Camped under a tent in what he hoped would become the Tahrir Square of the West Bank, hunger striker Iyas Sarhan reclined on a foam mattress in a pair of increasingly baggy slim-fit jeans and waited for the Palestinian revolution to begin.
Sarhan, 25, and a few his friends had vowed since late March to stay put in a downtown Ramallah intersection until the end of the Israeli occupation and reunification of the top two Palestinian factions. But for most of their five-week protest, the youths were largely ignored by the bustling horde of pedestrians and shoppers, who treated them more like beggars.
“It gets frustrating,” said the unemployed management systems graduate. “It’s time for the young Arabs who proved themselves in other countries to do the same here in Palestine.... Where are the others?”
This week, after Fatah and Hamas declared their intention to form a unity government, Sarhan and his weary friends declared victory and went home. But as popular protests sweep through neighboring countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Syria, Palestinians have so far largely missed the so-called Arab Spring.
Most of the West Bank protests in recent months have mustered only a few hundred — sometimes a few dozen — demonstrators. Facebook pages calling for a “third intifada” and mass actions against Israel count tens of thousands of online followers. But turnout for a March 30 protest on the Palestinians’ Land Day was so small that one organizer nearly quit in disgust.
Some predict that big protests could kick off this weekend when thousands of Palestinians are expected to gather as they have in the past to mark their 1948 displacement, which they call Nakba Day. Several websites have declared May 15 as the start of the next uprising. Others are looking to September, when the Palestinian Authority may seek statehood recognition from the United Nations.
But the absence so far of the kind of sustained mass demonstrations that have erupted in other Arab countries has many Palestinians, international observers and activists scratching their heads.
The reasons, many conclude, are that Palestinians — unlike idealistic youths in neighboring countries who are rising up for the first time — are cynical about the prospects of ending the Israeli occupation and skeptical that their current political leaders can make the difference.
“People are drained, emotionally and physically,” said Tami Rafidi, a women’s rights activist and member of the Fatah political movement. “It’s not like other Arab counties. Palestinians never stopped resisting. We fought two uprisings and had 20 years of negotiations, but have achieved very little. So people are frustrated and have lost hope.”
Palestinians are also divided on whether the immediate focus of protests should be confronting Israel or replacing their own leaders, activists and pollsters say. And they are skeptical about whether nonviolent techniques can work in the West Bank, where generations of youths have been raised in a culture of violent clashes with Israeli troops.
Nonviolence, says activist Ahmad Azzeh, is a hard sell.
“Even the name in Arabic has a negative image,” said Azzeh, a trainer in nonviolent resistance at the Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian advocacy group. “People think of it as cowardly and submissive.”
After Egyptian demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square overturned the government of President Hosni Mubarak, Rafidi and some friends launched a Facebook campaign called Let’s End the Occupation, which has 15,000 followers and is planning future events, such as sit-ins at Israeli checkpoints or noisy rallies to disrupt Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
But since the March 30 protest drew only a handful of people, organizers are reluctant to set a firm date for the next one. “We don’t want only a few dozen people to show up,” Rafidi said.
A key challenge is the growing frustration among Palestinians, and particularly the younger generation, with the political parties, including Fatah, Hamas and a few others. Nearly two-thirds of Palestinians aged 18 through 34 said they don’t trust any political faction and just as many suspect that the mainstream parties are trying to exploit the youth movement for their own political purposes, according to a March survey by the Sharek Youth Forum. Many believe the recent reconciliation was driven partly by a desire of both parties to defuse rising public frustration over the Fatah-Hamas fracture.
Since many of the recent Facebook pages and protest organizations have been perceived to be aligned with particular parties, many Palestinians say they’ve decided to steer clear rather than be dragged into a political tug of war.
“There’s inherent suspicion now about anyone making an initiative,” said Fida Jiryis, a Ramallah business manager and translator who says she doesn’t think popular protests will make a difference.
“What’s the point?” she said. “The more times you’ve been let down, the less you’re able to believe that things can really change.”
Though Palestinians are cautiously optimistic about the unification deal signed May 4 by Fatah and Hamas, Jiryis said she believes many Palestinians are more focused on their daily lives, jobs, education and mortgages.
“People have become more economically comfortable,” she said. “It makes you lose the drive to get out there and do things that endanger that status. It’s a kind of numbing.”
Activist Azzeh, 31, said the Palestinian resistance movement has been undercut in recent years by an Israeli strategy to ease tension in the West Bank by allowing a minimal amount of economic growth, political expression, freedom of movement and even occasional protests.
“Israel has been very smart to leave a small vent for people to express their frustration,” he said. “When people have a vent to release, it makes it harder for a revolution.”
Opinion polls show that although most Palestinians do not support a return to violent resistance, most still view it as an effective tool against occupation, ranking higher than peace talks, boycotts or nonviolent protests. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will not allow another violent uprising as long as he’s in power.
The differing viewpoints about strategy and priorities have left many Palestinians confused, said Jawad Siyam, director of the Wadi Hilweh Information Center in the Silwan area of East Jerusalem.
“Are we fighting against occupation? Or to end Palestinian division? Or for new elections?” he said. “We don’t know where to start and where to go.”
In recent months, Silwan has emerged as the latest front line in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with weekly clashes between Palestinian residents and Jewish religious groups who have moved into the Arab-dominated area.
“The third intifada has already started in Silwan,” Siyam said.
Siyam says he admires the techniques used in Egypt but doesn’t think the same approach would work here.
“We tried nonviolence and it doesn’t work. It always ends up with clashes because Israelis provoke us.”
But Rafidi of Let’s End the Occupation said Palestinians have yet to fully understand and deploy nonviolent strategies, and that more time and training was needed to prepare and educate them.
“That’s partly why we are delaying action,” she said. “We don’t want to open up some kind of confrontation.”