New York, January 9, 2012—With the world's attention still rapt by the waves of unrest, protest and political upheaval gripping Egypt, Algeria and the region as a whole, Ahmad Sholi was busy trying to bring change to Palestine.
Ahmad was among those in the first surge of Palestinians who emerged in the leaderless and nameless movement, taking over city centers around the West Bank and Gaza Strip in makeshift camps on March 15 to demand reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas and a unity government.
"We felt, we still feel, like we were part of something great," Ahmad says, excitement in his voice as he recalls the atmosphere and camaraderie of the movement. "People around us may have thought it was pointless at first, but we believed."
The movement was, like other Arab Spring protests around the region, a youth driven initiative, with many of the people involved looking for a new form of political expression. Ahmad's involvement in the Palestinian national movement, though, began long before the tents went up on March 15.
Walking into a OneVoice session in Nablus three years ago, he was skeptical of the organization. "I heard talk of the two-state solution, of 1967 borders," he remembers of his understanding of OneVoice before the town hall meeting, "and I thought, what are we going to do about the other Palestine, about Haifa, about Yaffa?"
That meeting changed Ahmad's mind. "The Palestinians I met there told me to think long and hard about what I want and about what is possible," he remembers. "We have all lost people. In the second intifada we lost a lot of our youth. I lost many friends. We didn't gain anything. When I thought about that, I realized there must be another solution. We won't forget Palestine – but we need to live in peace, we need to end the occupation, we need our country."
And so Ahmad got involved: having completed OneVoice's advanced youth leadership training program, he led town hall meetings across the West Bank and recruited others to join the OneVoice network as well. Beyond his OneVoice involvement, he volunteered with a community service center in Nablus, working with children and the disabled community, before recruiting 30 people from his own community to volunteer and establish a local center in his own town.
His community organizing efforts were recognized last month when, along with OneVoice Palestine's Ibrahim Mubarak, he received an Awnah award for youth development and empowerment at a national ceremony organized by the Sharek Youth Forum in honor of 30 Palestinian volunteers and presided over by Salam Fayyad.
Underlying Ahmad's community work is a belief in the importance of individual engagement. This same idea, of getting youths politically involved, is what inspired his efforts with the March 15 movement. The camps, which sprung up in Nablus, Ramallah, Jenin and Tulkarem in the West Bank and in Gaza City in Gaza, borrowed much in organizational structure from similar movements in neighboring countries. But the impetus behind the movement, and thus the content, was markedly different.
"I wouldn't call it anger," says Ahmad, reflecting on the atmosphere in the camp, comparing it with more violent uprisings in Egypt and Syria. "We shared food and blankets. It was festive. But people were definitely frustrated."
The frustration that Ahmad refers to stems from the political division between Fatah and Hamas. Families, communities, towns, cities and the entire Palestinian national identity have been pulled apart by it.
And what happens when that division cuts too deep?
"We took to the streets to pressure Hamas and Fatah to reconcile," says Ahmad. "We came together on Facebook, built camps in the center of cities, we organized."
In other words: March 15 happens.
That the story of the March 15 movement – Ahmad's story – is not better known is understandable, if not excusable. In a region which saw four longstanding autocrats fall from power within 10 months, a preliminary agreement between rival political factions to work together may seem paltry in comparison. Yet, in many respects, the Palestinian movement was remarkably successful, no matter the field of comparison.
"In the first days in Nablus there were less than 10 of us. We draped a big flag like a tarp and slept under it," recalls Ahmad. "That first night was very cold. It rained. We could have ended the campaign and gone home right then. But we didn't – we stayed."
From less than 10 people during the first week, the camp in Nablus soon swelled to over 50. The camp site became a makeshift community center resembling the ones Ahmad volunteers in as protesters, mostly students like Ahmad, used their time in between studying for their own university exams, to hold classes for neighborhood children.
All of this changed how people saw the movement in Nablus: indifference turned to engagement. "The police," Ahmad remembers, "were suspicious of us in the first week and told us to go home. By the second week they joined us, sitting in the camp with us during the daytime."
The movement grew from a trickle of disaffected youths, something easily dismissible, to a torrent of frustration, calling for action, demanding change. In the months since the preliminary agreement was announced there have been further talks toward a unity government and elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 2012, as well as murmurs of incorporating Hamas into the PLO, thereby including the entire Palestinian Diaspora in future elections.
Looking back on the movement, it's impossible to miss the pride in Ahmad's voice. "We did that – as youths, as people committed, as people involved in simple actions and community activities – we made a difference and pushed our politicians to end the division."
The next question – where is the movement heading – is more difficult to answer. "People are unsure of what will come next. There is mistrust that has been built up over years that is not easy to break," says Ahmad Omeir, OneVoice Palestine's communications officer and a participant in the Ramallah camp. "But the point of the movement remains: to have people gather around one flag. By bringing people together and demanding a national conversation and national representation, the movement compliments our efforts in OneVoice Palestine."
And, on April 27, as Fatah and Hamas announced an outline for reconciliation?
"Celebrations in the camp," recalls Ahmad. "But I went home to shower."