Middle East

Gaza Strip residents seek to join the 'Arab spring'

A Palestinian protester flashes the victory sign during a demonstration calling for unity between the rival Palestinian factions of Fatah and Hamas in the West Bank town of Ramallah
Image caption As a wave of pro-democracy protests sweep the region, both sides in Palestinian politics are facing calls to reconcile

Gazans will often tell you they are a rare breed. Tough and resilient are two qualities sometimes attributed.

A friend of mine's cat recently leapt from the tenth floor of a tower block in Gaza City, yet emerged with just a few grazes and a bit of a limp. It was a Gazan cat, I was told.

On Saturday afternoon, I witnessed toughness and resilience shown by two young Gazan women who had been trying to demonstrate in one of the main squares in Gaza city.

They were part of a small protest calling for political unity between Hamas, who are in power in Gaza, and Fatah, who run parts of the West Bank.

As they were surrounded by Hamas security officers wielding thick wooden batons and hurling abuse, the two slight young women remained firm, refusing to move.

Eventually, they were beaten by female Hamas officers, thrown into a police pick-up truck and driven away. It is not known what has happened to them.

A little earlier, one of my colleagues saw a young man being set upon and heavily beaten with sticks by up to 10 Hamas officers. The man was also arrested.

Hamas officials said the young people did not a have a permit to demonstrate and that the protest was illegal.

Image caption Mahmoud Abbas has not visited Gaza in almost four years

There was a strange atmosphere of menace and intimidation in the square. As many people simply went about their Saturday afternoon shopping, journalists and human rights workers tried to blend into the crowd, aware that anyone who raised a camera would have it taken away from them.

Later, armed men who said they were from Hamas's internal security forces raided the offices of the Reuters news agency as well as CNN and the Japanese broadcaster NHK.

At the Reuters office, one journalist was beaten on the arm with an iron bar. Another was threatened with being thrown out of the window from the ninth floor.

The men smashed a television and other equipment and confiscated a camera. It was later returned.

Other news agencies have reported that their journalists have been arrested and attacked by police this week as they tried to cover pro-unity demonstrations.

The Hamas interior ministry has since condemned the attacks on journalists and said some of those involved have been arrested.

Opportunity for change

The demonstrators in Gaza say they have been inspired by the uprisings elsewhere in the region. You sense they see an opportunity to try and make a change.

They are calling for an end to the division between Hamas and its secular rival, Fatah.

For four years, Palestinians have been politically and geographically divided. The split happened a year after Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006.

Fierce fighting between the two factions in June 2007 led to Fatah being forced from Gaza.

Palestinian political leaders say they are listening to these calls for unity. Last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is from the Fatah faction, accepted a Hamas invitation to visit Gaza within days to meet with Hamas leaders.

Hamas initially welcomed the move, but both sides now seem to be attaching conditions to the visit. It seems unlikely it will happen this week, if at all.

Many Palestinians see the lack of unity as a distraction from their main priority, their struggle to end Israel's continuing occupation.

But so far here the popular protests have been relatively small-scale compared to elsewhere in the region.

The largest occurred on 15 March when more than 10,000 young Gazans took to the streets.

Hamas initially allowed that demonstration to happen. But in the evening, it was broken up with force, Hamas police again using batons to disperse the crowds.

Some protesters reported being beaten and even stabbed by Hamas security forces.

Hamas support

The question for the demonstrators here to be what next.

At the moment, their protests seem a little disjointed and disorganised. How far are they prepared to go? At the moment, not as far as in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain or Syria.

On Sunday, more than 1,000 students again gathered at the main campus of al-Azhar University in Gaza City.

This time, the police left them alone and remained outside the university gates. The university is regarded as a Fatah institution.

On one side of the campus, young women in a vibrant range of coloured headscarves and bling sunglasses chanted for unity.

On the other side, young men rode on each other's shoulders, waving Palestinian flags.

The students did not demonstrate outside the campus, fearing this would receive a hostile response.

Hamas seems uncertain how to handle the protests. Publicly, some of the party's leaders say they back the calls for unity. But on the ground, security forces and police are sending a different message.

The Islamic movement continues to have a large support base in Gaza. When it organises its own rallies, tens of thousands of people sometimes attend.

At the moment, many of the demonstrators say they are non-political and not anti-Hamas.

But that could change if the authorities continue to use force to suppress any future protests.