Monday, November 23, 2020

A Week of Protests in Ramallah: An Insider’s Account

By James Knoop - September 18, 2012
Section: [Main News] [Features]

Photo by Lazar Simeonov

As I walked down the dark street towards Al Amari refugee camp in Ramallah on September 8,  I could see several fires burning in the distance and a crowd of 200 people blocking the main road to Jerusalem.

Upon coming closer I was surprised to see the people who were smashing bottles, burning tires, and basking in an atmosphere of anarchy were a group of children, none much older than the age of 15.

Instead of being worried that the crowd would turn on me like a pack of jackals taking down the intrusive reporter, the children welcomed me in exuberant tones as if what was happening was the most normal thing in the world, like a birthday celebration. They quickly asked me what my favourite football team was, if I had heard of the famous wrestler John Cena, and whether my Iphone was a 4GS. The demonstration, if that’s what it can be called, was highly unusual to say the least.

Walking to the site, I was expecting to interview protest leaders who would wax poetically about the high cost of fuel and the Paris Protocol, the agreement that cements the Palestinians’ economic dependency to the Israeli economy. I was expecting solid interviews with politically aware young Palestinians who are concerned about their present and future. Instead, I met a bunch of kids infected with a party atmosphere, as their parents and the absent police silently tolerated what they were doing.

What do children know about political issues? How was this children’s riot related to what PA president Mahmoud Abbas described as the “Palestinian Spring” that was occurring across the West Bank? Clearly, this was not a typical political statement. This was tolerated anarchy – perhaps even encouraged lawlessness. But to what end?

A Survey of the Damage

For the past week or more, demonstrations in West Bank cities against the high costs of living were growing as government employees, union workers, and students all participated.

The protesters chanted slogans that called for the resignation of the Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayyad. They complained about the high cost of food and fuel. As the days passed, chants that decried the all too cozy relationship between the Palestinian Authority and Israel to maintain the status quo were openly heard. The focal point of their chanting and demonstrations was the infamous Paris Protocol, an economic offshoot of the Oslo Accords seen as the prime document that represses the Palestinian economy.

The protests grew, escalating into a bigger beast that threatened to precipitate a genuine social crisis. The numbers of people demonstrating rose, the demographics of citizens who participated widened, and the frequency of the protests intensified to the point where it was not uncommon to see multiple demonstrations in a single day.

Ramallah, the de facto capital city of the West Bank, saw afternoon protests turn into weekend fires at the al Amari refugee camp, blocking the main road to East Jerusalem on two successive evenings. The fires were attended largely by children, but clearly tolerated by the authorities. At about 11 pm, a lone security official in plain clothes came to clear the gathering and the children quickly ushered back towards there homes.

A few minutes later, some older members of the camp had come out and surrounded the security official which lead to shoving match. The crowd swarmed to see the burgeoning skirmish, when the security official decided to pull out a gun and pop off a round into the air. Amazingly, this did little to persuade the crowd to leave and so he fired a second time. One elderly man in his pajamas simply walked through the crowd carrying his laundry and ignored the entire show. Fire officials put out the fires and cleared the roads and soon cars were making their way again through the busy thoroughfare.

On Monday, as the working week began, demonstrators set fire to the entrance and exits of town early in the morning, near Birzeit University and al-Amari refugee camp. Crowds gathered to watch streams of black smoke billow from burning tires, and cars were prevented from going to work, although some nervously tried to run the blockades. There was no chanting or signs, or demonstrators stating demands.

Although largely peaceful, last Monday’s demonstrations in Hebron saw around 50 protestors pelting the police station, the municipality building and a fire truck with stones. The PA riot police fired tear gas to disperse the crowds, and up to 80 demonstrators were reported injured by the Red Crescent Society in Hebron. A similar scenario unfolded in Nablus that resulted in 60 people injured, including the town’s mayor. In Bethlehem, taxi drivers and truckers blocked the streets causing several incidents of civil clashes as commuters simply wanted to go home.

The following morning, workers, union members and even some of the politicians gathered early at office of Prime Minister Fayyad in the government district in Ramallah. This lead to the subsequent announcement from Fayyad that there would be small concessions granted on price rises and salaries.

Later on in the afternoon, another demonstration saw a crowd of young professionals march from the main square in town to the compound of Yassar Arafat, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. Watched over by police and security officials, this crowd was vocal  and even expressed anti-Abbas and anti-PA sentiment as they reached the Muqata’a compound where police had their hands locked together, blocking the entrance to the building.

Intifada, Arab Spring or Nothing at All

Among all my discussions with protestors and observers, I didn’t hear one person mention the word “Intifada,” the series of protests that gripped the Occupied Territories from 1987-93 and again from 2000-03, unlike what some media reports were speculating about.

In the early days of this recent bout of protests, President Abbas likened what was happening to a “Palestinian Spring.” It remains to be seen whether these protests will continue or simply fizzle away, or whether any change will actually occur other than a few international donors chipping millions of dollars to maintain the status quo. Ramallah and the other cities have been quiet for a few days now. Is this the end of the “Palestinian Spring”?

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