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Palestinian activism evolves in Prawer protests

Nonpartisan Palestinian youths have taken the lead in nationwide protests against Israel's Prawer Plan, breaking away from traditional Palestinian political forces.
Members of the Bedouin community gesture during a protest outside a court in the southern city of Beersheba, calling to release people who were arrested last Saturday in protests against a government plan to force 40,000 Bedouins living in the southern Negev region to leave their villages, December 5, 2013. Hundreds of Bedouin Arabs and their supporters clashed with Israeli forces on Saturday in the protests, in which, according to an Israeli police spokesman, at least 28 people had been arrested. REUTERS/A

RAMALLAH, West Bank — A feeling of satisfaction has spread among Palestinian activists and their supporters after the Nov. 30 protests against the Israeli Prawer Plan in the Negev. Salah al-Khawaja, a leading member of the Al Mubadara (The Initiative) Movement and an expert on popular and civic resistance activities, told Al-Monitor that similar events occurred in 24 countries around the world that day, as well as in Palestinian lands occupied in 1967 and Galilee.

These protests raised a number of questions about the organizational framework and courses of action currently available to Palestinians. These include the identity of the factions that could actually take the lead on the Palestinian arena, whether the situation is expected to escalate to a third intifada and how coordination was achieved over such a multi-faceted issue.

The protests came in response to the scheme that the Knesset sought to approve at the end of May, known as the Prawer Plan. This law received its name from the cabinet committee headed by former Deputy Chairman of the Israeli National Security Council Ehud Prawer. His committee drew up a plan to “organize the settlement of Bedouin in the Negev” in southern Palestine.

Lawyer Shehada Ben Berri, a member of the High Steering Committee of the Arabs of the Negev (a national coordination committee), explained that this was a displacement plan and that the so-called Prawer Law was “racist par excellence.”

He told Al-Monitor that the plan aimed to steal the land of Negev Bedouin, despite the land to be confiscated from them, where they have been besieged for a while now, "being less than 800,000 dunums [198,000 acres] out of the Negev’s total land area of 13 million dunums." He added, “It remains unknown what the Israelis intend to do with the Bedouin they want to displace."

Among the possibilities being proposed is a desire by the Israelis to impose a different lifestyle on the population and force the Bedouin to live in high-rise buildings. The unconnected Jewish settlements to be built on their land are devoid of such buildings, and consist of villas instead.

New forces, but …

There exists a near consensus among Palestinian activists and lawyers interviewed by Al-Monitor that the forces leading the Palestinian movement in this case are not the traditional ones. Ben Berri said that youth are playing a prominent role. Meanwhile, traditional factions, such as the High Steering Committee, have lost a lot of their influence among Israeli Arabs.

Lawyer Jihad Abu Raya, one of the attorneys who volunteered to defend the dozens of young people arrested Nov. 30, pointed out to Al-Monitor, "The detainees’ educational level was remarkably high, unlike past occurrences, and their ranks included artists and professionals who garnered a lot of popular support." Ben Berri offered a different perspective, however, arguing that "The movement’s momentum was not great," and that "The 1970s saw many large-scale movements within Arab circles, which makes it hard to say that this movement is unprecedented."

Activists in the territories occupied in 1967 and in Europe do agree with the assessment that some aspects of this movement are, in fact, unprecedented. However, they also admit that quantitatively, it is still limited in popular participation.

Rashad al-Hindi, a Palestinian activist from Germany who lived until recently in the Syrian Yarmouk refugee camp, also opined that the popular momentum is limited, as is the role played by traditional factions.  Hindi told Al-Monitor, "Until a few years ago, partisan young people were reluctant to participate in activities without the consent and approval of their factions. However, things are different this time around, and young non-partisan people are leading the movement."

Unified Palestinian action

Abu Raya said that the Israeli police acknowledged in court their inability to determine the identities of the protest organizers. Abu Raya explained, "In truth, the action was not led by a single organizer. People proposed ideas, which garnered support and planning through various initiatives and social media. Therefore, there is no real ‘godfather’ for the activities." He confirmed that the response to the calls for action was great and "surprised the Israelis by encompassing new areas that had not previously witnessed any protests."

Badi Doueik, a Hebron-based activist leader of the Youth Against Settlements group, affirmed that coordination took place at a global level and benefited from activist networks that specialize in advocating for the Palestinian cause, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as well as the various other movements of solidarity with the Palestinian people.

"These movements have become rallying points discussed by activists through social-networking sites," he said.

The relative unity of Palestinians inside and outside Palestine was noteworthy throughout these protests, even if participant numbers were low. Doueik said that the "Bedouin community might be a pacifist one by nature, but the Israeli plan irked each and every person in that community. The personal is inseparable from the national.”

Doueik referred to the protests as a “pre-emptive effort” against what he sees as Israel’s plan to displace Palestinians. He said, "People are convinced that the Prawer Plan is but a sample of a planned policy concerning all Palestinian areas. It is also being implemented in the West Bank where Palestinians are being squeezed into the smallest possible tract of land as their lands are being confiscated and their homes destroyed.”

Hindi said that a large portion of those who demonstrated in Germany were recent refugees from the Yarmouk camp. He explained that their interest in championing the Negev Bedouin, despite their personal plight, was due to their belief that the “real solution lay in everyone’s return to their homeland.”

Third intifada?

Ben Berri believes that there are other legal, political and media avenues to pursue against Israel. He hoped that "the Israeli government would rescind the Prawer Plan without further clashes." 

From Hebron, Doueik affirmed, "The objective impetus for a third intifada was present as a result of the occupation and its policies. But internal Palestinian circumstances, particularly the divisions among them and their fear that escalation would lead to clashes with Palestinian forces, have reduced the chances of a third intifada occurring."

Still, he added that a new generation of nonpartisan young people was emerging — a generation that was developing its own methods for confrontation, “driven by their daily suffering at the hands of the occupiers."

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