As events unfold in Arab world, West Bank youth yearns for its own revolution. Instead of toppling gov't, protesters demand national unity through cultural festival
Roni Shaked Published: 03.31.11
Tareq Abu Salama sits at the heart of Bethlehem's Manger Sqaure, strumming the strings of his oud and singing protests songs against the Palestinian division and the Israeli occupation. A khaki-colored tent stands next to him, displaying a Palestinian flag and a sign calling for Palestinian unity. At the tent's entrance stands a mosaic board shaped like a Palestinian map; a large crack extends between Gaza and the West Bank.
In the West Bank, the uprisings rocking Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria are watched with yearning. While in those nations the protesters marched to the squares and took their future into their own hands, in Bethlehem, Ramallah and Nablus the process is stuck. A few thousand have taken to the streets so far, keeping the protests largely peaceful. A large-scale revolt is unlikely to break out here – although, if there is anything to be learned from recent events, it's that the future cannot be predicted.
The town centers in Ramallah and Bethlehem have been converted into the Palestinian 'Tahrir Squares' in recent days, drawing many youths thirsty for a revolution. Some arrived with a clear agenda, others hoped to find it there, and some were not even aware what the commotion is about. Their demands could be found on the large signs scattered about, written in Arabic, English, German and Hebrew: National union, release of prisoners, halt of the negotiations with Israel, reestablishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization, general elections, and a boycott of products from the settlements.
"More than anything, we want to bring an end to the occupation, which is why we need unity," says Abu Salama. "We need one government, united in the battle against the occupation.
"We're not talking about 1967 borders, we're talking about the entire Palestine," he explains.
When he realizes that we are members of the Israeli press, he declares: "The Shabaab decided that we will not interview for the Israeli and American media." A few days later, he attempted to set himself on fire at the center of the city.
Revolution through culture
Unlike the square uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the Palestinian protest in Bethlehem and other West Bank cities is more of a festival, featuring patriotic music, film and street performances. The women, most of whom do not wear the Hijab, dance with men side by side. The festive atmosphere and the lyrical slogans do not scream revolution. "We will pick the flower of unity," one sigh read. "My homeland, your wonderful smell is dearer than my soul," another announced.
Recently, the popular Israeli Arab singer Rim Albana, has come to perform for the youth movement in Bethlehem. "I didn't come to sympathize, I am a part of the people," she said. "I came to protest."
Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh also stopped by the protest tent. French and German volunteers chimed in with remonstrative songs. Restaurant owners sent the demonstrators food and drinks, and private citizens sent fruit. But when Palestinian security officials came by the tent with a pile of sandwiches, they were turned away.
Bethlehem is not alone; as night falls, Ramallah, too, joins the festivities. Entire families come for the entertainment, the music and the food at Manara Sqaure. Restaurants in the area are full. The atmosphere is one of a carnival; the youths appear to let off a lot of steam, mixed with emotional rhetoric.
The movement there, unlike those in neighboring countries, demands unity instead of a different government. The residents of Ramallah are not angry at Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; the protesters even receive a daily food delivery from the Mukataa, the government headquarters. On Sunday, Abbas sent flowers to the tent, in celebration of the Arabic Mother's Day. The flowers were distributed among the families of prisoners and Shahids.
Peace without violence
The 15th of March Movement – this is the name that the protest campaign was given. The title alludes to the day of demonstrations for national unity, which were held in Ramallah and Gaza earlier this month.
Rami Liddawi, a 32-year-old university graduate from Tulkarm, is one of the activists behind the protest movement in the West Bank. There, too, the upheaval got its start through social networking.
"We started a Facebook page, and the response was encouraging," he recalls. "We started broadcasting slogans against the division of the people and in favor of putting an end to the occupation, and now we are busy with establishing a coalition that would back up the protest."
One of the movement's primary activities is sending out special messages each day, Liddawi says. They declared Sunday as Flag Day, and waved a giant flag at Manara Square. Monday was Palestinian Tradition Day, inviting bands from across the region to sing Palestinian songs. Friday was Poster Day; the actitivists distributed posters bearing the slogan "Enough with the occupation" across town. On March 30, the annual Palestinian Land Day, they planned to plant olive trees.
But these actions might not be enough to bring change, Liddawi notes.
"Hamas and other organizations are not interested in changing the reality of the division," Liddawi says. "The settlements are turning into an obstacle that threatens any future arrangement. Even the youth in Israel, which believes in peace, must join are battle against the settlements, so we can live together."
Addressing the threat of a third intifada, publicized recently on Facebook, Liddawi says that the protest movement is a peaceful one.
"I don't think that (an intifada) will happen," he explains. "We don't want violence, and are seeking to reach an arrangement through peaceful means, through negotiations. This is our message."
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