When Israel bombs the Gaza Strip and threatens the lives of top Hamas officials, the Palestinian Authority’s security forces dare not prevent the group's members in the West Bank from demonstrating on Ramallah's streets. Hundreds of Hamas members marched from Ramallah’s main mosque after Friday prayers to Al-Manara Square in the heart of the city.
This wasn't just a show of strength by Hamas, it was a show of weakness by the groups making up the Palestine Liberation Organization, headed by Fatah. The few PLO members who took part in the rally were outnumbered by Hamas people, and when Fatah supporters – probably members of the security forces in civilian clothes – tried to shout out slogans advocating Palestinian unity, they were drowned out by the Hamas protesters, yelling the name of their organization.
The yellow Fatah flags languished in the sea of Hamas green. A handful of secular women, originally from Gaza, also attended the rally. But feeling out of place, they said the Israeli assault on Gaza was being portrayed as an attack on Hamas rather than an attack on all Gazans.
During Friday prayers, armed members of the Palestinian Authority’s police force waited outside the mosque and kept a watchful eye on worshippers. The mosque was so full that many people were forced to pray outside on the sidewalks. Many of the worshippers went directly from the mosque to the demonstration.
At first, there were no more than 300 people, but the numbers swelled. Although plenty of Hamas flags were on display, not a single Palestinian national flag could be spotted. And there were giant posters of Ahmed Jabari, the Hamas military leader whose assassination Wednesday signaled the start of Operation Pillar of Defense.
A group of around 30 female Hamas members marched several meters behind the men, who were shouting slogans and calling for Hamas in Gaza to bomb Tel Aviv. The rally took a political turn when the demonstrators shouted their support for the “legitimate Palestinian government” – in other words, that of Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza, not that of Salam Fayyad in Ramallah.
Someone may have hinted that this was going too far, as the slogan was not repeated. Slowly but surely, people carrying Palestinian flags joined the rally, but their calls for Palestinian unity didn't spread.
The sight of a rally marked by green Hamas flags has become something of a rarity in the West Bank – in Ramallah in particular. The PA's security forces have sent Hamas a clear message in recent years: Stay off the streets and out of the public eye. That message has been reinforced by mass arrests, interrogations and questioning.
During Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-09, the Palestinian security forces violently repressed joint Hamas-PLO protests. The last time Hamas dared take to the West Bank's streets was in April, during the hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Friday’s rally, however, was much bigger than that and, at the head of the procession, marched several Hamas leaders who have been freed from administrative detention by Israel – or from prison by the PA.
In Al-Manara Square, a dozen or so young men created a human chain between the female protesters and passersby. Mahmoud Abu Tir, the Hamas leader who was exiled by Israel from Jerusalem some two years ago and who has spent many years in Israeli prisons, delivered a short speech that few could hear. After him, Ziad Abu Ein, the Palestinian deputy minister of prisoner affairs and a Fatah member, tried to address the crowd – but was heckled off the podium.
One Israeli who was present, a member of a left-wing organization, told me that “the Palestinian Authority is irrelevant. Hamas managed to clamber aboard the Arab Spring and ride on the coattails of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. It will be part of the future. The PA is looking more and more like a relic of a bygone age.”