Palestinians have given a new twist to the slogans of the Arab revolutions.
In Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, mass protests have demanded: “The people want the fall of the regime”. In Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians have insisted, “The people want an end to the divisions”, calling for Hamas and Fatah to unify against Israeli occupation. When the two organisations last week announced a “national unity government” there were celebrations in the streets.
Over the past year young Palestinian activists have called on leaders of Hamas and Fatah to end their bitter rivalries. Hamas has been in power in Gaza since 2006 and Fatah has run the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank.
Campaigners argued that only Israel benefited from this division. But they were ignored—until the success of the Arab revolutions.
Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas says that events in Egypt finally brought the two organisations together. Last week he commented cryptically, “What happened? The people’s revolutions, that’s what. And I won’t say more.”
The admission that radical change in the Arab states has had an impact on Palestinian struggles is significant.
For decades, Palestinian leaders—especially those in the mainstream nationalist Fatah—maintained that mass movements in neighbouring states were of no concern to Palestinians. Yasser Arafat, Fatah’s founder, accepted huge sums of aid from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and worked closely with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
He tied the Palestinian movement to regimes that worked directly with Israel and its Western allies.
Arafat maintained that a principle of “non-interference” meant Palestinians should, in effect, support the Arab regimes. This applied even to movements of solidarity with Palestine. When the Palestinian Intifadas, or uprisings, of 1987 and 2000 brought huge demonstrations of support in Egypt, Sudan and the Gulf, Arafat called for protesters to leave the streets. This isolated Palestinians from mass movements in the Arab world.
Meanwhile, Fatah collaborated with Israel and the US. By the late 1990s it had created a 30,000-strong police force trained by CIA advisers and tasked with maintaining control of Palestinian streets.
Many Palestinians became deeply alienated from the Fatah leadership—helping the influence of the Islamist organisation Hamas to grow rapidly. In 2006 Hamas won a general election in Gaza and in 2007 it expelled Fatah from Gaza.
But Hamas has also been compromised. In the 1980s Israel gave it tacit support in the hope that it would counter the influence of Fatah and secular radicals. Later it gathered much support, especially in Palestinian refugee camps. But it also alienated many supporters by imposing a highly authoritarian political regime.
The Egyptian revolution shows how closely the interests of Palestinians are linked to the struggles of the Arab masses.
In recent demonstrations at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, protesters demanded an end to Egypt’s close links with Israel. In response, the ruling Army Council announced that it will open the border with Gaza, which was closed in 2007 as part of Mubarak’s numerous deals with Israel.
Egypt’s new foreign minister described the closure as a “shameful” relic of the Mubarak regime.
Israel has expressed alarm. It is accustomed to Arab rulers who are prepared to ruthlessly suppress local opposition and solidarity with the Palestinians.
As a process of “permanent revolution” unfolds across the region, every ruler faces a challenge from below.
This is Israel’s nightmare—a movement capable of removing the regimes while at the same time calling for practical solidarity with Palestine.
It will be difficult, perhaps impossible, for rival Palestinian factions to unify. More important is the new awareness among Palestinian activists of the possibilities brought by the Arab revolutions.
For the first time in 60 years, Palestinians are able to engage directly with independent workers’ unions and radical political currents for which the process of change has only just begun.
“What happened?” asks Mahmoud Abbas. “The people’s revolutions, that’s what.”