Reporting from Gaza City and Ramallah, West Bank — Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets Tuesday in the largest popular demonstrations in years, calling for an end to the political fracture between the two dominant factions, Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Protests in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem were peaceful. However, several injuries were reported in Gaza City, where tens of thousands of people gathered and brief clashes broke out among dueling demonstrators.
By Tuesday evening, Hamas security forces had broken up remaining crowds of protesters who were vowing to camp out in Gaza City's Katiba Square, beating some activists and arresting others, witnesses said.
Young activists in Gaza, who had used Facebook and Twitter to organize the event, were calling for a non-factional demonstration that would focus on unity and raise only the Palestinian national flag. But organizers said hundreds of Hamas supporters attempted to hijack the protest, waving the Islamic movement's green flag, condemning peace talks with Israel and criticizing rival Fatah.
When the two sides clashed, throwing stones, police intervened in behalf of the Hamas supporters, using clubs and stun guns against the activists.
"Hamas violence will not frighten us," said Mohanned Jouda, 27, one of the protesters.
After the clashes, the youths tried to move their protest to another location, but pro-Hamas demonstrators followed them.
"I wonder why Hamas is acting like this," said Ibaa Rezeq, 21, one of the organizers. "We told them from the very beginning that we don't belong to any party and our goal is to end the division."
Earlier in the day, Hamas officials attended the demonstration and expressed their support. After the violence, officials could not be reached for comment.
The large demonstrations could mark a new phase of Palestinian unrest, some observers said, mimicking similar waves of popular protests sweeping through Arab nations.
But skeptics noted that Tuesday's demonstrations were partly organized and largely dominated by supporters and security forces of both Fatah and Hamas, who effectively co-opted the protests to ensure that no antigovernment slogans were chanted and that anger was not turned against the factions.
In Ramallah, nearly 2,000 people, mostly Fatah supporters, gathered in Manara Square in the largest public protest since 2006.
High school students were allowed to leave class to participate, but were warned by teachers against chanting any slogans other than those against the division. Likewise, Fatah security officers stood on the sidelines of the demonstration to ensure that protesters did not raise banners or shout slogans against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas or against the stalled peace process with Israel.
"Some of the factions had decided not to participate because of restrictions on what slogans to use," said Salah Haniyeh, a consumer protection activist from Ramallah. "I think this was a good start, even though not very big. We should see other activities in the future to fight division."
A Fatah-Hamas unity government was created after 2006 Palestinian elections, but it quickly fell apart amid a power struggle and disputes over how best to achieve statehood.
In 2007, Hamas forces drove Fatah fighters out of Gaza, in effect dividing the Palestinian territories.
Fatah, a secular party that advocates peace talks, administers some areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Hamas, which refuses to renounce armed resistance, runs Gaza. Each side has its own prime minister and Cabinet, and each says the other lacks legitimacy.
Repeated attempts at reconciliation have failed.
Special correspondents Aldabba and Abukhater reported from Gaza City and Ramallah, respectively. Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem contributed to this report.