At around 10:30 P.M. last Thursday, several brooms and trash bags suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and a few young men began sweeping the square and filling the trash bags. This wasn't Tahrir Square in Cairo, but Manara Square in Ramallah.
An act of imitation, or perhaps, one of inspiration? Cleaning a public space to express a connection to it is not not an Egyptian invention, many here are quick to remind you. Indeed, the hope sparked by the first intifada also led to collective clean-up efforts in various neighborhoods and refugee camps in the Israeli occupied territories. Whatever the case, this is clearly not just about sweeping up dusty asphalt, but rather, an expression of the unwritten correspondence taking place now between Cairo, Ramallah and Gaza.
The young boys in Manara square – some of whom recently held a hunger strike and camped out here for nights – have also volunteered over the past year to carry out various chores in Nabi Salah, a village that has been waging a popular uprising against the army and Jewish settlers from Halamish, with many detainees and casualties to show for it. So there is really no need to go all the way to Cairo to search for inspiration.
The boys suspended their hunger strike for three days after PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced plans to travel to the Gaza Strip, and activists here say they will do their utmost to make sure he doesn't renege on his promise because as they see it, ending the internal rift among the Palestinians is vital to the success of the popular struggle against the Israeli occupation.
They've been hanging out in the square since the beginning of last week preparing for the demonstration that took place on Tuesday, March 15. Their motto fuses together various elements of the captivating slogans created by demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt – "The people want an end to the rift, the people want an end to the occupation."
Palestinian and foreign media have reported that the protest in Gaza on Tuesday was violently repressed. Hamas has good reason, then, to claim that the media are biased against it, because at exactly the same time (around 7 P.M. ) that motorcycle-riding thugs in civilian clothes were attacking thousands of demonstrators in Gaza's Al-Katiba Square with batons and sticks and then proceeded to destroy their tents, bullies in civilian garb were also swooping down on dozens of demonstrators in Manara Square.
Without any coordination, the two rival ruling parties were able that day to operate in marvelous harmony. In Ramallah, dressed as demonstrators, the Fatah activists arrived early. Hoisting shiny Palestinian flags fresh out of the sewing workshop and carrying big bullhorns that were able to drown out any other noise, they chanted slogans not particularly friendly to Hamas. In Gaza, Hamas activists used flags, loudspeakers and slogans to gain control of the Square of the Unknown Soldier, but the protesters there outnumbered them and were able to fan out around the city despite attempts to intimidate them. Both sides in the dual-headed Palestinian regime tried out different tactics of repression used by neighboring governments (minus the stinky water, the lethal rubber bullets and the uniforms of the Israeli military court judges. ) The suppression of the demonstrators in Gaza was more brutal and less sophisticated. The thugs acting on behalf of the regime broke the arms of some of the young leaders and beat dozens of the other protesters, including women and children. Hamas security agents, driving cars with dark windows and without license plates, joined the attackers. Journalists were beaten, cameras were confiscated and several people were detained. As one of the protesters described it: "If in Gaza, [Hamas] beats me up in the street in order to intimidate and deter, in Ramallah, they [Fatah] invite an activist out to a restaurant."
But it went beyond tempting someone into a restaurant. When some of the young people insisted on remaining in Manara Square, a bunch of thugs identified with Fatah attacked and beat them. A respectable Fatah delegation rushed to the scene to clarify that "they are not us." The delegation members even brought a tent sent by Abbas as compensation for the two tents that had earlier been destroyed. But the demonstrators refused to accept the gift, showing the same determination they had shown previously when they asked representatives of three left-wing parties to leave the scene. "This is not a photo studio," one of them explained to me, referring to the exaggerated interest of the cameras in prominent personalities. The young demonstrators were also able to identify, smiling as they did, the various plainclothes intelligence officers mingling among them with serious expressions on their faces.
The Hamas Interior Ministry claimed, in a press release quoted by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, that the demonstrators in Al-Katiba Square were mainly Fatah activists, particularly former members of the security branches. "They tried to use the demonstrations in order to create chaos," the press release said. "They shouted fiery slogans against the government. The security people intervened in order to disperse the crowd and force Fatah to observe the law and maintain security."
In Gaza, the regime has pointed a finger at Fatah (or more precisely, the Palestine Liberation Organization ). In Ramallah, the ruling party has hinted that the blame lies with "left-wing subversion." The fact is that during the March 15 demonstration, a slogan suddenly appeared calling for elections to the PLO's national council (the parliament ). This was immediately interpreted – and justifiably so – as an attempt to transfer hegemony from the Palestinian Authority (that is, Fatah ) to the PLO, albeit a rehabilitated and improved version of the movement. As one young activist enthusiastically explained to me: "With all due respect to the elders of our tribe, the youngest of them is older than 60, and altogether, 50 members of the national council are in a state of coma." Just as they did in Cairo, activities in the square provide a good crash course in political awareness and daring.
Despite efforts to suppress their activities in Gaza and the West Bank, the young people have already put together a long-term plan of action. Their initiative began in the West Bank, but very quickly attracted budding organizations in the Gaza Strip. All this transpired before the revolution in Egypt. But the success of the Egyptian revolution has provided them with a much-needed boost of adrenaline. Just like their peers in Cairo, the Palestinian youth want to free themselves from the shackles of the "there's nothing to do because there's no point" mentality. Egypt has proven that there is a point and that there is a purpose.