The week leading up to the 64th commemoration of Nakba Day, the city of Ramallah witnessed a blitz of protests which were echoed in other Palestinian cities such as Gaza, Nablus, and Jerusalem. The deal to end the hunger strike on the eve of Nakba led to a more subdued commemoration then was expected.
The mass hunger strike that began on April 17, with an estimated 2,500 Palestinian prisoners participating, was the largest of its kind and had entered its fourth week. Eight of the hunger strikers had entered their third consecutive month without food.
Small protests at the Israeli prison of Ofer in west Ramallah took place daily, with the Israeli army typically responding with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Every day, the city center witnessed multiple marches, with marchers calling on shopkeepers to close their stores and join them as they headed back to the point they started from: the prisoners’ solidarity tent at Clock Square.
On some occasions, huge traffic jams were caused by the protesters who blocked the main streets as they sat on the ground, chanting and holding up posters and pictures of prisoners.
Other creative ways of demonstrating to raise awareness about the prisoners’ struggle included offering water and salt to people, as a reminder that these two elements were all that the prisoners were surviving on during their hunger strike.
Frustration was vented at the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership as well. Protesters almost managed to enter the PA compound of al-Muqata, calling out against the leadership’s compliant silence.
During a Europe Day celebration, a small of group of protesters and mothers of prisoners expressed their wishes to have their sons back home and their disappointment in the PA’s lack of action to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who responded in the well-rehearsed manner of any politician paying lip service to a cause.
For the first time in a long time, Palestinians were united on the street, regardless of their political factions, and perhaps disregarding them. The prisoners proved they had the potential to unite the people.
During PA president Mahmoud Abbas’ brief visit to the prisoners’ solidarity tent in al-Bireh last Thursday, protesters who had unfurled posters exposing Abbas’ silence on the hunger strikes were attacked by undercover policemen both physically and verbally. Despite an array of media cameras in the tent, only one outlet covered the incident.
Last Wednesday, the UN building in Ramallah was effectively shut down by protesters for the whole day. Protesters, who were barred from entering the building, called on secretary general Ban Ki Moon to take a more assertive stance regarding the Palestinian prisoners, in accordance with the third and fourth Geneva Conventions that Israel regularly violates.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) buildings in Gaza and Ramallah were both shut down, and a protest took place in front of the office of the Quartet on the Middle East in Jerusalem.
For the first time in a long time, Palestinians were united on the street, regardless of their political factions, and perhaps disregarding them. The prisoners proved they had the potential to unite the people and overstep the PA regime’s political normalization with Israel. Chants of “Why the security coordination while your people are getting shot at by the Israeli army” and “Oslo is long gone! We have returned to the struggle!” referring to the signing of the disastrous Oslo Accords in 1993, reverberated through the streets.
On the eve of Nakba Day, the mood was electric in anticipation of the commemoration events. It seemed like it wasn’t clear who most feared the potential explosive zenith the hunger strikers had managed to bring out - the PA (with Abbas begging Israel to allow the PA to have more weapons to maintain ‘security’) or Israel, who had taken extreme measures in preparation for suppressing the Nakba protests.
In the early morning hours of May 15, confirmation of a deal between the hunger strikers and the Israeli Prison Authorities (IPA) was heard. The mass hunger strikers, who had gone 28 days without food, succeeded in achieving almost all of their demands, which included three main calls: an end to administrative detention, an end to solitary confinement (19 prisoners have spent years living in a tiny cell by themselves), and the right to family visits.
All administrative detainees, held without charge or trial, are to be released once their detention expires without having their detention renewed. Family visits will be reinstated within a month, a great relief for families from Gaza, who haven’t seen their sons, brothers, and fathers since 2007.
The longest hunger strikers in the history of Palestine, Bilal Thiab and Thaer Halahleh (77 days), as well as Hasan Safadi (71 days) and Omar Abu Shalal (69 days) all agreed to end their strike on the basis of the same agreement the administrative detainees agreed to.
The hunger strikers had triumphed. Yet the role of the PA and its frantic collusion with Israel to reach a deal ahead of Nakba Day is certainly questionable. The charged atmosphere was effectively diffused.
The hunger strikers had triumphed. Yet the role of the PA and its frantic collusion with Israel to reach a deal ahead of Nakba Day is certainly questionable.
As a result, Nakba Day in the West Bank lost its unique potential to spark an uprising and instead panned out like any other commemoration. In Nablus, a branch of the International Solidarity Movement for Palestinians (ISM) went to the Huwarra checkpoint to demonstrate, catching the Israeli soldiers there off-guard. The demonstration wasn’t announced because when they did that last year, the PA was quick to suppress them.
One protester, identified only as Beesan, told Al-Akhbar that “the group of around 30 protesters was forced to retreat by the army. Huwarra checkpoint was sealed shut, meaning no one could go in or out of Nablus. As the protesters made their way back to Nablus, PA security forces followed them in their cars, and kept calling the director of the ISM branch Wael al-Faqih to disband the protest.”
One of the villages in the Ramallah governate, Ni’lin, tasted a small victory before being suppressed by the Israeli army. Protesters went to the village early in the morning and managed to cross through the checkpoint to the other side where the town of Ramleh, ethnically cleansed in 1948, lies. Ramleh, which used to be home to thousands of Palestinians, now has a Jewish majority and is part of Israel. Israeli occupation forces dispersed the protesters with tear gas and arrested Naji Tamimi from Nabi Saleh, who has only just been released after a year in Israeli jail on March 1st.
In Ramallah, thousands of people marched from Yasser Arafat’s grave in Muqata to Clock Square, where singers sang nationalistic songs and politicians congratulated the hunger strikers on their victory.
Another Day of Protests
Hundreds made their way to Ofer prison, in the largest demonstration there yet. The Israeli army surrounded the protesters from three sides and fired large amounts of tear gas canisters, which forced the majority of protesters to remain at a distance from the jail.
Persistent protesters managed to get close to the soldiers and were chanting against the occupation, but had to scatter on more than one occasion when the soldiers brought out the skunk truck and began firing plastic covered steel bullets.
At Qalandiya checkpoint, a smaller protest was quickly quelled by the Israeli army, and one man was taken immediately to hospital after being shot at with live ammunition.
In essence, it was just another protest at Ofer or Qalandiya, disconnected from the heavy inference that May 15 holds for Palestinians. The right of return assertions and chants were eclipsed by the general chants against the occupation, and occasionally for the prisoners whose cause is still not over yet.
The prospective spark for an uprising on Nakba Day did not happen, but the struggle remains. 4,600 prisoners still languish in Israeli jails, the right of return has not yet been achieved, and that the stage is still set for an uprising against the occupation.