Inching closer to unity

It was inevitable that the surge of change that has overtaken the Arab world would eventually spill into Palestine. What began as Palestinian marches in solidarity with their Tunisian and Egyptian brethren has since turned into specific Palestinian demands. Unfortunately, unlike the masses in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, the Palestinians’ good intentions did not, at first, translate as well on the ground.

To be fair, the situations are not parallel. What began with the self-immolation of a beleaguered university graduate who was forbidden to sell fruit for a living quickly turned into massive protests aimed at plucking out the decades-long autocracies embedded in the Arab world. Arab peoples, long believed to be submissive to the oppressive regimes that governed them, rose up practically in unison to shake off the yoke of dictatorship.

The wildfire effect was impressive, surely not only to the people themselves, but to the Palestinians who know a thing or two about rising up against an oppressive regime. However, unlike the Egyptians or Tunisians, the Bahrainis, Yemenis and the Libyans, the Palestinians are not calling for "the fall of the regime", the now famous slogan chanted across the Arab world. Instead, a group of young Palestinian youths began organizing on social networks like Facebook and Twitter (the modus operandi of the revolutions) for a massive March 15 demonstration calling for an end to the political division plaguing Palestinian society and politics for years.

Alas, it turns out we are not as ready as we thought we were to unite towards ending the damaging division between Gaza and the West Bank, or more specifically between Hamas and Fatah. The well-intentioned and single-goaled youths who tried to mobilize the masses in this direction ended up –at times–on the sidelines of a Fateh rally in Ramallah and a Hamas crackdown in Gaza. To say this was disheartening would be an understatement.

The demonstrators –save for the faithful few hundred who held fast to their positions –ended up in one of the two trenches. In Gaza, witnesses say plain-clothed Hamas security men beat and chased the demonstrators and in Ramallah, slogans went from "the people want an end to the split and an end to the occupation" to "Abu Mazen [Abbas], we are your men."

It is unfortunate that our leaderships still have so much to learn. The youth movement that organized March 15 was not looking for speeches and accusations. The leaders and their security services, quite frankly, should have butted out.

This is not to say there is no hope for us or that we cannot eventually follow in the footsteps of our fellow Arabs. Most Palestinians do want an end to the split but the question is whether the leaderships in Gaza and the West Bank are ready to accept the challenge.

Despite the misgivings of March 15, there may be hope for our leaders in Hamas and Fateh yet. The day of the protests, Hamas de facto Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh invited President Mahmoud Abbas to come to Gaza and talk reconciliation. A day later, Abbas called on Haniyeh to meet him at the Erez crossing into the Gaza Strip. The president, speaking after a PLO Executive Committee meeting , said he was ready to form a government of independent Palestinians until elections for the president, legislature and Palestine National Council, the highest Palestinian political body, were held. Hamas responded that it "welcomes" the call and would start making arrangements for Abbas’ arrival.

For those young Palestinians who endured beatings in Gaza and those who were on hunger strike at Ramallah’s Manara Square, the news of a possible reconciliation is a burst of fresh air. Too early to predict just how sincere the parties are, it is not too early to appreciate the movement of the masses. Palestinians have made mistakes, they have followed their political affiliations blindly at times, but the bottom line is that they all want their leaders united. The common goal we all share is an end to Israel’s occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Ending the split between us can only make that task easier and thanks to our fellow Arabs in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain (among others) we are learning that the people’s voices really do count.