Intifada Or Not, Something Powerful Is Going On

As the student cafeteria at Birzeit University empties after the lunchtime rush, Ehab Iwidat leans back on his chair and sips from a bottle of mineral water. The wiry, 20-year-old business and French student is suffering from a cold, but that has not stopped him from attending some of the recent demonstrations in the West Bank.

“It’s the first time in a long time that we’ve seen this,” he says. “I’ve seen young people, old people, females, males, protesting in the streets together. You can see rich people alongside poor people too.”

Like many in the so-called Oslo generation of Palestinians, who have little or no memory of previous Intifadas in Palestine, Iwidat only knows life under occupation as a second-class citizen.

He believes that Israeli restrictions on Palestinian freedom and rights in the West Bank, harassment from Israeli settlers, and the bleak prospects for a peace deal between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders have pushed Palestinians into the streets in recent weeks.

“It’s coming from the actions of settlers, who represent Israeli government policy. From burning people alive, humiliating people on a daily basis and restricting Palestinians’ freedom movement, to the disrespectful actions at al-Aqsa Mosque.”

Palestinian protesters take position during clashes with Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Bet El [Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]
Palestinian protesters take position during clashes with Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Bet El [Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]
The protests that have swept Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank this month have seen tens of thousands of Palestinians take to the streets. Men and women of all ages have joined the movement. In some cases, these massive demonstrations have passed peacefully, as protesters massed to chant slogans in unity, demanding solidarity to fight the Israeli military occupation.

Other gatherings have turned violent, as the Israeli military used tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and live fire against Palestinian demonstrators throwing rocks and firebombs at Israeli soldiers.

The movement has even given traction to the idea that Palestinians could be on the verge of a new Intifada, or that one may have already begun.

Day of Rage

Tuesday was declared a “Day of Rage” in Gaza and the West Bank, as thousands of Palestinians protested in refugee camps and at military checkpoints, singing anti-occupation songs and waving Palestinian flags.

Palestinian citizens of Israel simultaneously took to the streets for a general strike, closing businesses and schools across the country, while tens of thousands gathered for a peaceful rally in Sakhnin, chanting slogans against the Israeli government.

On Wednesday, thousands more attended the funeral of Mutaz Zawahreh, a 27-year-old from the Duheisha refugee camp close to Bethlehem, who was killed in the previous day’s clashes with the Israeli military. The protesters again chanted for solidarity and unity to battle Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

An Israeli policeman prevents a Palestinian man from entering the compound which houses al-Aqsa Mosque [Ammar Awad/Reuters]
An Israeli policeman prevents a Palestinian man from entering the compound which houses al-Aqsa Mosque [Ammar Awad/Reuters]
Tension has been simmering in Jerusalem over what Palestinians say is Israel’s plan to Judaise the city. This summer, however, it centred on the religious site which houses the al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Only Muslims are allowed to pray at the site under the existing status quo, but a broader campaign among religious right-wing Israelis, calling for Jewish prayer to be allowed there followed by storming of al-Aqsa compound for several days by Jewish extremist groups under the protection of the Israeli security forces, has raised concerns among Palestinians that the Israeli government is preparing to alter the access rules in the long term.

However, the idea that the recent protests are motivated by religion is inaccurate, according to the demonstrators themselves.

“I don’t look at al-Aqsa as just a religious symbol,” said Hala Marshood, a political activist who lives in Jerusalem. “It’s a cultural symbol. It’s a symbol of our heritage and our Palestinian identity. It’s a symbol of our social life. It’s a really important place for the Palestinians in Jerusalem and outside of Jerusalem.”

At 24, Marshood already has years of experience as an activist behind her. She keeps in touch with other activists in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza via social media networks and helped to organise a recent protest in the city of Nazareth, which was attended by thousands.

“Social media is a really important method to get in touch with youth everywhere,” she said. “Facebook is the big one, even though it has its risks. And posters, flyers that we hand out in the neighbourhoods … Besides that, we use connections that we have with activists in the West Bank, Jerusalem and every area, and we contact to make something united together.”

An Israeli policeman prevents a Palestinian man from entering the compound which houses al-Aqsa Mosque [Ammar Awad/Reuters]
An Israeli policeman prevents a Palestinian man from entering the compound which houses al-Aqsa Mosque [Ammar Awad/Reuters]
The unrest escalated after two Israeli settlers were killed on October 1. The Israeli military launched a manhunt for the perpetrators. Those incursions into West Bank towns and villages, marked by night raids on Palestinian homes and widespread arrests, further fuelled the anger and helplessness that many Palestinians feel under military occupation.

So far, the protests have been notable for the lack of obvious political party involvement. Mainstream Palestinian parties – Fatah, Hamas and the PFLP – have remained relatively quiet, while the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has urged protesters to remain peaceful.

“The unique thing about this movement is that the youth are protesting and no one is leading them, no politicians,” said Saif al-Islam Duglas, the president of the Birzeit University student council.

“We’ve organised protests as the student union, but not along political party lines, everyone is coming together.”

Within the often highly factional arena of Palestinian student politics, this kind of unity is often lacking. But political protest is nothing new for Palestinians. Many of these young people have attended the weekly demonstrations against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, which are not organised along party lines.

“Most such waves of protests, whether the short ones or the long ones, are spontaneous and are done by young people without being organised in most of the cases. So it’s not exceptional or strange that there are no political organisations that are masterminding this,” said Ghassan Khatib, a political analyst at Birzeit University.

Currently the protests show little sign of abating, fuelled in part by fresh incidents of tit-for-tat violence as well as by Israel’s excessive use of force and its policy of extrajudicial killings. The UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged Israel to “seriously review” its use of force, finding “the apparent excessive use of force by Israeli security services” to be “troubling”.

As of Thursday morning, 32 Palestinians have been killed in October, the majority at the hands of Israeli forces, while seven Israelis have been killed. If the death toll continues to rise, and the demonstrations grow in numbers, Palestinian political parties will likely come under pressure to increase their involvement.

“This movement needs political leadership,” said Issa Amro, a political activist based in the West Bank city of Hebron. “Until now, there has been no political leadership. But it needs political leadership to go on, to organise it … to represent the Palestinian demands.”

While political leadership may be required to guide and crystallise the aims of the current movement, it is unclear whether the established Palestinian parties want to lead the movement. While this could create a space for a new generation of leaders to emerge from outside the traditional parties, the movement has been defined to date by an absence of leadership.

While Amro believes that the current generation of political leaders is unlikely to take up the cause, he sees an opportunity for junior figures in established parties to take it on.

“I think the first line of leadership is exhausted. But sooner or later, if it continues like this, I believe the second and third line of leadership in the political parties will lead and go on with it.”

A third Intifada?

Some of the Palestinian demonstrators have called for an Intifada, while the term has also been used by political and regional analysts. However, it is probably too early to compare the movement with the sustained and widespread Palestinian uprisings that took place in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, according to Khatib.

“If the definition of Intifada includes sustained activities, widespread and popular, then I don’t expect that this wave will become an Intifada,” he explained. “It’s happening mostly in Jerusalem and it’s a reaction mainly to Israeli attempts to change the status quo at al-Aqsa Mosque. And it’s not spreading all over.”

As for the activists, talk of Intifada does not concern them for now. “I don’t like labelling it,” said Marshood. “[During] the second Intifada, I was really young, and in the first Intifada I wasn’t born. What I can say is that we are escalating our protest and there is something very powerful going on.”

Originally published: Nigel Wilson (Al Jazeera)

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