The anticipated March 15 protests, called by a number of Palestinian youth groups in the West Bank and Gaza, went on for most of the day in Ramallah, and have been extended into March 16.
Some of the organizers were disappointed by the turn-out in Ramallah and various other cities in the West Bank — one said he had 40,000 confirmations on his Facebook page, while 50 of those people turned up.
Others said, ok, there were about 3,000 or so in Ramallah’s Manara Square, and this is respectable (though 7,000 to 10,000 people had been expected).
Photo courtesy of Act4Palestine – Manara Square at the height of the March 15 demonstration.
At some point, Abdallah Abu Rahmeh, a leader of the Bil’in protests against The Wall, showed up in Manara Square, just hours after being released from 16 months in jail at Ofer military prison…
One of the protest organizers said that many people said they objected to protesting for any purpose other than ending the Israeli occupation.
That means, of course, that there are a number of people in the West Bank, and particularly in Ramallah, who don’t mind the lack of unity.
The analyses are many and varied. And — not only because it is so hard to get around in this place — it is a lot easier to just follow events online.
Ten young men who started a hunger strike in Manara Square two days before the March 15 protests continued their fast on Wednesday (they want political prisoners released in both the West Bank and in Gaza). About 100 other demonstrators stayed with them overnight, though they were not fasting. Some of them were indignant when Palestinian security forces [actually, it was the Presidential Guard] showed up with falafel sandwiches and coke, saying this was an insult intended to provoke the group of fasters (though those fasting were fewer than ten percent of the total demonstrators). The Palestinian Security Forces were later seen pragmatically eating the rejected falafel sandwiches.
And, four members of the Fatah Central Committee [Azzam al-Ahmad, Abbas Zaki, Jamal Muheisen, and also Tayeb Abdel Rahman] also showed up at night to discuss the situation with the protesters — ultimately agreeing to support the demand for a tent to shelter them during the night. Negotiations were still continuing just before midnight about exactly where this tent could be.
[Other officials reportedly also visited Manara Square on Tuesday night… Nabil Shaath and maybe Jibril Rajoub (?)… ]
The ten hunger strikers had actually spent the two previous nights out in the open air — and it is still cold at this time of year. Palestinian Security forces also reportedly told the hunger strikers that they should leave Manara Square a few hours after midnight, because that was the time that the Israeli Army could come on patrol, and the Palestinian Security told the demonstrators that they, the Palestinians, could not protect them, the Palestinian protesters, from the Israeli patrols).
Earlier in the day, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Commitee met, and issued a statement saying that they “appreciated the efforts of the people in the street who wanted to end to division” — which protesters said they felt was a “weak statement” and “not serious”. (The statement also condemned the murder of five members of an Israeli settler family in Itamar near Nablus.)
Nevertheless, protestors were injured in Ramallah — some reportedly needing medical attention — by Palestinian Security forces in the early evening hours (apparently before the arrival of the four Fatah Central Committee members, who were sent to calm things down).
There were many more injuries and more force used at a much larger March 15 demonstration in Gaza.
The Foreign Press Association in Israel (FPA) issued a statement on March 16 saying that it is “gravely concerned by Hamas’ crackdown on the media during demonstrations in Gaza City on Tuesday. On a day ostensibly devoted to Palestinian unity, police brutally attacked photographers and cameramen, beating them, breaking equipment and confiscating photos and video footage. This is the latest in a string of chilling attacks on reporters in Gaza. We again implore the authorities to respect the basic right of freedom of the press and to let all journalists do their jobs freely and safely”. The FPA statement is posted here.
On March 15, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza issued a public appeal for an emergency meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).
On March 16, Abbas told the PLO Central Committee that he was ready to travel to Gaza immediately to end the division — between Gaza and the West Bank. (He did not say between Fatah and Hamas… This certainly suggests that there has been no change in his position that what must happen is a restoration of the status quo ante, with the Ramallah-based leadership in overall charge of the Gaza Strip.)
Reports suggested that Abbas — who has not been in Gaza since the June 2007 rout, by Hamas, of Fatah/Palestinian security forces — could travel in the coming two to four days.
After the June 2007 events, Abbas convened a government meeting and declared Hamas an outlaw group. He said that Hamas had carried out a “military coup”. And, he then dissolved a three-month old, Saudi-brokered, “National Unity” government and formed a new “Emergency” government in the West Bank, naming Finance Minister Salam Fayyad as the new Prime Minister. The Ramallah government revealed a group of secret documents and recordings, some of which exposed what was said to be a plot to assassinate Abbas by a huge bomb planted under the street near his house in Gaza City.
Hamas, however, continued to regard Abbas as President, though it regarded the Emergency government as illegitmate, until the five-year term for which Abbas had been elected expired in January 2009 (just after the end of the IDF’s massive Operation Cast Lead against Gaza, and a few days after Barack Obama was sworn into office in Washington).
What happened in Manara Square on 15 March was, in a way, a battle of political posters and signs, and slogans.
In th late morning, a group of men described as Fatah supporters ran into Manara Square and ripped up the signs, calling for unity, that some of the demonstrators had hung or were carrying.
In the days prior to the demonstration, one protester said, “huge billboards signed by fake and unknown youth groups” went up around Ramallah and elsewhere in the West Bank. [It has often been noted, on previous occasions, that President Mahmoud Abbas’ younger surviving son, Tarek Abbas, is a Director of the Sky Advertising Agency which has the capability not only to print but also to post such huge billboard signs.]
Security forces reportedly hung posters around Manara showing the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (and the late Hamas leader Ahmad Yassin). Supporters of the March 15 demonstration took down at least one of these posters and hung their own — and were then warned by Palestinian security that they had “crossed all red lines”. (They were also told that they were being warned as a kind of a friendly favor, so they could correct their mistakes…)
One of the later posters hung by the demonstrators called for elections to the approximately 600-member Palestine National Council (PNC), the main congress of the overall PLO representing all Palestinians around the world. This was apparently particularly objectionable to the Palestinian Security forces.
[There have never been real elections to the PNC, due to “conditions”. Would the Jordanians allow the Palestinians in Jordan to vote in such elections? Would the Syrians? Would the Lebanese? What about the Egyptians, Saudis, and the United Arab Emirates? So, the political factions each have an allocated number of seats which they fill through their own internal selection process which sometimes might include elections. Then the unions — students, writers, engineers, women — would choose their own representatives the same way. Christians also had an allocated number of seats. And, finally, an allocation of seats for the Palestinians who were Israeli citizens or even residents (of East Jerusalem) would always be symbolically left empty…]
Though PLO official Nabil Shaath had said before the March 15 Demonstration that the Palestinian Security Services would not attack the demonstrators, but would only protect them, those involved in organizing the demonstration say they will not be surprised if there are more forceful confrontations today.
Part of the tactic is to maintain a central focus of the protests in Manara Square (as the Egyptian protests focussed on Cairo’s Tahrir Square).
Some — but only some — of the strategizers think that if there is suppression by Palestinian Security forces, it will not necessarily be a bad thing, because what galvanized and gave real momentum to the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square was the police repression, and the hiring of government employees and of unemployed men to act as thugs (baltagiya in the Egyptian dialect, baltajiya in the Palestinian dialect).
The number of deaths in the Egyptian protests has still not been finalized (Egyptian government officials have reportedly indicated it could be as high as 1,500. It would be difficult to imagine the consequences if such a scenario played out in Ramallah, and in any case the leadership is clearly trying hard to maintain a strategy of co-optation rather than confrontation.
However, it’s clear that there’s still a long way to go in the education of those charged with carrying out this strategy on the ground level (who the protesters are now consistently calling “thugs”)…
In the meantime, the Israeli security services and army are conducting intense investigations into the murder of five members of an Israeli family living in the settlement of Itamar in the northern West Bank, and some of the main Israeli military checkpoints into and out of Ramallah have been shut down completely at various unpredictable points in recent days.