period have shifted.” The first period “was to get to the people and try to raise awareness.” Bassel hoped their movement would show the PA was not going to bring Palestinians anything other than “cultural annihilation of society from within.” The second period, where Bassel locates the current moment, in which negotiations may fall off the map or potentially usher in “Oslo II,” (“Personally, there is no difference if it collapses or succeeds”) is one of “building a fall-back mechanism for the people, building a supportive community for the people.”
He concluded, “It’s all about the facts on the ground and the Zionist project is going underway as it always has—successfully.”
In this understanding, the youth protests against negotiations were not over just the rescoring of an old ballad between two peoples in one American-constructed parlor. “Its deeper than that because we are not objecting to just the negotiations and their failures and their success,” he said. “We’re against the whole thing: recognizing Israel, the two-state solution. We’re against all of it in principle. Because we are against the existence of Israel in principle.”
Saja Kisha, 20, Ramallah, student
“We are a hopeless people. Seriously, we just want to live our lives not about Israel or Palestine, just a real regular life,” said Saja Kisha, 20, a Birzeit University student.
If the talks fail, as most analysts are predicting and even the State Department is hinting, there will be “no consequence” said Saja. She bemoaned that her leaders, “They are out of touch,” including President Mahmoud Abbas who has managed to extend his tenure by postponing elections for five years.
Yet Saja feels Palestinians “have in their minds” what they want: an end to Israel’s occupation and an honoring of the UN sanctioned right of return for some seven million Palestinian refugees and their heirs. Polls still reflect around 50 percent of Palestinians back a two-state solution, yet there is an expanding discourse on the one-state solution with around 30 percent hopeful for a bi-national state based on equal rights between the Jordanian River and the Mediterranean Sea.
“But they don’t talk” said Saja “because they are afraid of talking. That’s us, we just hide.”
“Mona,” 30s, Ramallah, human rights worker
“Mona,” (a pseudonym) was also active in the March 15th Coalition and has continued by protesting the PA through Palestinians for Dignity and with the youth movement against talks with Israel. “I’m not in support of negotiations as a principle,” she said.
Mona finds Palestinians are trapped by “overblown expectations of a third intifada,” yet they are exhausted by the trauma of the last intifada that ended in 2002. “There are no political mobilizations happening from anything coming from below, meaning grassroots groups coming together,” she says, aside from a handful of villages engaging in weekly Friday demonstrations against the wall and settlements built on their grounds. Bil’in, Nabi Saleh, Ni’lin—they make the rounds for activist vacations, but they are not the norm. Most villages simply do not have the energy to protest.
Fatigue has set in, Mona continued, “in light of the fact that there has been an increase of Palestinian citizens being killed since the start of negotiations.”
Indeed, three were killed during the talk’s kickoff last summer in a morning raid in Qalandia refugee camp. The reverberation prompted the first of five youth marches against negotiations, the last when Abbas met with 300 Israeli students at the Muqataa in February. Those deaths–which we reported here–spurred the Palestinian negotiating team to announce that they would cancel its next meeting with Israel’s. But the meeting did take place and Palestinian activists were outraged at the absence of backbone in the PA.
“People are nostalgic for a third intifada inspired by the first intifada,” Mona said, but “it’s not going to happen because the conditions that led to the first intifada do not exist anymore.” Those conditions were: the engagement of nearly every sector of society carried out through unions. In Egypt, unions were a driving force behind the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
But for youth activists like Mona, she is old enough to have a childhood before Qalandia checkpoint and to have a green, West Bank-only identification cards. As a girl, she could cross freely to Israel, go to the sea. The closure of the West Bank to the remainder of historic Palestine dates back only to 2000– or 2006 if passengers were willing to take a roundabout route. This idea of a separate Palestinian state therefore represents a surreal loss of mobility and a concocted notion that two peoples must be divided, with one of those peoples living behind a cement wall, she says.
If you told Israelis this, the hawks would point out that only a small portion of the separation barrier is concrete, most consists of fences and barbed wire with a 60 ft. wide no-man’s land. The doves would suggest that although the wall is an ugly stain on Israeli democracy, it prevents suicide bombing (and most would brush over the fact that the wall is not built on the June 1967 line, rather inside the West Bank often between Palestinian villages).
“I still remember the time when [Qalandia] checkpoint wasn’t in existence and our journeys between Jerusalem and Ramallah didn’t take over 10 minutes by car,” says Jalal Abukhater, 19, a blogger at the Electronic Intifada. At first the crossing “consisted of fences and some plastic barriers,” said Jalal.
“No one thought this checkpoint was going to be a permanent checkpoint and that it will last long. There was another checkpoint only five minutes after it by car; people thought Qalandia was just extra provocation that will soon be removed.”
Of course it was never removed. Instead Qalandia’s panopticon was replicated at places like Shufat refugee camp, situated inside of Jerusalem, and at Qaqilya where private security mans the walk-through.
After coming of age under swelling limitations to freedom of movement, then years of a declining youth activism, Mona lamented, “The confrontation [with the PA] has led us to the belief that it is not the real confrontation we need to have and the real confrontation is hiding in Beit El [an Israeli settlement].” To her, protests had become “futile.”
Twenty years of disenfranchisement
The Oslo Accords fashioned Palestinian political life into a West Bank-centered game. They broke Gaza from the West Bank in practical ways, like banning direct trade and requiring traveling permits. Its legacy lasts to this day. Just last week a Palestinian Olympian was denied a permit to run in a Bethlehem marathon that was billed a “freedom of movement” race—that’s Oslo in action. And inside the West Bank, the region was rendered a jigsaw of Area A, B, and C (Area A: under Palestinian security and civil control; Area B: under Israel security and Palestinian civil control; and Area C under Israel security and civil control).
Although if Palestinian fragmentation weren’t enshrined by geographic stoppage, then surely it would have come with the new order of pacification and prolonged peace talks. In the late nineties, the West Bank was rumbling with violent attacks on Israel and then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requested Arafat quell the outbursts. He did. The newly formed Palestinian Preventative Security broke up demonstrations against Israeli forces, militant groups were arrested at the behest of Israeli authorities. At that time, Arafat, a populist champion, was also criticized as an oligarch in a liberator’s clothes. A “statement by 20 intellectuals” was penned in 1999 as the first notable open denunciation:
More lands are robbed while settlements expand. The conspiracy against the refugees accelerates behind the scenes. Palestinian jails close their doors to our own sons and daughters. Jerusalem has not returned and Singapore has not arrived. The people are divided into two groups: that of the select who rule and steal, and that of the majority which complains and searches for someone to save it.
That seminal year, eight of the letter’s drafters were jailed and three placed under house arrest. Publicly speaking against the reign of the PA was grounds for banishment in a jail cell purgatory. In 2000 when an editor of a Hebron newspaper criticized Arafat, he was given an ultimatum: write favorable somethings about the government, or else. He was summoned by Palestinian police and later turned over to Israeli police, where he was questioned about the same PA-negative article. For his part, Bassel mentioned the 1999 letter from 20 intellectuals against Arafat. He views his activism on a continuum from that time forward. To him the period from the March 15th Coalition to the negotiations protests is only the most recent tension in managing to rebuild after Oslo’s “cultural annihilation of society from within.”