Thousands of Palestinians rally for reconciliation 15Mar11 March 16, 2011

Ma’an News Agency -  15 March 2011

Thousands of pro-unity protesters in Gaza City changed locations Monday, when a Hamas-organized rally arrived at the scene dampening calls for non-factional Palestinian unity.

A much smaller protest in Ramallah, with estimates of a few thousand, gathered in a main circle in tandem with Gaza calling for an end to political division, which fissured that Palestinian leadership in 2007.

By early evening in Ramallah, plainclothes agitators had gathered around protesters in an apparent attempt at intimidation, prompting demonstrators to turn the event into a sit-in, lighting hundreds of candles, and singing songs for unity.

Organizers of the March 15 movement, a loose coalition of groups in the West Bank and Gaza, have called for the protests to remain focused on unity. The aim of the demonstration, they say, is the end of Palestinian political division through elections that include all Palestinians.

From the first organizing attempts, youth groups said they feared the protests would be hijacked by political parties seeking to blame their rivals for the failure to achieve unity, all efforts were being made to keep factions out.

Speaking by phone from the protest one man, who asked not to be identified, said about 200 Hamas members carrying flags and chanting Hamas slogans entered the square shortly before 11:30 a.m.

He said two demonstrators were show with Taser guns and fainted as they shouted demanding the removal of all politically affiliated paraphernalia from the area.

Ahead of the marches, organizers insisted that only the Palestinian flag be flown at the events.

“Despite the Gaza government’s instructions to treat the demonstrators respectfully and not intervene, some hardliners tried to use the demonstration for factional gains,” one protester told Ma’an. He called on Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza to “stick to the promises he made yesterday.”

Organizer Hossam Khadra told AFP they had finally received a permit to demonstrate after previously being refused.

When the Hamas contingent arrived, one protester remarked on Twitter, “we r leaving ths isnt what we wanted ths prot to b.” Shortly after, the mass of people left the square for another location in the city.

Reports of limited political antagonism in Ramallah

In Ramallah, 3,000 gathered the Manara Circle, with early reports of Palestinian Authority security presence and some Fatah flags being raised.

By evening the numbers dwindled to about 1,000. Ma’an’s correspondent described Palestinian Authority security services staying at the sidelines and for the most part just observing.

A group of about a dozen agitators were reported by organizers, and seen burning an American flag and even US dollars.

Witnesses said the group was with the PA and nominally aligned with Fatah, but organizers were quick to point out that hundreds of Fatah members were out protesting alongside unity activists, and calling for an end to division.

The agitators were wearing plain cloths and had started some clashes with protesters, setting up a large banner with a photo of US President Barack Obama, saying: “Obama said freedom for Tunisian people, freedom for Libyan people, freedom for the Egyptian people but never freedom for the Palestinian people.”

Organizers of the event said they feared the agitators were trying to make the protest appear anti-American, and when members of the group burned dollar bills and shouted anti-American slogans, protesters began shouting in unison, “Free Palestine! Free Palestine!” and drowned out the men.

Protesters had been fighting hijacking attempts all day, with Fatah and the Ramallah Prisoners Center both setting up loudspeakers at opposite ends of Manara shouting out slogans those present at the rally said had little to do with their mission.

“They bought whistles and distributed them to protesters, and whenever they started yelling inappropriate slogans, we drowned them out,” one witness said.

Governments promise to protect rallies

Palestinian factions, including the major rivals Hamas and Fatah, had pledged to protect pro-unity rallies both in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.

Officials said they supported the rallies under their banner, “The people want to end the division.”

On Monday, Gaza government Interior Ministry spokesman Ihab Al-Ghussein said officials met and agreed that demonstrating youth would be respected and protected, ahead of the protests.

“We have been closely following the popular movement in Gaza,” Al-Ghussein said in a news conference from the site of the planned protests, the Square of the Unknown Soldier in Gaza City.

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