Palestinian Authority President Abbas surprised some by backing Hamas. But it is growing protests among youth in Ramallah that may have the real power to make a change.
RAMALLAH — "The Gaza demands ... are the demands of the entire Palestinian people."
It was late Wednesday night when Yasser Abed Rabbo, a veteran of the Palestine Liberation Organization, came out of meetings with top leaders of Fatah, which governs the West Bank. He had come to let everyone know that the leadership of the Palestinian Authority had decided to align their stance with Hamas, rather than Egypt and Israel, in laying out specific demands in the negotiations for a ceasefire in Gaza.
This marked a dramatic turning point on the standing position of the Palestinian Authority.
Until a few hours beforehand, Abbas had been a staunch supporter of the Egyptian position — in favor of an unconditional ceasefire — and was in Riyadh to consult with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. On Tuesday, he was back in Ramallah, participating in closed meetings with his closest advisors and eventually opting to support Hamas.
Support has grown stronger and taken the form of violent street protests in Ramallah, following a deadly strike Thursday on a United Nations school building in Gaza that added to a rising civilian toll in the 19-day-old Israeli assault.
Abbas' reversal is welcomed by Washington because now it has created a channel for dialogue with Hamas, and could open up new scenarios — including a possible U.N. resolution to assign the Palestinian Authority control of Gaza’s borders.
Ahmad Rafiq Awad, a political scientist and formerly fierce critic of Hamas, explains that Abbas "had no other choice because the Palestinians feel proud that Hamas is resisting Israel. They are proud of the Gazan ideological purity and of the military qualities of the leaders, while they are unhappy with their own president who has held negotiations with Israelis, Americans and other Westerners."
These feelings explain why, for more than a week now, groups of demonstrators gather in the West Bank’s Manara Square every night at 10 p.m. to protest against the "Dayton Police," and "Dayton Friends" — the local political and military leaders identified with U.S. General Keith Dayton, who up until 2010 was responsible for training Palestinian forces.
A new generation
Some people threw stones at the police headquarters, with officers then emerging with batons to beat the demonstrators and camera crews who came to investigate. "When the Palestinian forces crack down on the Palestinians themselves rather than pursue the creation of the nation that means that something is not working," says Issam Bakin, coordinator of Islamic and nationalistic political parties, which constitutes a rare bipartisan umbrella after the Second Intifada.
Bakin is leading the protests in Manara Square and is hoarse because he has been "yelling into a megaphone until he is exhausted." It was he who tried to drive the protestors towards the Jewish settlement of Beit El "until the cops stopped us."
Activists, both men and women, traipse through his office doors because they claim "they are ashamed of the leadership, who are far too timid in supporting the people of Gaza."
A woman, 25, wearing jeans and no veil, accuses Abbas of "being too late in saying that Gaza is not alone."
A few meters away, in front of the town hall, are more than 600 symbolic coffins draped with Palestinian flags, representing the rapidly rising death toll in Gaza. Abbas has ordered three days of mourning, but Bakin claims that "at the point that it has got to now, we must denounce Israel before an international criminal court and ask the UN for a full investigation of the crimes it has committed."
Mash-hour Arouri, a 29-year-old entrepreneur, agrees.
"We are secular and not Islamists," says Arouri, an electrical engineer who trained in Dubai at the helm of a $3 million start-up. "We want to show solidarity with Hamas, to prove that the Palestinian government is united: Ramallah, Gaza and Nazareth."
Arouri is part of the 48,000 March group, which has spread on Facebook and is supported by the two most popular Palestinian leaders: Marwan Barghouti, ex-head of Tanzim, and Ahmed Sa’adat, from the Popular Front. Both are serving life sentences in Israel for terrorist attacks. Barghouti’s son, Qassem, is another of the organizers.
"Mahmoud Abbas lives in the past, he pursues goals that have already been achieved and he doesn’t inspire young people or militants," says Arouri. "It’s our generation’s turn to drive the activism from the bottom, to get what we most want: Jerusalem and the right of return for refugees."
What Arouri and Bakin have in common is being united against armed violence and "for an active militancy based on respect for human rights."
Arouri even goes as far as saying that, "We won’t launch rockets against Israel," and he promises that, "We won’t throw stones at Israeli soldiers at the Qalandia check point, but if we are stopped and detained, then we will come back every single night."
He adds that if the objective is to "express Palestinian pride in the West Bank to strengthen the people of Gaza," then at least "the battle for independence isn’t only in Hamas’ hands."
In the face of these rumblings in Ramallah, Mahmoud Abbas really never had any other choice than to voice his support for Hamas.