In the West Bank, a Facebook Uprising Fizzles

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Ammar Awad / Reuters

Palestinians attend a rally in Ramallah aimed at ending the split between Fatah and Hamas on March 15, 2011

The Palestinian territories' nascent youth movement boasts impressive young organizers and an agenda that could transform the conflict with Israel, but its first major demonstration turned out to be a bit of a muddle. Only a couple of thousand people turned out in downtown Ramallah at midday Tuesday for a widely promoted rally aimed at ending the ugly split between Fatah and Hamas, the two major parties. That's 1,000 fewer than those who gathered at the same public square to congratulate Egypt on its mass uprisings a month ago.

Some 10,000 protesters were reported in the streets of Gaza City, the largest city in the Gaza Strip governed by Hamas and barricaded by Israel. But as in Ramallah, the gathering was marred by the noisy arrival of loyalists for the party that the protesters were supposed to be pressuring. Hamas sent hundreds into Unknown Soldier Square waving the party's green flag and chanting slogans. Organizers of what some call the March 15 Movement had specifically instructed attendees not to bring factional flags and responded by marching to another location. Scuffles and injuries were reported.

In Ramallah, Fatah loyalists arrived aboard a truck mounted with loudspeakers. People arriving shortly after noon, the announced hour for the rally, arrived to hear "Down with veto Obama," a chant recycled from a Fatah demonstration called a couple of weeks ago to protest the U.S. veto of a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

"The Palestinian parties played it quite well. They told their supporters to come early, so when other people came and saw it was politicized, they went home," says Fadi Quran, one of the young Palestinians trying to organize a nonviolent youth movement along the lines of the rebellions in Egypt and Tunisia. "In Gaza they're going through the exact same process. Hamas played a card. A lot of people thought today was a scam and didn't want to come."

The day demonstrated the particular challenges facing a grass-roots movement in the Palestinian territories, a society already organized, even regimented, for protest by dint of decades of mobilizing against the Israeli occupation. Youth organizers say ending the occupation is their top priority, but they want first to coerce Fatah and Hamas to unify by turning out masses in numbers that would then be directed at Israeli checkpoints, in a stirring nonviolent movement designed to win decisive international sympathy.

They're going to need more people, though. Part of the problem Tuesday was the number of venues. Gaza had to demonstrate separately — it's separated from the West Bank by miles and Israeli barricades. But there were also protests in three other West Bank cities — Bethlehem, Hebron and Nablus — as well as outside diplomatic missions overseas, further scattering an effort inspired by the truly massive gatherings in Cairo, and so apt to be judged in large part by turnout. "I think the strategy wasn't right," says Yasmin Yassine, 19, a finance major at al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, who read about the demonstration on Facebook and flyers distributed on campus. "I believe it should have been all in one place."

The organizers managed to get their message out intermittently. There were chants of "One people, not two people" and "And from Ramallah, we declared it: We want unity." A giant poster showed Palestine Liberation Organization founding chairman Yasser Arafat bending to kiss the forehead of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas. "This is the first step," says Mariam Eid, who arrived from a Ramallah refugee camp.

But it was not quite a showcase for youth. Middle-aged members of Fatah's Central Committee mingled with plainclothes security operatives ("Everything seems fine," said one). Among them was Hanan Ashrawi, the activist and academic who was the spokesperson for the Palestinian negotiating team during the first intifadeh. "It's important that we don't take over," Ashrawi says. "Youth has its own language and its own dynamic, and its very refreshing. I think we do need new leadership."

Nearby was Raed Abul Humms, a young man in a checkered headscarf, out of an Israeli prison after six years and now organizing youth. "There should have been a lot more people at the event," he says. "All the parties are here. They're all standing proud."

The youth movement operates without a hierarchy. Eight committees decide strategy and share tips, touching base at times with organizers in other Arab countries that Quran, for one, knows from his undergraduate days at Stanford. After dark, he is still in downtown Ramallah, trying to make himself heard on his mobile phone over the chants and whistles. The organizers had opted to push on after the party activists headed home. "We didn't want the direct confrontation with anyone," he says. "We'll see. It's going to move slowly."