Yearning for a third Intifada

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Miriyam Aouragh reports from Nablus in the West Bank, where Israel's assault on Gaza provoked a new upsurge of protest and has further isolated the Palestinian Authority

Israel's "Pillar of Clouds" attack (the less fanatical-sounding "Pillar of Defence" was only used for English speaking audiences) sounded like a paperback thriller - but for Gazans it was an episode of real-life terror. The biblical reference was to a description of the form God adopted to protect the Children of Israel by striking terror into the heart of Egyptians. For a week a cloud of bombs rained down on Gaza, the most densely populated area in the world. Two hundred fresh graves had to be dug (a third of them for children) while many have been left injured for the rest of their lives.

Despite the similarities with previous massacres there was a qualitative difference with the three-week long "Cast Lead" assault on Gaza in 2008-9. Not in the military might but in the public response in Palestine. Then the political split between Fatah and Hamas was still fresh and dominated politics. To the relief of many the outbreak of enormous protests in the West Bank against the latest attack on Gaza is testimony to a move away from paralysing political splits.

The outcome was far from a victory for Israel. The main Palestinian casualties are the Gazans, but the real loser is Mahmoud Abbas, the un-elected president of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

A key vehicle is the youth. The crippling Hamas-Fatah divide is partly dissolving in the minds of many, yet meanwhile the gap between the official (privileged) representatives of the Palestinians and the youth is widening more than ever.

An additional dose of energy comes anger about the PA's cooperation with Israel. We should remember the humiliation felt after the Palestine Papers and Wikileaks made public the repulsive role of the PA in maintaining the occupation.

The cynicism that thrived among a section of the Palestinian political left in recent years has made way for a new sense of empowerment. The youth are less burdened by a sense of past defeat and are more susceptible to the impact of the other Arab revolts.

While the PA violently forbade demonstrations for Gaza during Cast Lead, beating and arrested protesters in the West Bank (and even chasing away candle-light vigils), the recent protests were bigger and louder. The stone-and Molotov-throwers at Israeli checkpoints echo the first, grassroots led Intifada and started to erase the post-2005 shame and defeatism. Nor can the current demonstrations be divorced from the protests that took place across the West Bank this September. This is a significant development. Until recently the opportunistic political elite (many of whom have become millionaires) could divert attention by pointing to Hamas or, when needed, to Israel. Anti-colonial demands now have the chance to merge with anger about socio-economic conditions instead of the former used to silence the latter.

The PA security forces could hardly control the protests this time realising that it might provoke even greater dissent among much broader sections of the population. What took place in Haifa, Akka, Jerusalem and here in the West Bank was an extension of the resistance in Gaza. The protests have become a new social force to reckon with and one can smell the yearning for a third Intifada.

There were protests all over the West Bank, huge gatherings in Hebron and Bethlehem and Nablus, the largest city of Palestine. Palestinians protested on their university campuses, like here at An Najah, but many wanted to do more. So they crossed into Israeli settlements to plant Palestinian flags, such as in Beit El, or confronted soldiers while marching to checkpoints.

During my visits to Palestine in 2009 and 2010 I heard complaints about a new generation of Palestinians not caring about the cause. But those participating now do not confirm to this patronising portrayal. The meaning of the protests in the West bank have changed too, they are not seen as "outsiders" who show support but as fellow Palestinians fighting the same oppressor.

Nablus has seen high numbers of arrests in the past week, a lot of them our An Najah students, but it's the same picture at Birzeit, Hebron and Al Quds universities. Unannounced raids have taken place during which young activists are lifted from their beds or arrested by undercover agents during protests. Twenty year old Ahmad Awad was shot in the back three times during one such raid.

The challenge is to maintain this spirit and not let it dissipate. One of the ways Abbas is trying to do so is through the bid for Palestine to be given statehood status at the UN in an attempt to save his reputation.

But something has deepened in the collective consciousness and it will not be as easy as he wishes. The people that have gone out to the street to support the "194" UN campaign are mostly told to do so (many of our lectured were suspended to guarantee the numbers) and the huge full-colour banners draped over buildings are paid for by the authorities. To the majority of people it is mostly a void issue.

Neither is it just about this latest war. Israel operates with a continuous pillar of clouds: around a hundred Palestinians were killed in 2012. This doesn't include those who have died as a result of the siege of Gaza, which still hasn't been lifted in this truce. It remains to be seen how this will unfold in the longer term, but the fighting spirit that was deemed part of the past has rejuvenated and taken both Israel and the PA by surprise. Those who participated in the recent waves of protest will not simply accept representation for meaningless deals without participation.