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2011: The year in review

Jan. 1, 2012 10:57 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 8, 2012 4:18 P.M.)
In a dramatic year in which unrepresentative leaders were ousted in a wave of protests across the region, Palestine at times looked left behind as political divisions, internally and externally, failed to budge. But the 44th year of struggle against occupation had its own moments of tragedy and triumph.


Jawahir Abu Rahmah, 36, died on Jan. 1 after suffering intense tear-gas inhalation during an anti-wall rally in West Bank village Bilin. Abu Rahmah's brother Bassem was killed in April 2009 by a tear gas canister fired at his chest by an Israeli soldier. A military investigation leaked to the Israeli media blamed poor medical care at the Ramallah hospital that treated Abu Rahmah, prompting outrage amongst protesters and human rights groups, and PA allegations of a "cover up."


The United States vetoed a resolution at the UN Security Council, sponsored by some 130 countries, which would have condemned continued illegal Israeli settlement building. Standing alone in opposition to the measure among the 15 council members, the US said the text would harm a return to negotiations with Israel, while insisting it still condemned settlement building. Palestinian officials called the US veto "blackmail" and thousands of Palestinians rallied in protest against the move.


The wave of revolutions sweeping the region took root in Palestine in the March 15 movement's demand for national unity. A loose coalition of youth activists in the West Bank and Gaza called for mass rallies and staged hunger strikes to demand an end to the split between Fatah and Hamas governments that had paralyzed Palestinian politics. After setting up sit-in camps in city centers, the protesters were joined by thousands of Palestinians who took to the streets on March 15, before security forces violently dispersed the protest in Gaza, and clashed with protesters in the West Bank.


The Israeli-Palestinian director of Jenin's Freedom Theater was shot dead outside the venue on on April 4, prompting an outpouring of grief among Palestinians and activists. Despite repeated raids and arrests of theater staff, an Israeli investigation has yet to press charges for the murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis. Then on April 15, Italian solidarity activist Vittorio Arrigoni was found dead in Gaza hours after being kidnapped by radical Islamists. The government in Gaza called the killing a "heinous crime" and two suspects were killed when security forces raided a house of the alleged kidnappers. Four others are currently on trial for the killing.


On May 4, Fatah leader and president Mahmoud Abbas signed a landmark reconciliation agreement with Khalid Mashaal, chief of the rival Hamas movement, to end years of bitter hostility between their parties. They agreed to form a unity government to end four years of national division under which Hamas and Fatah led separate administrations governing Gaza and the West Bank. The long-awaited unity deal was welcomed by the public and by Palestinian factions, who joined Hamas and Fatah in Cairo. It provoked outrage from the Israeli government which swiftly imposed illegal sanctions on Abbas' Palestinian Authority.

"We fold forever the dark page of division," Abbas said in an address announcing the agreement, words echoed by Mashaal moments later in his own speech. But the promised unity government did not materialize in 2011 and the deal stalled as the parties squabbled over implementation of its terms.


Hundreds of protesters in Syria stormed the ceasefire line with Israel in the occupied Golan on June 5. Damascus said 23 were killed when Israeli forces opened fire, while Israel disputed the toll. Demonstrators in the West Bank and Gaza City also joined in the Naksa commemoration, the anniversary of the 1967 war when Israel seized the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai and Golan Heights. A month earlier, commemorations of the Nakba -- the 'catastrophe' when thousands of Palestinians were forced out or fled in fighting that led's to Israel's founding -- left 13 dead by Israeli fire as they approached Israel's borders from Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.


Greek forces intercepted Canadian and French boats carrying more than 40 Gaza-bound activists from Canada, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and Turkey on Jul. 1, after banning any ships sailing to Gaza from leaving Greek ports. Swedish and Irish boats set to sail as part of the 10-vessel flotilla were sabotaged at port, with activists fingering Israel for surreptitously blocking the attempt to end the crippling four-year seige on Gaza. Days later, the French boat slipped custody but was apprehended by the Israeli navy off Gaza's coast.


Israeli forces killed 11 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, including a child, in a bloody 24 hours in August after eight Israelis were killed in an attack on a bus in southern Israel. Israel swiftly blamed a Palestinian group for the Aug. 18 operation in Eilat and killed five of its leaders within hours of the attack. The group denied involvement, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised the army's response was "only beginning." Over one weekend, the death toll in Gaza rose to 14 and 44 were injured as Israeli war planes bombed the coastal enclave, destroying homes, a medical clinic, an electricity generator and water pumps. Hamas declared an end to its ceasefire and militants fired dozens of rockets across the border. By the end of August, at least 27 Palestinians had been killed. Israel later opened an investigation into the Eilat operation, but it has yet to reveal its findings. No Palestinian groups ever claimed the attack, which was launched from Egypt.


After decades of failed negotiations, on Sept. 23 President Mahmoud Abbas told the UN General Assembly in New York: "Enough, enough, enough" in an impassioned plea to world leaders to end Israel's occupation. To a standing ovation, the president told the assembly he had submitted a request to join the UN, in a speech watched by thousands on screens erected in city centers across the West Bank. Although 128 countries recognize the state of Palestine, Abbas failed to convince the US, and Washington vowed to use its veto in the Security Council to stop Palestine joining the UN.


In October, 477 prisoners walked out of Israel's jails in a captive swap deal hailed by Hamas as a victory of the resistance. In all, over 1000 detainees were freed in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who was kidnapped by Gaza fighters in a cross border raid in 2006. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Gaza and the West Bank to welcome the freed prisoners, although the exile of some detainees to Gaza and abroad dampened the celebrations for some.


On Nov. 15, Palestinian activists took inspiration from the American civil rights movement and boarded Israeli buses in the West Bank. Israeli forces arrested seven "Freedom riders." Activists noted that while in the US south, black people were once forced to sit at the back of buses, Palestinians were not even allowed on Israeli buses.


Across the West Bank, villagers and activists rallied every Friday in 2011 to protest Israel's confiscation of their land. On Dec. 10, the popular resistance movement mourned another casualty, 28-year-old Mustafa Tamimi. A day earlier, Tamimi was protesting in Nabi Saleh when an Israeli soldier in an armored jeep fired a tear gas canister at close range at his face. On Dec. 11, thousands gathered to bury Tamimi, amid fresh rounds of tear gas fired by Israeli forces at the mourners.

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