A New Palestinian Movement: Young, Networked, Nonviolent

Rejecting the past, young social-networking rebels embrace nonviolence

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Eduardo Castaldo for TIME

Fadi Quran speaks with young members of the March 15 movement in Ramallah

Fadi Quran is the face of the new Middle East. He is 23, a graduate of Stanford University, with a double major in physics and international relations. He is a Palestinian who has returned home to start an alternative-energy company and see what he can do to help create a Palestinian state. He identifies with neither of the two preeminent Palestinian political factions, Hamas and Fatah. His allegiance is to the Facebook multitudes who orchestrated the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and who are organizing nonviolent protests throughout the region. In the Palestinian territories, the social-networking rebels call themselves the March 15 movement—and I would call Quran one of the leaders of the group except that it doesn't really have leaders yet. It is best described as a loose association of "bubbles," he says, that hasn't congealed. It launched relatively small, semisuccessful protests in the West Bank and Gaza on the aforementioned March 15; it is staging a small, ongoing vigil in the main square of Ramallah. It has plans for future nonviolent actions; it may or may not have the peaceful throngs to bring these off.

I meet with Quran and several other young Palestinians at the local Coca-Cola Bottling Co. headquarters in Ramallah, which tells you something important about this movement: we are not meeting in a mosque. I've known one of them, Fadi El-Salameen, for five years. He was an early volunteer for the Seeds of Peace program, which intermingled Palestinian and Israeli teenagers at a summer camp in Maine. In recent years, El-Salameen has spent much of his time in the U.S. and has achieved a certain prominence—he is quietly charismatic, a world-class networker, the sort of person who is invited to international conferences—but he is now spending more time at home in Hebron, organizing the March 15 movement in the West Bank's largest city. "I met some of the leaders of the Tahrir Square movement at a conference in Doha," he tells me. "They don't fit the usual profile of a 'youth leader.' They are low-key, well educated but not wealthy. They are figuring it out as they go along, trying to figure out what works."

The young Palestinians don't seem as pragmatic as all that; they are somewhere beyond wildly idealistic. "The goal is to liberate the minds of our people," says Najwan Berekdar, an Israeli-born Arab who is a women's-rights activist. "We want to get past all the old identities—Fatah, Hamas, religious, secular, Israeli and Palestinian Arab —and create a mass nonviolent movement." Berekdar has touched on an idea that might prove truly threatening to Israelis: a "one state" movement uniting Palestinians on both sides of the current border. But the young Palestinians have not focused on anything so specific. Their current political plan is to go back to the future—to achieve Palestinian unity by resurrecting and holding elections for a body called the Palestinian National Council, which took a backseat after the Oslo accords created the Palestinian Authority and its parliamentary component. This seems rather abstruse—the basic rule for people-power movements is, Organize first, bureaucratize later — and it would be easy to dismiss these young people as hopelessly naive but for two factors. The first is that they've seized the Palestinian version of a suddenly valuable international brand: the Tahrir Square revolution. "We cannot discount their importance," a prominent Israeli official told me. "Not after what happened in Egypt."

But equally important are their methods. Ever since Israel won control of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the Palestinian national movement has been defined by terrorism, intransigence and, until recently in the West Bank, corruption. It has never been known for dramatic acts of nonviolence. "If they'd been led by Gandhi rather than Yasser Arafat, they would have had a state 20 years ago," Kenneth Pollack of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution told me. Israeli officials acknowledge that the recent, peaceful economic and security reforms led by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have been the most effective tactics the Palestinians have ever used in trying to create a state. But they haven't gotten the Palestinians anywhere in their negotiations with the equally intransigent Israeli government. Jewish settlements continue to expand on Palestinian land. A mass nonviolent movement might tip the balance, especially if the world—including the Israeli public —began to see Palestinians as noble practitioners of passive resistance rather than as suicide bombers.

The Israeli leadership is as perplexed as everyone else about what the revolutionary tide in the region will bring. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he'd prefer dealing with democracies, but he isn't so sure that the Tahrir Square movement will yield a democracy in Egypt (and there are already indications that Egypt's new government will push harder for a Palestinian peace accord than Mubarak ever did). Netanyahu has wisely called for a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, an idea that the Saudis—who seem to agree with the Israelis on practically everything these days—have also quietly endorsed. "If you can't get the young Egyptians involved in big public-works projects, like new housing, which is badly needed," an Israeli intelligence expert told me, "then they're back in the square for sure, only they'll be supporting the Muslim Brotherhood this time."

That seems unduly pessimistic. The Facebook rebels may have more influence on the suddenly antiquated Islamists than vice versa; if there is Shari'a, it will come with alternative-energy start-ups and a Coca-Cola chaser. "You have to wonder what sort of influence this revolution has had on Hamas," a Palestinian Christian said to me. "Are they watching al-Jazeera and seeing nonviolence succeed where terrorism has failed?"

The Israelis assume not, which seems a safe assumption: Hamas rule in Gaza is going well, despite the Israeli boycott. "The Hamas military wing is making money off the smuggling from the tunnels [from Egypt into Gaza]," a West Bank businessman tells me. "They sell my product for twice my price. And yet the standard of living is rising in Gaza." In fact, Hamas seems more secure right now than Fatah, despite the economic successes in the West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been wounded by the leak to al-Jazeera of private memos that showed Palestinian negotiators making what seemed to be major concessions to the Israelis. In order to restore some of his credibility, Abbas has been reaching out to Hamas, raising the prospect of a reconciliation—and destroying any slim hope of an accord with the Israelis. "Abbas has to choose," a Netanyahu aide told me, "between Hamas and us."

So the stalemate continues—with one exception: the March 15 movement and the rush of history in the region. The young activists may be preoccupied by the chimera of Palestinian unity at the moment, but what happens if they turn their full attention to the Israeli occupation? What happens if they begin to organize marches to protest the near daily outrages perpetrated by Jewish settlers? What if they stage sit-down strikes to open roads that are used by settlers but closed to Palestinians? What if they march 10,000 strong against a settlement that is refusing Palestinians access to a traditional water supply? "If it is nonviolent, then that means, by definition, it is civilized," an Israeli official said. "We have no problem with that." But what if the Palestinians are nonviolent and the Jewish settlers are not? "I think about the dogs unleashed on Martin Luther King in Birmingham," Quran says. "I think about the beatings. That's what it took for Americans to see the justice of his cause. We will be risking our lives, but that is what it takes. I only hope that we're not too well educated to be courageous."