A New Palestinian Movement: Young, Networked, Nonviolent

A New Palestinian Movement: Young, Networked, Nonviolent
Fadi Quran is the face of the new Middle East. He is 23, a graduate of
Stanford University, with a double major in physics and international
relations. He is a Palestinian who has returned home to start an
alternative-energy company and see what he can do to help create a
Palestinian state. He identifies with neither of the two preeminent
Palestinian political factions, Hamas and Fatah. His allegiance is to
the Facebook multitudes who orchestrated the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak
in Egypt and who are organizing nonviolent protests throughout the
region. In the Palestinian territories, the social-networking rebels
call themselves the March 15 movement—and I would call Quran one of
the leaders of the group except that it doesn’t really have leaders yet.
It is best described as a loose association of “bubbles,” he says, that
hasn’t congealed. It launched relatively small, semisuccessful protests
in the West Bank and Gaza on the aforementioned March 15; it is staging
a small, ongoing vigil in the main square of Ramallah. It has plans for
future nonviolent actions; it may or may not have the peaceful throngs
to bring these off.

I meet with Quran and several other young Palestinians at the local
Coca-Cola Bottling Co. headquarters in Ramallah, which tells you
something important about this movement: we are not meeting in a mosque.
I’ve known one of them, Fadi El-Salameen, for five years. He was an
early volunteer for the Seeds of Peace program, which intermingled
Palestinian and Israeli teenagers at a summer camp in Maine. In recent
years, El-Salameen has spent much of his time in the U.S. and has
achieved a certain prominence—he is quietly charismatic, a
world-class networker, the sort of person who is invited to
international conferences—but he is now spending more time at home
in Hebron, organizing the March 15 movement in the West Bank’s largest
city. “I met some of the leaders of the Tahrir Square movement at a
conference in Doha,” he tells me. “They don’t fit the usual profile of a
‘youth leader.’ They are low-key, well educated but not wealthy. They
are figuring it out as they go along, trying to figure out what works.” The young Palestinians don’t seem as pragmatic as all that; they are
somewhere beyond wildly idealistic. “The goal is to liberate the minds
of our people,” says Najwan Berekdar, an Israeli-born Arab who is a
women’s-rights activist. “We want to get past all the old identities—Fatah, Hamas, religious, secular, Israeli and Palestinian Arab —and create a mass nonviolent movement.” Berekdar has touched on an idea
that might prove truly threatening to Israelis: a “one state” movement
uniting Palestinians on both sides of the current border. But the young
Palestinians have not focused on anything so specific. Their current
political plan is to go back to the future—to achieve Palestinian
unity by resurrecting and holding elections for a body called the
Palestinian National Council, which took a backseat after the Oslo
accords created the Palestinian Authority and its parliamentary
component. This seems rather abstruse—the basic rule for
people-power movements is, Organize first, bureaucratize later — and
it would be easy to dismiss these young people as hopelessly naive but
for two factors. The first is that they’ve seized the Palestinian
version of a suddenly valuable international brand: the Tahrir Square
revolution. “We cannot discount their importance,” a prominent Israeli
official told me. “Not after what happened in Egypt.” But equally important are their methods. Ever since Israel won control
of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the Palestinian national movement has
been defined by terrorism, intransigence and, until recently in the West
Bank, corruption. It has never been known for dramatic acts of
nonviolence. “If they’d been led by Gandhi rather than Yasser Arafat,
they would have had a state 20 years ago,” Kenneth Pollack of the Saban
Center at the Brookings Institution told me. Israeli officials
acknowledge that the recent, peaceful economic and security reforms led
by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have been the most effective
tactics the Palestinians have ever used in trying to create a state. But
they haven’t gotten the Palestinians anywhere in their negotiations with
the equally intransigent Israeli government. Jewish settlements continue
to expand on Palestinian land. A mass nonviolent movement might tip the
balance, especially if the world—including the Israeli public —began to see Palestinians as noble practitioners of passive resistance
rather than as suicide bombers.

The Israeli leadership is as perplexed as everyone else about what the
revolutionary tide in the region will bring. Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu has said he’d prefer dealing with democracies, but he isn’t so
sure that the Tahrir Square movement will yield a democracy in Egypt