May 25, 2021, 11:22 a.m.
RAMALLAH, West Bank – When Israel airstrikes the Gaza Strip for 11 days before a ceasefire went into effect on May 21, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was eerily absent, only making pro forma statements of condemnation to the Israeli bombing campaign and the amazing associated it Death toll.
But on the ground, the heads of state, especially the Palestinian youth, have taken over the vacuum left by this rudderless leadership. Last week, together with Palestinian civil society groups, they carried out a general strike across the occupied West Bank and Israel. The strike was significant in that it was strictly adhered to on both sides of the Green Line, essentially eliminating – if only temporarily – the ubiquitous geographic and political divide between Palestinians who are citizens of Israel and those who are not .
Before the current crisis, the Palestinians' frustration with their leadership had reached unprecedented levels. The potential of Palestinian democracy has long been limited by Israel's control over all facets of daily life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including the electoral system. In the last Palestinian parliamentary election in 2006, Israel severely obstructed the vote in East Jerusalem. When Hamas won a decisive victory, the United States and Israel destabilized the new government and put PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his party Fatah in power in the West Bank.
In January Abbas called for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held that spring and summer – but few were surprised when he finally postponed them indefinitely on April 29. Although Abbas attributed the decision to the Israeli authorities' refusal to vote in East Jerusalem, there were many I believe he was actually responding to a schism within Fatah that threatened to make his re-election more difficult and to weaken his iron grip on PA institutions .
The elections may have given Palestinian voters the opportunity to put their support behind independent electoral lists. Although repressive legal restrictions prevented some groups – such as the youth-led political initiative Generation for Democratic Renewal – from applying, polls showed growing support for a new list owned by Nasser al-Qudwa, the nephew of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat , was cited campaigning for a pledge to fight rampant corruption, uphold the rule of law and hold regular elections.
The postponement of the elections added to growing disillusionment among Palestinians, who, despite polls showing deep skepticism that the elections held under the current circumstances would be free and fair, had turned up for the vote in large numbers. Many Palestinians see no way in the PA to elect representatives who meet their needs and aspirations.
New elections were a rare opportunity, especially for young Palestinians. Abbas is 85 years old and has been President since he was elected to a four-year term in 2005. Many Palestinian youths born after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 have never cast a vote. The United States has chosen to ignore this paradox, which is in stark contrast to supposed American values of human rights and the promotion of democracy.
"The cancellation of the elections has increased frustration and anger," said Nadia Hijab, co-founder and chairman of Al-Shabaka: The Palestian Policy Network. "Elections under occupation are not that meaningful because you really have no control at all," Hijab admitted, but it was still daunting to lose the option.
Shortly before Abbas issued his decree, the protests in Jerusalem attracted international attention when the Israeli authorities erected barriers at the Damascus Gate, a meeting place for mostly young Palestinians – especially during the holy month of Muslims in Ramadan. Police claimed that sitting in the area had been banned for over a decade.
A short walk away, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, Palestinian families protested against the threat of right-wing Israeli settler organizations being evicted from their homes. The demonstrations increased after an Israeli lower court in Jerusalem ruled in favor of the settlers earlier this year. The Israeli Supreme Court announced on May 9 that it would postpone an appeal hearing for a month.
Against this backdrop, Israeli police entered the grounds of Al-Aqsa Mosque and attacked worshipers on the holiest night of Ramadan, causing further outrage and anger that reverberated throughout the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and throughout Israel. Rockets fired by Hamas began to rain on Israel from the besieged Gaza Strip, followed by intense air strikes by Israeli forces. 248 Palestinians and 12 Israelis were killed in the attacks.
Along with destruction and fear, the crises in Gaza and East Jerusalem have created new levels of unity in a long-fragmented Palestinian community. For more than a decade, the Palestinians have been geographically and politically divided due to the split between the rival factions of Fatah, which administers the occupied West Bank, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
East Jerusalem, which Israel conquered in the 1967 war and has controlled since then, has remained largely without political representation. Gaza is isolated under a blockade that began in 2007; and Palestinian citizens of Israel are caught between seeking representation by the traditional Arab parties and participating in an Israeli political system that refuses to see them as equals. Last week, however, the Palestinians demonstrated as one – on both sides of the Green Line. They were united by Sheikh Jarrah, who has become a symbol of common struggle – one who has transcended traditional factional disputes to translate them into real action.
With no political manifesto to adhere to, young Palestinians have used social media to raise awareness of the Israeli attacks on Gaza and the threatened displacement of their fellow Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
Although denied formal participation in Palestinian elections and repression by Israeli – and sometimes Palestinian – security forces, these young Palestinians have campaigned on the ground and set up support groups in places like Sheikh Jarrah to attend Israeli trials and vote through protests and make it heard by talking to the media. The communal solidarity of these activists, which had not previously been coordinated, has managed to throw the Palestinian cause back into the political mainstream.
"The people who claim to be leaders of the Palestinian people have not presented a national strategy," said Rashid Khalidi, historian and professor at Columbia University. "The Palestinian leadership is the Palestinian civil society."
The demonstrations have garnered particular strength in Israel-controlled East Jerusalem, where the PA has neither access nor the political authority to withhold them. For the Palestinians here, the last 10 years have been marked by increasing marginalization by the state. Poverty and crime have risen sharply, bringing with them discontent, drugs and the anger that can be heard in nihilistic hip-hop behind the separation wall in neighborhoods like Issawiya and Kufr Aqab, as well as in the crumbling refugee camps of Qalandia and Shuafat.
Palestinian youth in East Jerusalem live a very different life than their colleagues in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip – they enjoy freedom of movement and the right to work in Israel. At the same time, they are largely not integrated into Israeli society.
Although Palestinian Jerusalemites sometimes adopt Hebrew slang or even Israeli social norms, they are formally marginalized by both state and local laws. Over the years Israel has taken a number of discriminatory measures within its civil and military justice systems that have restricted Palestinians' access to building permits while subjecting them to land expropriation and family segregation by the Israeli state and settler organizations. The politics are part of Israel's attempts to establish a Jewish majority in the city – in many ways the nexus of its rapprochement with the larger area that rules between the Mediterranean and the Jordan.
Ironically, the lack of a Palestinian Authority presence in East Jerusalem – long a source of political isolation in the region – has now become an opportunity for grassroots movement to take shape and even receive international support for the families in Sheikh Jarrah who are being displaced are threatened. In the occupied West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has strictly adhered to its security coordination agreement with Israel, Palestinian security forces are often deployed to protest locations, where they suppress demonstrations or arrest Palestinians at the behest of the Israeli authorities. There has been one such incident in Hebron in the past two weeks.
The way in which Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line have emerged in support of the protests in East Jerusalem also reflects a changing political consensus among Palestinians.
Previous political mobilizations – such as the intifadas – came "at a time when the political energy and focus of the Palestinians was anchored in the effort for statehood, the two-state framework," said Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian-American Washington-based writer and political analyst. “That consensus has now disappeared. People have become aware of the reality that we live in a one-state apartheid system. "
This awakening has resulted in mass mobilization of unprecedented proportions and scope. People who started demonstrating against the evictions of Sheikh Jarrah protested against the Israeli air strikes on Gaza and the existing system of repression of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. In mixed Jewish-Palestinian cities across Israel, intercommunal violence has risen sharply in recent weeks. Although the riots went both ways, the 750 arrests and 170 indictments by the Israeli police were disproportionate to Palestinians.
While older media organizations traditionally rely on reports from the Israeli government, Palestinian youth are now posting an alternative narrative on TikTok, Instagram, WhatsApp, and other apps – reporting, sharing, and distributing live cell phone footage of events, pictures, and memes. This technology has given diverse voices the opportunity to find solidarity across the diaspora, both online and in the street – where social media has played a prominent role in bringing together protesters in Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and around the world . Palestinian cause supporters have also shared tips on how to defeat censorship on social media platforms.
"I am amazed at the support (between Palestinians) from the West Bank, the actual cities of Israel and the Gaza Strip," said Inès Abdel Razek, advocacy director of the Ramallah-based Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy. "You can see messages of solidarity between people who can't even meet and be with each other."
On May 8, several buses carrying Palestinians from Israeli cities were blocked by Israeli police from entering Jerusalem. The Palestinians decided to continue on foot. When cell phone photos and videos surfaced on social media platforms, many Jerusalemites drove and captured them.
Some Palestinians believe that it is only a matter of time before new leadership emerges outside of the traditional Palestinian power brokers and political parties.
"This generation that rules things has failed and should leave the stage," said the historian Khalidi. "Until that happens, this vacuum will necessarily be filled by … people like the young people in Jerusalem."
These young people include Mohammed and Muna al-Kurd, who have become contact points for the media looking for the voice of Sheikh Jarrah. Their active presence on social media has helped shape the narrative about the neighborhood, which has become an enclosed, militarized zone in recent weeks.
"It's youth riots that are saving this place," Muna told +972 magazine earlier this month. "Sheikh Jarrah's problem is also her problem, our houses are her houses, what happens to the houses here will happen to their houses in the future."
Over the past month, the Palestinians have consistently defined their own space and narrative over the past month, despite Israeli efforts to delegitimize them. Although the scale and intensity of Israel's air strike in Gaza has in some ways overwhelmed media attention on Sheikh Jarrah, it is clear that a corner has been turned within the Palestinian national movement. Palestinian youth know that they have power, freedom of choice and keys to the future – even under occupation or bombing.