Meanwhile in Palestine

There is a really good story from Palestine in this week's Economist, about the impact of the Arab revolts there:

Since 2007 the Palestinian territories have been divided between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah, the Palestinians’ oldest nationalist movement, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank. Too busy vying with each other to confront Israel, which occupies most of their land, they have sought to consolidate their holds on their respective domains by scrapping parliament and ruling by decree.

Not everyone has taken kindly to this new authoritarian yoke. Inspired by protests against other despots, Palestinians in both territories have been crying for “revolution until we end the division”. In Gaza and the West Bank protesters champ for an interim government of the young, aligned to no party, to be followed by elections in both bits of Palestine.

Under the watchful eye of his Western patrons, Mr Abbas’s security forces have generally stopped beating up protesters and have let them erect tents in the West Bank’s main towns. Hamas has shown less tolerance, fearful lest a turnout of thousands, including many women and a few rappers, posed a secular challenge. “Hamas is worse than Mubarak, because it governs in the name of God, not the people,” says Ayman Shaheen, a professor at Azhar University, Gaza’s last remaining college outside the movement’s control.

At first, Hamas relied on its own considerable popular base. On March 15th it swamped a non-party rally with green flags, its chosen colour. But this show of unity was short-lived. Facing a barrage of stones, the protesters fled to a neighbouring square, only to be mauled by a mob wielding knives, clubs and chairs. Their tents were burned down and the square cleared within minutes. Female students claim they were groped by bearded bully-boys rummaging for mobile phones with video footage of the beatings.

Hamas’s recourse to the brutality it had decried in opposition smacked of a loss of confidence. For the next few days, thugs in riot-gear thumped students trying to reassemble and ransacked foreign news bureaus, clubbing reporters and smashing their gear. Hamas’s Internal Security Intelligence service hauled hundreds to its headquarters. Some were stripped of their computers and phones, others were beaten with electric rods and hooded in foul-smelling bags. Mr Shaheen said he was blindfolded and repeatedly smacked about the head.

Even so, Hamas was frustrated in its efforts to quell the protests, which were generated more by an informal network of like-minded people than by a movement with a leader. The violence kept people off the streets. Businessmen shied away from helping the protesters. Wedding organisers refused to lend them loudspeakers. But a few hundred protesters continued to wait outside the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN, and the home of Gaza’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, at the risk of being thumped with batons.

The protests may have prompted Hamas to unleash its mortar barrage at Israel, to deflect attention from its own woes. “It doesn’t normally respond with dozens of projectiles when Israel kills two men,” says Mkhaimar Abu Sada, a professor at Azhar University and friend of Mr Shaheen, referring to an Israeli raid on a training camp in Gaza the day before.

Hamas ands Fatah are no different than the other Arab regimes: the sooner they are brought down, the better for Palestinians and the better for their prospects of a state.

Update: This Time piece profiles one of the March 15 activists trying to achieve reconciliation - a good read.

 

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.