At 10:30 on May 15, two battalions of Israeli combat soldiers opened fire with tear gas and rubber bullets on hundreds of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators at the Qalandia checkpoint dividing Ramallah from Jerusalem, sending people scrambling into the adjacent refugee camp. These were the opening shots of Israel’s response to protests commemorating the Nakba, the Arabic word for catastrophe, used to define Israel’s creation of 750,000 Palestinian refugees in 1948. By nightfall Israeli soldiers had killed thirteen Palestinian refugees and wounded hundreds with live fire on its borders with Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and inside the West Bank.
The May 15 demonstrations reinvigorated the long-alienated Palestinian refugee community; although it is 70 percent of the Palestinian population, it has been largely shut out of the negotiations process with Israel. The emerging unity was on display at Qalandia, where youth trying to symbolically march from Ramallah to Jerusalem wore black T-shirts with the slogan “Direct Elections for the Palestine National Council, a Vote for Every Palestinian, Everywhere.” The PNC is the legislative body of the Palestine Liberation organization and is responsible for electing its executive committee. Traditionally, seat allocation in the PNC has been divided to represent the influence factions within the PLO, of which Hamas is not a member.
The Nakba protests have been the largest so far of a growing Palestinian youth revolt. The protests—launched with unity protests on March 15 in the Palestinian Authority–controlled West Bank and Hamas-governed Gaza Strip—are the Palestinian response to the outbreak of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. While it is a new development, this manifestation of popular anger against Palestinian Authority concessions in the failed negotiations process—shockingly revealed with Al Jazeera’s January release of top-secret negotiation minutes, known as the Palestine Papers—and Israel’s practice of divide and rule has been simmering under the surface for the past three years.
“The unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas gave people hope to be here today and continue with this new phase of struggle,” said Fadi Quran, a founding organizer of the March 15 movement, amid the clashes with Israeli soldiers at the Qalandia checkpoint. “It showed us that something was possible and we must continue,” he added, coughing from tear gas.
The March 15 movement marks a generational shift in Palestinian politics. Demanding that Palestinians shape their future through full democratization of the PLO, March 15 has sought to reshape national identity through unity and the relaunching of a popular struggle.
Following a surge of momentum that has forced a reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas, ending four years of official national division, the Nakba Day protests expanded the concept of unity from below to encompass Palestinian refugees living on Israel’s borders.
According to Nathan Stock, the assistant director of the Carter Center conflict resolution team who was inside the Egyptian-brokered unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas, the momentum created on March 15, in concert with the uprising across the region, was a central catalyst in getting the parties to reconcile. Fresh from the closed-door negotiations in Cairo, Stock contended that “while the number of protesters was not huge, the demonstrations sent a clear signal to the leadership in Fatah and Hamas that the Arab Spring had reached Palestine, and that the public was getting increasingly frustrated with the division.” Stock noted that the revolution in Egypt, which brought about a command change in the Egyptian General Security Service and Foreign Ministry, enabled Egypt to become an honest broker and foster an environment of trust and compromise.
While the region in revolt was the immediate impetus for change in the Palestinian movement, the issues being addressed and the solutions now demanded on the street have long been seen as necessary to break the current Israeli-Palestinian impasse.
Speaking at her home in Amman, Jordan, in May 2008, Leila Khaled—a leading member of the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Palestinian National Council member of the PLO and famed icon of Palestinian resistance who hijacked two airplanes in the late 1960s and early ’70s—was unequivocal about what she saw as the problems facing the Palestinian struggle.
“The PA and Hamas are not playing the game properly with Israel,” said the woman whose picture with a kaffiya and AK-47 is still an international symbol of Palestinian resistance. “They are not understanding its nature as an apartheid system. Which means both sides are giving illusions to the people that we are getting somewhere, when in fact we are getting nowhere,” she added between drags of a cigarette, sitting in her living room next to a photo of her son in his university graduation gown.
Khaled was frustrated with both the collusion and concessions being made by the PLO leadership to Israel (made clear to all with the recent release of the Palestine Papers), as well as the lack of progress in a then-divided Palestinian resistance and decline of national consciousness. “Nothing is moving forward, either on the political, economic or social level. On the contrary, we are witnessing the return to the family, to the village, to the tribe.”
Still, Khaled was optimistic, discussing the need for a democratic, grassroots movement to transform the PLO and push the cause forward. “We stress the popular resistance… wherever it is. We believe that it is the people that need to be involved in the struggle and find the means to mobilize society, ” she said. Now, three years later, the demands and popular action that Khaled cited as necessary are materializing in the emergence of a new generation of Palestinians, who are making their demands heard through mass unarmed protest.
Already successful in forcing Fatah and Hamas to forge a unity agreement, this uprising-in-the-making is showing no signs backing down. Fadi Quran had strong concerns that Fatah and Hamas would prioritize the narrow political aim of holding onto the power they have, instead of contributing to a national Palestinian consensus. This, he felt, was demonstrated by the accord’s avoidance of calls for PNC elections.
It is in this context that Palestinian youth are taking control of their struggle, shaking up representation internally and presenting an emboldened and united face to Israel on all fronts. “We do not know what is going to happen, but we have set something in motion. It is now up to the Israelis and how they react,” said Quran at the Qalandia checkpoint, as injured protesters were carried by on stretchers.