Tens Of Thousands Of Palestinian Youth Rally For Unity

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The biggest gathering was in Gaza City, where officials from the Hamas-run interior ministry said vast crowds had packed into the city’s Square of the Unknown Soldier.

As the protesters demanded that Hamas and Fatah movements patch up their differences, Gaza’s Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya publicly invited his Fatah rival, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, for ‘immediate’ unity talks in Gaza.

‘I invite the president, brother Abu Mazen (Abbas), and Fatah to an immediate meeting here in Gaza … to start national dialogue in order to achieve reconciliation,’ Haniya said in a live broadcast after an emergency meeting of his government.

And Abbas proposed holding elections ‘as soon as possible’ in order to end the division.

‘I am with the people and in favour of going back to the people to put an end to the divisions through presidential and parliamentary elections,’ he said after talks in Ramallah with Cyprus President Demetris Christofias.

Throughout the day, around 7,000 people demonstrated in the West Bank, with around 3,000 in Ramallah, 2,000 in the northern city of Nablus and similar numbers in Hebron, correspondents said.

The rallies, called by the March 15 protest movement, were planned through Facebook by young activists demanding an end to the rift.

‘No to division!’ screamed demonstrators in Gaza City under a sea of red, white, black and green Palestinian flags. ‘Revolution, revolution until we end the division!’

As more and more people packed into the square, disputes could be seen breaking out, a correspondent said, with Fatah cadres locking horns with activists from the rival Hamas movement who were carrying their own green flags and shouting political slogans.

Across the West Bank, other demonstrations were taking shape as the people sought to make their voice heard.

‘I’m not from Fatah or from Hamas, I came here with my friends to say enough of this division,’ said a 24-year-old student demonstrating in Nablus, who gave his name only as Sayed.

‘We will stay here until the end of the split,’ he said.

In Ramallah demonstrators sang patriotic songs and waved Palestinian flags, but this protest was also plagued with confrontations between supporters of different political groups, marring organisers’ attempts to keep the movement apolitical.

One student said there would be no unity unless the politicians decided to give up their entrenched positions.

‘We as youth should participate in this event to make a big change, but we also can’t stop the division if the politicians don’t change,’ said Sama Musa.

The rivalry between Hamas and Fatah dates back to the early 1990s. It soured dramatically after the Islamist movement won elections in 2006 and, a year later, seized control of Gaza after deadly street fighting with Fatah.

Since then, the Palestinian territories have been effectively split in two, with Abbas’s rule confined to the West Bank.

In Manara Square, a huge banner was plastered with the faces of dead Palestinians from all the factions, including Yasser Arafat and Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, emblazoned with the slogan: ‘End the division!’

Many faction leaders could be seen milling about the crowd, watching the demonstrators, but a correspondent said there were only Palestinian flags flying overhead.

The March 15 movement was inspired by a wave of uprisings in the Arab world which brought down the regimes of Egypt and Tunisia.

l Palestinian activists preparing for a national day of protests on March 15 say their objectives go far beyond a call for unity between the warring factions.

As young Palestinians have watched the flame of revolution spread throughout the Arab and Muslim world, they have formulated their own rallying call for change – demanding an end to the bitter division which has split their own national movement.

Through a simple Facebook campaign called ‘The People Want to End the Division,’ organisers have rallied thousands of youngsters who say they are ready to take to the streets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to demand that the rival Hamas and Fatah movements reconcile their differences.

Similar protests are also planned outside Palestinian delegations overseas, in a move inspired by the recent wave of uprisings in the Arab world, which brought down the regimes of Egypt and Tunisia.

Behind the campaign is a group of young, independent Palestinian activists who say they simply want to end the bitter rivalry which has split the Palestinian cause, and create a united front to take on the Israeli occupation.

So far, organisers have released few details about what will take place on March 15, promising only that there will be ‘surprises,’ although they appear to be planning big demonstrations in Ramallah and Gaza City.

Ahead of the protests, seven activists on Sunday began an open-ended hunger strike in Ramallah, vowing to continue ‘until the division ends,’ one of the activists said.

Although the organisers have no way of knowing exactly how much support they have, more than 37,000 people have accepted a Facebook ‘invitation’ to attend Tuesday’s show of strength.

‘March 15 is only the beginning,’ says Lama Nazih, a female activist from Ramallah, promising there would be further ‘peaceful demonstrations to demand our rights."

Activists behind the March 15 protest say they have no particular political affiliation and are simply daring ‘to dream of a better future’ for their people.

‘Our demands for change go beyond ending Palestinian disunity and partial tweaks to the status quo,’ they said in a statement sent to the media last week.

Among their demands is ‘the release of all political prisoners held by the government in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.’

Activists also say they want to unify the people under the Palestinian National Council (PNC), a parliamentary body within the PLO which is supposed to represent all the Palestinian people, including those in the diaspora.

But they also want to reform the PNC, a run-down organ with 669 members which is currently dominated by ageing Fatah cadres who are out of touch with the younger generation.

‘We are going to the streets to demand an end to the division and to unite the Palestinian people through elections to the National Council,’ Nazih said.

Fadi Quraan, one of the main organisers in Ramallah, said that ending the division was only a ‘limited goal.’

‘Our main problem is the occupation,’ he said.

Occupation aside, the March 15 activists have other, more immediate problems.

So far, activists in the West Bank have not encountered any serious opposition to their plans, and senior officials have said the security forces will not prevent them from gathering on the day.

‘There will be no intervention by the security people whatsoever, except to protect them,’ senior Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha’th told reporters on Sunday, insisting the leadership did not feel threatened by the planned protests.

But those in Gaza are coming under increasing pressure from the enclave’s Hamas rulers, who last week detained 11 ‘unity’ protesters, and hauled in those believed to be behind the Facebook campaign.

And the latest trend is to try co-opt the movement.

Until now, the Hamas authorities have not made any move to ban Tuesday’s rallies, but on Saturday, the Islamist movement announced a series of its own marches to call for unity – to be held on March 15.

‘Palestinian political parties, Hamas’s government in Gaza, (prime minister Salam) Fayyad’s government in the West Bank, and a plethora of NGOs are seeking to co-opt this movement to serve their narrow interests,’ the March 15 movement said, denouncing the attempts.

‘March 15th shall be the day we stand in unity to demand democratic representation for all Palestinians as an affirmative step in our struggle for freedom from Israeli apartheid.’