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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: Will there be a Facebook Intifada?

Key points

  • A number of Palestinian grassroots organisations are attempting to mobilise popular uprisings, the first officially scheduled for Tuesday, 15 March.
  • Despite the widespread unrest in the Arab world over the last two months, the Palestinian territories have been largely quiet until now.
  • The Palestinian Authority appears willing to permit a limited number of protests, and wishes to avoid a harsh crackdown. In Gaza, Hamas is reported to favour a more straightforward policy of repression of dissent.
  • These initiatives appear to lack a clear, unifying set of goals, which may impact their prospects of success.
  • From Israel’s perspective, a central concern is the possibility that a wave of initially non-violent protests could turn violent over time.

 

Introduction: are street protests moving to the Palestinian territories?

Tuesday, 15 March is expected to bring the first in a series of planned Palestinian grassroots demonstrations coordinated via social media on the internet. Protest groups were already mobilising on 14 March in preparation. Recent months have witnessed profound changes in the politics of the Arab world, utilising social media like Facebook and Twitter. In Tunisia and Egypt, popular uprisings brought down the respective leaders of these countries. In Libya, popular agitation has led towards civil war. Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia have all witnessed demonstrations calling for reform.

Against the background of this wave of popular discontent, it is notable that until now the Palestinian street has remained largely quiet. Some organisations and movements have emerged, however, which are determined to alter this situation, and organise popular protest on the Palestinian street. Is a Palestinian grassroots uprising possible, or likely? What would be the key demands of a Palestinian protest movement? And of central interest to Israelis, in light of past experience and the terror attack in Itamar over the weekend, would such a movement remain non-violent?

Mapping Palestinian grassroots efforts

By their very nature, the structure of the organisations involved in these protests are evolving rapidly, but a number of identifiable activist internet groups have emerged in recent weeks. These vary considerably both in size and objectives. According to a recent estimate, 385 Facebook pages have been created by Palestinians in order to mobilise popular demonstrations. According to one source monitoring developments in this area, around 200,000 Palestinians are signed up to these pages.

The following is a list of a few of the most prominent of these groups:

‘Let’s put an end to the Occupation’: This Facebook Group, with 15,000 members, is engaged in organising ­ a planned Palestinian ‘day of action’ on 15 March. This day has been chosen as the symbolic ‘first day of spring.’ The group’s demands include both domestic Palestinian goals and external ones. These contain an end to the split between Fatah and Hamas, the foundation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital, the ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees of 1948, and the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. On its Facebook page, the group posts instructions on organising protests, making banners, and avoiding tear gas.

Palestinian Third Intifada: This group, as suggested by its name, is calling for a renewed Palestinian uprising. The group has over 160,000 online supporters to date and intends to launch its activities on the 15 May. This is the anniversary of Israel’s establishment in 1948, recalled by Palestinian nationalism as the date of the ‘Nakba’ (catastrophe).

March of Millions: This is a smaller movement that also focuses on the 15 May date. It is apparently campaigning for the organisation of a mass demonstration by Palestinian refugees to march towards the Israel borders on the anniversary of the state’s founding. None of the groups associated with this effort appear to have garnered mass support until now.

The June 5 Group: This group is also calling for mass demonstrations against the occupation. The date marks the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1967 Six Day War, in which the West Bank and Gaza were captured by Israel.

­The information this list is meant to give is not comprehensive, and is constantly evolving. Some observers working in this area suggest that among these various ‘grassroots’ groups, a number are in fact composed of Fatah activists, and are utilised by the Palestinian Authority to divert and contain protests.

But there have also been reports of the emergence of groupings unaffiliated with either Fatah or Hamas. Indeed, a central grievance of many groups is the ongoing divide between Fatah and Hamas. However, a certain ambiguity clearly exists in the grassroots movements regarding whether their focus lies on domestic issues like Palestinian unity, or on the conflict with Israel.

There are also rumours that the non-Fatah and non-Hamas groupings have received Western funding, in order to strengthen the position of PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. This cannot be verified.

Of course, Palestinian grassroots activism in the West Bank is not new. The regular protests against the security barrier in the West Bank towns of Bili’in and Na’alin in recent years have drawn a great deal of international attention, and have made extensive use of social media. They have had little impact, however, in terms of the forces holding power among the Palestinians and it is possible that the current protests may share a similar fate.

PA and Hamas attitudes towards the protests

PA security forces in the West Bank have reportedly been advised not to use force against the protests for fear that a violent response could inflame the situation. Rather, the security forces, with the IDF in the background, will seek to permit manageable protests, which they have the ability to contain ­. PA security forces appear confident in their ability to achieve this.

In this regard, the importance of the IDF as the ultimate guarantor of calm should be stressed. The IDF is currently active, in cooperation with the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, and would undoubtedly increase its activities if large-scale disorder began.

A limited number of protests could be turned by the PA to its advantage, as a means to demonstrate discontent with the current stalemate in the negotiations, and to encourage international pressure on Israel. However, the PA leadership is likely to calculate that its interests would not be best served by the outbreak of a wide-scale uprising on the West Bank.

The leadership of Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad is strategically opposed to armed struggle of the sort that was launched in the 2000-4 period under the leadership of Yasser Arafat. A widespread grassroots uprising could quickly spiral out of control of the PA. The first Intifada of 1987-92 began as a movement of authentic mass protest, but later became violent and fratricidal. Its main political consequence in terms of internal Palestinian politics was the rise of Hamas. Similarly, the Second Intifada ­ saw the political rise of Fatah leaders who engaged in terrorism, and the further political strengthening of Hamas. The PA leadership knows that if street level activity becomes the arena for building political strength, they are unlikely to emerge as winners. This sense of concern is perhaps exacerbated by recent reports that Hamas is planning a renewed campaign of violence in the West Bank.

A Fatah official interviewed by Ynetnews sounded confident that rallies calling for Palestinian unity, planned for March 15, would not lead to a sustained campaign. He said that “There is no organization from high ranks, which is why we are not worried about it…The situation in the West Bank is different than that in Egypt; if there isn’t a political order to begin an intifada, there won’t be an intifada.” It is difficult to assess the extent to which this confidence is well placed.

The Hamas leadership in Gaza, meanwhile, is believed until now to have favoured a more straightforward policy of repression. The authorities there are reportedly prepared to use the al-Qassam Brigades of the movement to harass and deter protestors, and demonstrations announced on Facebook have until now drawn only small numbers of participants.

Will there be a third intifada?

However, the events in Tunisia and Egypt should counsel against making any firm predictions regarding the likely direction of events in the Palestinian territories. The experience of the Arab world in the last three months shows that decentralised protest movements, without clear leadership, were indeed able to mobilise mass support for their objectives catalysed by the use of new media. If force is used against demonstrators, and if participants are injured or killed, events could rapidly escalate.

Some aspects that may militate against a renewed uprising in the West Bank, however, are the political strategy of the PA leadership, which would be damaged by a general breakdown of order. In addition, the apparent absence of clear, unified goals on the part of the protestors may hinder their chances of success. The improved economic situation in parts of the West Bank may also play a role in this, though there is no simple link between economic development and social order.

It is also important not to draw a simplistic distinction between ‘violent’ and ‘non violent’ political trends in the Palestinian context. As the trajectory of the First Intifada, and to a degree the period prior to the Second Intifada show, non-violent initiatives can later evolve to adopt more violent measures.

This possibility will be of foremost concern to many Israelis assessing the current direction of events, particularly following the recent terrorist attack in Itamar, in which five members of the Fogel family were brutally murdered. This attack came as a sharp reminder to Israelis of the difficult periods of violence in the early 1990s and the 2000-2004 period.