Middle East

Palestinians emboldened by Arab Spring

Palestinian youths flash at a rally in the West Bank city of Jenin

"We will fight and fight until the Israelis leave this land. It belongs to us and we will liberate it," cried a Palestinian boy in his teens in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Sunday.

Palestinians are feeling emboldened and inspired.

"The Israelis are on the back foot. The Arab Spring has given us momentum," says Husam Zomlot, a senior official with the Palestinian Fatah Party.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians demonstrated over the weekend from Gaza to the Golan Heights. They were marking the Nakba.

In Arabic it means "Catastrophe" - the moment, 63 years ago, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their homes amid the fighting after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Counting their descendents, the United Nations says there now around five million Palestinians classed as refugees.

These were the biggest Nakba day demonstrations for years. In Ramallah, I watched as more than 1,000 protesters marched down the dusty dual carriageway towards Qalandia, the main Israeli checkpoint dividing the West Bank from Jerusalem.

Stones and rocks

The front-line was made up of young men and women, many carrying Palestinian flags and wearing the kafiya, the traditional Arabic scarf.

Image caption Palestinians marked Nakba, in the biggest demonstration of its kind in many years

It was initially peaceful but they were heading in a direction the Israeli army did not want them to go.

The soldiers, many equipped in high-tech riot gear, fired rubber bullets and canisters of choking, eye-stinging tear-gas, injuring dozens. Some of the Palestinians threw stones and rocks.

Occasionally, groups of undercover plain-clothed Israeli officers carrying pistols surged into the crowd to make arrests.

Such scenes are not uncommon at Qalandia, a point of frequent friction.

But the scale of the clashes - these lasted for more than seven hours - and the fact that they were repeated across the region reflects the fact that this year the Palestinians feel they have the wind in their sails.

"People here are inspired by what happened in the Arab world," said Mustapha Barghouti, an independent Palestinian politician who attended the protests at Qalandia.

"It's different this year. You see unity of action from the Palestinians. In the West Bank, in Gaza, in Jerusalem, in Lebanon, in Syria. One voice. We demand our freedom," he added.

Israel is equally resolute that its borders will not be breached.

"We are determined to defend our borders and our sovereignty," said the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday night.

But Palestinians feel that Israel has been caught off-guard by the recent upheaval across the region.

The dynamics of the Middle East are shifting.

Taken by surprise

Few, if any, of the world's leaders predicted this year's Arab Spring, but Israel perhaps more than most, is having to recalculate.

The recent unity deal signed the two main Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas also seemed to take Israel by surprise.

The deal, pushed by the new leadership in Egypt and strongly opposed by Israel, may not last but it has given many Palestinians a sense that, at least on their side, things are moving.

"Israel is worried," Husam Zomlot told me.

And Israel has another concern. In September, the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, frustrated by the failed US-led Middle East peace talks, is threatening to go to the UN to try to get official recognition of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.

It may only be a symbolic gesture but the aim is to make Israel look politically isolated.

This month, both US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu are expected to make key policy speeches addressing the stagnant peace process.

Palestinians are likely to be sceptical about both men's words.

And Mr Zomlot believes there will be more large-scale protests from Palestinians in the coming weeks and months.

"This weekend we had the Nakba. In June, it will be the Naksa," he says, referring to the anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war which saw Israel capture the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, land it still occupies today.

"We need to keep the momentum going," says Mr Zomlot.