On the Run, the Palestinian Youth Movement May Yet Get Its Way

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Mohammed Abed / AFP / Getty Images

Palestinian demonstrators call for political unity between Gaza's Hamas rulers and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, which rules from Ramallah, on March 15, 2011, in Gaza City

He changes his appearance frequently. "Yesterday my beard was out to here," he says, cupping his hand an inch from a cheek now shaved clean. He sleeps only in a secure, undisclosed location, and never for longer than two or three hours. Fugitives have a long history in the Gaza Strip; only this one is on the run not from the Israelis but from Hamas.

"They are looking for everyone, not only for me," says Abu Yazan, the nom de guerre of an organizer of the March 15 movement, the youth campaign to force a reconciliation between Hamas, the militant party that controls Gaza, and Fatah, the party that governs the West Bank. The movement is named for the date when demonstrations were called in both enclaves, the results of which were best defined as mixed.

On one hand, both factions felt sufficient public pressure that each made conspicuous, almost instant moves toward unity. Ismail Haniyeh, the Prime Minister of Gaza, extended a public invitation to Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, the President of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, to come for a visit. He accepted, and preparations for the journey are under way, with expectations rising.

On the other hand, both factions felt so threatened by the demonstrations that they did their best to co-opt them, sending out loyalists to chant party slogans at gatherings intended to be nonpartisan. Hamas followed up with thugs, breaking up the Gaza City protest after organizers marched their people into another open space to escape the infiltrators.

Now scattered, the activists admit to a range of reactions, including disappointment. "We went. We participated for a half hour, but we didn't like the atmosphere," says Amal Murtaja, 21, who attended with a fellow Gaza blogger, Lina al-Sharif. "We wanted to create a beautiful spirit of ending the division, but it ended up being a speech party," says al-Sharif, who had promoted the demonstrations on a webcast with West Bank organizers. "At the end of the day, politicians were hijacking the event, and we were back at square one. This is not what we wanted to see. It was so frustrating."

Others were angry. Majd Abu Salama, 21, had regarded Gaza's violent history only from a distance until she decided to take part in the March 15 protests — and ended up black and blue after being assaulted by Hamas supporters. She's now determined to continue one way or another. "If they beat a girl, they can do anything," she says. "I was only raising slogans, and these slogans weren't against them. I don't deserve what I got."

For those who went underground, the challenge has become to keep their eyes on the prize. "We don't want our movement to stop being about the division and start being about Hamas," says Abu Yazan. "When we went out on the 15th of March, everything went upside down. The green flag [of Hamas] was everywhere. Everyone in the Gaza Strip is politicized, and everybody realized it, but everyone agreed to take off the narrow interests of politics. We have people from all movements. When we went into the street, only one movement was against us, and it was the government, Hamas. Hamas disappointed us." He adds, "For them, they have God first, then their movement, their movement, their movement. Then Palestine."

A Hamas official says the demonstration was broken up because it went past its 5 p.m. curfew. But Taher al-Nunu, a jovial sort who speaks for the Prime Minister's office, also makes clear that the party, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, has no truck with any grass-roots challenge. "After the success of the revolutions in Tunis and Cairo, they think the people here are willing to do the same thing, like a contagion," al-Nunu tells TIME. "But they didn't get to the fact that we are the majority in the Gaza Strip and we are a resistance movement and a resistance government. We are part of the people."

Those in the youth movement beg to differ, arguing that the traditional forces organized to oppose the Israeli occupation have grown obsessed with power and position. A recent poll by Near East Consulting found that 70% of Palestinians want to see "a change" in politics. "Yeah, I'm sick of parties too. That's why we all agree, at the end of the day, Fatah didn't serve us, Hamas didn't serve us," says Abu Yazan. "All their energy became about protecting the movement thing, not the Palestine thing. So we should step up and say, 'Look at something bigger than your political interest.' As long as they're divided, it will be like, well, like it is: Palestine is not Palestine. It's Gaza and the West Bank."

In the waiting room of a downtown office building, two cell phones rest on the coffee table. Abu Yazan says the movement started with 70 people but that a phone call today would turn out 5,000 people in the streets. "We have shadow leaders, leaders who are not really known," he says. "If I get arrested, a girl stands up [to take my place]. She has all my secrets." They are mostly computer passwords, he says. Her first job would be to change them.

Polls suggest that Gazans, still under a kind of siege from Israel, are especially anxious to see the split mended. More people turned out on March 15 in Gaza City — about 10,000 — than did on the more populous West Bank. When Abu Yazan, a student, showed up for class one day last week, the professor shooed him away, saying that what the young man was doing with the protests was more important than being in class.

But if both factions accept the terms youth organizers have laid out, Abu Yazan says, "Fatah is going to lose a lot too. They're going to have to stop negotiating with Israel. They're going to have to stop security cooperation, which is killing our cause." He adds, "Hamas wants resistance and killing and killing and killing. That's not what the people want. We shouldn't fear our governments. Our governments should fear us."

He fiddles with prayer beads, stubs out another L&M and prepares to leave. But first he has a question of his own: "Do you think Abu Mazen will come?"