Palestine: youth in revolt

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Saba Shiraz and Estelle Cooch spoke to economist and East Jerusalem activist Ibrahim Shikaki about the recent protests in the West Bank and the impact of the Arab Spring on Palestine

What were the origins of the protests in September in the West Bank?

I think initially it started because of economics. The main reason people protested was because of increasing costs. But it was when the trade unions acted, the most important of which were the public transport unions, that people really felt the impact of what was going on. On top of that you had youth groups, political parties and others becoming involved alongside a shift from the initially economic goals to political ones as well.

Fatah and Hamas weren't really major or key players in any of this - the focus was more on the trade unions. There was talk that this was one way that Fatah wanted to pressure prime minister Salam Fayyad. Salam Fayyad has been prime minister on and off since 2007 and has always been a problem for them. He's not a member of Fatah and so some said that they wanted to support the protests "under the table", as we say. Fatah, of course, wanted them to focus only on the government and Fayyad, but obviously the protests eventually moved on to much larger demands.

Many young Palestinians seem to be disaffected with the main parties.

Well, you are right but this is just a symptom of how Palestinian youth feel about political parties. The real disease is the process of the Oslo Accord. At that time what happened is what we call the "Palestinian schizophrenia", so on the one hand you are a national liberation movement working towards that, and on the other hand somebody comes up and says you have to be in "state-building mode".

So what happened was that the political leadership in the vast majority of parties remained the same. They benefited from the status quo which meant that Palestinian youth, who are the majority of the Palestinian people, had less and less of a role to play. Under 25s make up 68.8 percent of the population in the West Bank!

If you look at the history of political parties, Fatah emerged from a meeting of the Palestinian students' union. It was the same for George Habash, the head of the left wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and if you look at different Islamic parties it's also the same.

What happened throughout the 1990s was that this freeze in political work also meant a freeze in new political leadership being developed. This completely changed with the Arab Spring.

It led to young people believing in two critical things: first that change is possible. So we looked to Egypt where for years no one thought the regime would change and then the main symbol of that system collapsed! But the other important thing is that young people played a major role in that. So that gave more faith, power and confidence to Palestinian young people who have since set up a variety of groups, movements and campaigns which are not strictly affiliated to political parties. This is slowly how Palestinian youth are getting back into politics.

Salam Fayyad and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas were strongly denounced by the demonstrators. Is the Palestinian Authority's continued existence now under threat?

Yes, and for various reasons. From a purely economic point of view they are in their last days. I'm not only talking about international aid decreasing, but they have also reached the threshold of what they can borrow from local banks. That's £800 million in total! And then you also have £200 to £300 million of private sector loans that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is going to have to pay back.

The strongest relation between the PA and the Palestinian people is an economic one. As the public sector the PA employs 170,000 Palestinians - that is around 20 percent of the labour force. If you take into account the families of employees that's almost 800,000 Palestinians who are directly affected by the PA in their livelihood. And that meant that even though people who would be working with the PA would not agree with different PA policies, still it was their main source of livelihood. And so as soon as that stopped they went against the PA immediately.

So from an economic sense I do feel that the day is coming when the PA will collapse. I've been talking to a lot of Palestinian academics, youth and unionists, and the question is not if; the question is when. Just a week ago I was sitting with a group of Palestinians and we got onto the topic of what will happen when the PA collapses; how will we take care of people; how will we take care of security; will we have special groups of young people to take over? So the economic is just one side of the problem, but the other aspect is political. For the last 20 years Palestinians have not got anywhere near their aspirations, their dreams, their right to self-determination. On the contrary you see more Israeli settlement expansion; you see triple the number of settlers; you see more of what the UN calls the "Judeaisation" of Jerusalem, what the UN calls the "apartheid-like policies" of Israel. And Palestinians now see it more clearly than ever so both the political and economic aspects make it very likely that the PA, as we know it today, will be dismantled internally or will collapse within, I would say, the next two or three years at max.

What has been the impact of the Paris Protocols on the Palestinian economy?

The Paris Protocols are part of the Oslo 2 Agreement signed in September 1995. They control economic relations between Palestinians and Israelis.

I think there are three main items that led to an unsustainable Palestinian economy, although I think it makes more sense to talk about economic activity. We don't really have an "economy" as such. The first thing is the occupation, and here I'm talking about the control of natural resources, land and water. There is also extreme dependency on the goods and labour market in Israel. By 1987 we had almost 40 percent of Palestinian labour working inside Israel, but since then Israel has tried to "relocate" Palestinian labour outside of the Israeli economy.

After the First Intifada Israel tried to replace Palestinian workers with cheap labour from south east Asian countries, such as Thailand. But in the long run this proved to be too problematic for Israel as it affected the desired "Jewishness" of their state. Palestinians are now relocated to work in settlements or in industrial estates on the border, so Israel can still benefit from cheap Palestinian labour without the "complications" of them passing the green line.

Nowadays around 75,000 people, around 10 percent of the labour force, work in Israel and the settlements.

The second thing is internal economic polices and I'm talking about the neoliberal direction of specifically the last five or six years of Salam Fayyad's government.

Third would be the Paris Protocol agreement itself which puts the Palestinians in a de facto customs union with Israel. So you have a huge gap in output, in GDP per capita, in poverty, unemployment and income as well. But on the other hand you have very similar prices in Israel and Palestine for mostly everything.

But when you go to the bigger picture of the protocol and the Oslo Accord, you have one powerful partner alongside a very weak one. Usually in cases like this you give the weaker party much more power in the agreement so the gap does not widen. What actually happened was the opposite of that. So Palestinians have to conform with the agreement or they bear brutal consequences. On the other hand the Israelis can conform or not, but there are no real consequences. Since they control the resources (financial, natural and borders) they have the power to choose what will happen.

What has been the impact of the Arab revolutions in Palestine?

From the first days of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Palestinians went down into the streets. I remember the very first day that we went out and protested, we were beaten and interrogated by PA forces. A year and a half on, we now demonstrate more or less without harassment. So we've been able as Palestinian youth to earn specific rights, and I emphasise earn, because they were never given to us freely by the PA.

Of course, it's an ongoing struggle. Recently we had a demonstration about political prisoners and people were called in for interrogation by the PA and people were imprisoned. So internally the Arab Spring has affected Palestinian youth and they have gained more confidence.

This is key, together with how society is now looking at young people. I always remember this quote by an Egyptian woman. She was on TV and had been in Tahrir Square and she said, "At first I thought these kids were on Facebook and were just lazy. Today I kiss the ground under their feet."

Now, of course, people who went on the streets were not only those active in social media, but still the way that people look at young people has shifted. And I always say what happened in Egypt took ten or 12 years of messages and goals and struggles and we're on the same track. Time will tell.

How did the struggles around the Palestinian hunger strikers fit into that growing anger?

The Palestinian hunger strikes are a very good example of what we've been talking about. Palestinian young people organised on the ground more than the official PA bodies that were meant to be concerned with prisoners' rights. So every single day you had different events, some of which went very close to Israeli border prisons. The famous example of where there were clashes is Ofer prison in Beitunia near Ramallah. So you saw people organising on Facebook, making posters, writing articles, having lectures, marching on the streets, getting people who were previously prisoners to talk to them about how to build solidarity.

I don't want to be over optimistic but it really was as if we had a breath of air from the First Intifada when different segments of society each took on new roles, rather than their role being part of a specific group which was the main characteristic of the Second Intifada.

You wrote an article for Al-Jazeera about the problems with rhetoric about non-violent and violent resistance.

There was also a very good article by Linah Alsaafin on Electronic Intifada on this recently that people should read. After I wrote mine a lot of people sent me emails saying, "We were all thinking this, but thank you for writing it." And the trigger was three or four articles at the time saying "Now the Palestinians deserve their rights because they're resisting the way we told them they should."

So the article was not saying popular resistance is not the way to go. It was about emphasising that Palestinian rights are their rights no matter how we resist, no matter what colour our pants are, no matter how we do our hair - nothing matters! Because your rights are your rights.

Actually Palestinians have been resisting non-violently for the last one hundred years. The vast majority of resistance before the Second Intifada inside historical Palestine was non-violent.

But the third point was kind of a reminder to Palestinians, including myself. I studied in Italy and the US, so I consider that I was partially educated abroad, and some of us get this infatuation with Western role models. I'm not saying there's something wrong with that but when local role models are sidelined, that's where you have the problem. One size fits all doesn't work in economics, it doesn't work in politics, and it doesn't work when you're talking about resistance either.

What should international supporters of Palestinians do to support struggle?

I always say people should come here. If you can arrange for some sort of continuous movement of people here that is important. The second thing is to do with governments. Supposedly you have something called democracy where the representatives of the people are supposed to reflect what the people actually want. I know people have tried to pressure governments and, of course, often it doesn't work because of vested interests. In the US, for example, we're talking about confronting a whole military apparatus.

So that's where I go to the third thing which is where Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) comes in.

There is generally little belief in governments and states at the moment. And that's where the BDS call from 2005 fits in perfectly, simply saying that people, states, governments, corporations should boycott, divest from and sanction Israel until it complies with international law. Then you talk about the very important three types of Palestinian oppression which is one of the most powerful things that came out of the BDS call.

And that takes us back to what should be the real definition of Palestinians, something that the political process has distorted hugely. The definition of Palestinians is those 11 million people inside Gaza, inside the West Bank, inside Israel proper, in the refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and, of course, the Diaspora. That's what the BDS call is for, the right of return for those who are outside, to get rid of the occupation and for Palestinians inside Israel to have their full rights. There could be different interpretations. You can disagree with a point here or there but the important thing is that we recognise who Palestinians are. So calling for economic, cultural and academic boycott, in universities, town halls and corporations, is definitely another way to build solidarity.


Timeline

1959 → Fatah was founded by Yasser Arafat. It was the main group leading Palestinian resistance in the 1960s and 1970s. It is now led by Mahmoud Abbas.

1987 → Hamas, an Islamist organisation is founded. It was able to fill the resistance role that Fatah had abandoned after the Oslo Accords.

1987 → Start of the First Intifada, an uprising of Palestinians that included general strikes, boycotts and refusal to pay taxes. No one group initiated the intifada and it was led by local councils and groups.

1993 → The Oslo Accord is signed, a deal between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. It established the Palestinian Authority (PA), abandoned the right of return for refugees and ultimately allowed for Israel to annex more of the West Bank.
1994 → Israel transferred security and civilian responsibility to the PA after the Oslo Accord. Since 2006 its authority has only extended to the West Bank.

1995 → The Oslo 2 Paris Protocols gave Israel sole control over Palestine's external trade, and collection of customs duties, allowing Israel to withhold revenue as punishment for Palestinian resistance.

2000 → The Second Intifada starts and lasts for five years.

2005 → The BDS call was issued by 171 Palestinian civil society organisations calling for the international community to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel until it complies with international law. It is the largest coalition of Palestinian organisations.