Samah Ahmed used to be proud to tell people she was Palestinian.
She grew up at a time when the Palestinian struggle to break free of Israeli occupation was an inspiration to the Arab world. She participated in the second intifada that began in 2000. When people found out she was Palestinian, she says, they respected her.
Now things are different. As Arab populations rose up in revolt against their dictators this year, Gazan protesters who called for unity among Palestinian leaders were shut down by their increasingly repressive Hamas rulers. While youths who led the charge against corrupt and dictatorial regimes in other countries emerged empowered and exhilarated, young Gazans have been left embarrassed, disillusioned, and envious.
Today, two small activist boats trying to reach Gaza were boarded and stopped by Israeli forces. The foreign activists' intent was to draw attention to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, which has crippled the strip's economy. But young Gazans also feel oppressed by a force much closer to home -- Hamas, the Islamist group that has run the strip since 2007.
“We as Palestinians used to deliver the revolution. We used to give the lessons on how we can struggle for our rights,” says Ms. Ahmed, whose feelings crystallized while watching Egyptian protesters flood a central Cairo square on TV. “We started watching the Egyptian people every Friday in Tahrir Square. But here, it's something that makes all of us feel pain. Why? Why are we not allowed to talk about our rights?”
The anger and resentment is increasingly directed at the Hamas government, and activists say it won’t go away. While political space has been constricted -- just getting people into the streets for a March 15 protest was an accomplishment – they will build from there, says young activist Mohamed El Sheikh Yousef. He hopes Gaza’s youth will someday emulate Egypt's.
“When I compare between Gaza and Egypt, the 15th of March here is like the 6th of April in Egypt,” he says, referring to a 2008 strike in Egypt that many saw as a key precursor to the uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak. “It was the first stone thrown into the pool. This moment gave us an idea about how we have to prepare the way for [a movement for change] in Gaza,” he says.
Saying no to change
The protest movement in Gaza began with optimism. Ahmed and other activists formed a Facebook page calling for protests in Gaza on March 15. But instead of demanding the fall of their government, as the movements elsewhere had done, they called for unity, asking the two main Palestinian factions – Hamas and Fatah – to end the division that has seen presidential and parliamentary elections cancelled.
The rift opened in 2006, when the Islamist movement Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections. A year later, it erupted into street battles in Gaza and Hamas forcefully evicted rival movement Fatah from the territory. The Palestinians have since been divided, with Hamas ruling Gaza and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in control of the West Bank.
With Hamas’s takeover of Gaza, Israel imposed a blockade on the territory, prohibiting movement of goods and people across the border; it considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization and has justified the blockade as a necessary security measure.
The divide made life difficult for Gazans, but also blocked the road toward founding an independent Palestinian state, says Ahmed. “If we end the division, it’s going to be the first step to ending the [Israeli] occupation.”
Buoyed by the regional excitement, the Gaza activists were optimistic. “After what happened in Tunisia and Egypt with the youth, success, we started to think seriously that we will be the next Arab country to have a revolution,” says Ahmed.
That excitement and optimism disappeared quickly when the government sent security forces to attack the protest. Ahmed was stabbed in the back by a police officer with a knife. Many others were beaten. Later attempts to organize protests were also crushed, and the activists retreated from the street back to their Facebook pages.
Hamas and Fatah leaders did meet in Cairo in April and signed a document agreeing to reconcile. But they left the details of implementation for later – details they have yet to sorted out – and many in Gaza met the move with cynicism. “They have an agreement to manage the division, not end the division,” says Ahmed. Few believe the factions will implement the agreement in a way that brings real change – whether in moving toward a Palestinian state, or the situation on the ground in Gaza.
“Even if they reconcile, the guys who will benefit are just Hamas and Fatah people. So as long as I'm an ordinary guy, I will not benefit,” says Nasif Rashed, an unemployed university graduate from Maghazi refugee camp.
Activists list many reasons their movement did not succeed – the blockade, Hamas’s crackdown, Israeli occupation, and the politicization that divides Palestinians into numerous factions. Some young people now see that politicization, and the factions themselves, as the hurdle to overcome. In Maghazi, Hossam Hussain says getting rid of the Fatah and Hamas would bring improvement.
“The suffering we are living right now is because of those factions,” says Mr. Hussain, who says he is not loyal to any political group, and is not an activist. He graduated with a university degree in business administration. After working in a biscuit factory assembly line for a year, he realized he wouldn’t be able to find work in his field, and went back to school for nursing. Now he’s doing practical training at Shuhada Al Aqsa Hospital.
“To be independent [of political factions] is better because each faction puts the goals of the faction before anything,” he says. By way of example, he cites his work. “At the hospital, all the decision makers are Hamas people. All of them. Hamas controls everything,” he says.
Though the youths who launched the protest movement were not fans of Hamas, and there were few, if any, youth loyal to the Islamist movement involved in organizing it, the movement was not anti-Hamas. Yet the government’s suppression has turned more activists in that direction. They do not say so explicitly, and are wary of what they perceive as an Israeli desire to make them forget the large enemy by focusing on the small one. Still, the anger is there.
“In the beginning we were not against Hamas. But if they want to be against us, to take our rights … they either have to be against us or give us our rights,” says Mr. Yousef, the young activist.
But unlike some, he has not given up hope.
Instead of focusing on the negative, he lists the accomplishments of the movement. “When people are very afraid, and thousands of people come to the street and say no, that’s an achievement. It’s incremental. We are preparing the road,” he says.
Even Ahmed, for all her disillusion, has not given up working for change, even if she fears it is far off. “We are still calling for the Arab spring – please, take care about Palestine,” she says. “We are calling for you to visit Palestine."
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