Gaza rally draws a diverse crowd calling for unity

By Rami Almeghari

, by Electronic Intifada

Youth protests in Gaza continue to unfold after a call to rally was put out by Palestinian youth calling for an end to political division and for national unity.

A large rally was held on 15 March in Gaza City, followed by another at a university campus and one at the premises of the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA). The two youth protests were reportedly repressed by Hamas authorities, who used batons and some live ammunition, according to witnesses.

On Friday, Hamas’s security personnel cordoned off more than a dozen youths who held their sit-in inside UNRWA’s premises. Witnesses told the The Electronic Intifada that a number of protesters were injured after the security personnel opened fire on them.

Meanwhile, demonstrations are ongoing in the West Bank. Protesting youth say they are fed up with the four-year split between Fatah and Hamas.

Such a split emerged when the now ruling Hamas party in Gaza took over the territory amidst factional fighting with the Fatah party of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007, one year after Hamas won a majority of seats in parliamentary elections.

Hamas and Fatah, the two major political powers in the occupied Palestinian territories, embrace two different agendas. Hamas, an Islamic resistance group which says peace with Israel must be conditional on it ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has been subjected to boycott by the US, UN and some EU states since it was elected.

On the other hand, the same western powers continue to back PA president Abbas, also leader of the Fatah party, who has assumed responsibility for the endless "peace talks" with Israel as part of the Oslo agreement signed in the mid-1990s by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

For almost four years now Arab and international mediation has failed to bridge the gap between Hamas and Fatah. Meanwhile, Gaza is suffering from a four-year-old Israeli blockade of collective punishment following the legislative elections and Hamas takeover, while the West Bank is being further colonized with Israel’s illegal settlement-building.

At the Katiba square in Gaza City, several thousand protesters gathered at midday on Tuesday midday. "The people want an end to division, the people want and end to division," the youth-led crowd chanted.

Demonstration organizer Rawan Abu Sahlah told The Electronic Intifada "We are here, we will stay here and we are determined to sit in. Whatever the price is, whatever their measures are, we are going to stay here in this square until we see results."

The 20-year-old activist, holding a flag amid the large crowd at Katiba Square, added "This is the Palestinian flag, and this flag should only be risen and no other flag is allowed in this march. It is enough division, enough scattered political life."

The protest had a festive atmosphere and people from different social categories participated. A group of women sat on the floor and chanted slogans, a number of medical staff dressed in white uniforms were gathered near them, another group of youth changed "No Fatah, no Hamas, Palestine is the essence," while a circle of other youth sang "Palestinians, Palestinians and we should protect our lands."

The national symbol of the kuffiyeh checkered scarf was worn by many. One such youth, whose dress was reminiscent of the late PLO Chairman Arafat’s military uniform, was being carried on the shoulders of other youth.

Among a group of women, a 26-year-old woman named Amani told The Electronic Intifada in fluent English "Yes, we are here to say to both of them, Fatah and Hamas, stop this mess, just reunite. It is enough and more than enough."

The woman added enthusiastically "No, we are not inspired by the mass protests in nearby Arab countries. I do believe that we Palestinians are the ones who have inspired such revolutions, either in Tunisia or lately in Egypt, Yemen and Libya."

On another corner of the square, just next to the al-Azhar University of Gaza, attorney Hamada Mokhaimar, a senior member of the Gaza Strip’s bar association , was standing among the crowd. "If the people want an end to division, the division would definitely come to and end. The wish of the people should eventually come to pass," he said.

That hope is shared with Mahmoud Srour, a 21-year-old university student who left his class that day to take part in the rally. Mahmoud approached the this reporter, indicating that he wanted to be interviewed.

"We are exhausted by the split and we insist now that both [parties] should look after the real interests of the Palestinian people. Obviously, both parties are corrupt; each one has taken care to their own gains," Srour said.

Among the protesters on Tuesday was an elderly man wearing a suit and tie, holding a sign in Arabic and Hebrew reading "No for division, yes for reconciliation."

"I am here representing myself, and I am here to protest in my own way," Jamal Hamdi al-Haddad told The Electronic Intifada. "I am the director of a Hebrew-language center in the Gaza Strip. I would like to remind the Israeli people that ten years ago, an Israeli poet, Yahuda Amihai, expressed the same wish in one of his poems: ’We are now united, not divided’ ... And now on this remarkable day, let me please repeat the same words but in my own language and with my own Palestinian identity."

The demands of the demonstrators in Gaza and the West Bank appear to be having some impact.

This week, Abbas said he is willing to visit Gaza Strip to resolve the divide by forming an autocratic temporary cabinet that would prepare for general presidential and parliamentary elections within a period of six months. Hamas welcomed the invitation, but concrete measures on the ground are yet to be taken.

The only action on the ground at the moment appears to be the youth-led protests. Actions speak louder than words, as the proverb goes.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.