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Deadly Day in Gaza Won’t Be the Last
Deadly Day in Gaza Won’t Be the Last
Gaza Protests Mark Shift in Palestinian National Consciousness
Gaza Protests Mark Shift in Palestinian National Consciousness
Female demonstrators run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli forces during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip on 11 May 2018 REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Deadly Day in Gaza Won’t Be the Last

Israeli troops on 14 May killed more than 60 Palestinian protesters demanding a return to their old homes in Israel and an end to the siege of Gaza. In this Q&A, our Israel/Palestine Project Director Nathan Thrall outlines the risks of escalation.

What is new in this form of Gaza protest over recent weeks?

Monday’s protest, held on the day of the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and the eve of nakba day, when Palestinians commemorate the expulsion and flight from their homes during the 1947-1949 war, was the largest of the past several weeks, and the bloodiest day of Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the 2014 Gaza war. The protesters’ primary goal has been to underscore the Palestinians’ insistence on returning to the homes in Israel from which they and their families have been exiled for 70 years; a more immediate demand of the march has been to end the siege of Gaza, including the tight restrictions on exports, imports, and travel in and out of the territory.

Several factors make yesterday’s protest more likely to lead to an escalation in violence than earlier ones. First, the number of protesters is higher and so are the number of casualties. Israel is determined to prevent Palestinians from crossing into Israel, and to achieve that objective, it is showing little compunction about using live fire on mostly unarmed protesters.

For the first time since the marches began on 30 March, Israel has threatened to assassinate Hamas leaders if the protests persist.

Second, in recent weeks, and especially today, Israel started employing a new tactic in order to deter Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that has controlled Gaza since 2007, from participating in, allowing, or encouraging the protests: the Israeli air force has attacked Hamas targets in Gaza that have no connection to the demonstrations, and in Monday’s protest those attacks intensified. An Israeli news site reported that, for the first time since the marches began on 30 March, Israel has threatened to assassinate Hamas leaders if the protests persist.

Third, the Palestinian factions in Gaza have been building up to this week’s demonstrations for several weeks. When Israel had previously hit Hamas targets in Gaza in order to weaken Hamas’s support for the marches, Hamas had an incentive not to retaliate: it didn’t want an escalation with Israel that would dampen or quash the protests before they had reached their planned climax. But now that we are at that anticipated climax and Israel is attacking Hamas targets on a larger scale than before, Hamas has fewer reasons to refrain from responding. Though both sides do not want a war, and Hamas has little reason to believe that a new war would leave it in a better position than it is in today, events can spiral out of control. 

What have the Palestinians achieved by their action?

The protests have deepened and widened global sympathy for the Palestinians at the same time that the U.S. has grown closer to Israel.

Although the Palestinians so far have fallen far short of their main substantive goals (return and end of the siege), they nonetheless have achieved quite a bit: they’ve brought renewed attention to the Palestinian issue, at a time when it is marginalized not just in the world but even in the region; united the Palestinians in Gaza in a joint struggle at a time when efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah have gone nowhere; emphasized the urgency of resolving the humanitarian crisis in Gaza; highlighted the incontrovertible reality that Gazans are living in what amounts to a large open-air prison, given the strict closure regime; and reasserted Palestinian demands, in particular for the return of refugees, at a time when Palestinians appear to be losing everywhere, from Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (remaining ambiguous and inconsistent about what part of Jerusalem has been recognised), to cuts to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, to the threat of an imposed U.S. peace plan that Palestinians believe will be highly unfavourable. In addition, the protests have deepened and widened global sympathy for the Palestinians at the same time that the U.S. has grown closer to Israel. On 14 May, Turkey and South Africa recalled their ambassadors to Israel.

Looked at more narrowly within the frame of intra-Palestinian politics, there have been some achievements for those seen to be supporting the protests, in particular Hamas. Its unequivocal support for the protests has increased its standing among Palestinians, sharpening the division between it and Fatah, whose leader has made several ambivalent statements about the protests and has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Gaza during the past year.

Where do the Gaza protests fit with the U.S. embassy move?

The Great March of Return in Gaza was originally scheduled for 15 May, nakba day. But in order to coincide with the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and emphasize Palestinian opposition to the move, the march was rescheduled to begin on 14 May, the eve of nakba day, and continue on 15 May. The primary demands of the protesters are for return and an end to siege, however, not for anything related to the U.S. embassy move.

Where is all this heading for Israel? 

As bad as the headlines have been in recent weeks, this sort of criticism is something Israel has been coping with fairly well since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. There is no reason to assume that Israel cannot continue its policies in Gaza for some time to come, though part of the price it has paid, and will likely continue to pay, is occasional escalations and international opprobrium.

Israel, Egypt and the U.S. share an interest in containing the protests, and it is possible that they will now act with greater urgency to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

That said, the opprobrium could have longer term consequences for Israel: the fraying of bipartisan support in the U.S.; alienation from parts of the American Jewish community; growing calls for boycotts and sanctions; the announcement by the UN Office of Human Rights that it expects to publish a database of businesses that are linked to Israeli settlements or enable and support their establishment, expansion and maintenance; and the warning in April from the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) that: “Violence against civilians, in a situation such as the one prevailing in Gaza, could constitute crimes under the Rome statute of the [ICC], as could the use of civilian presence for the purpose of shielding military activities”. But so far these ramifications have been manageable.

Nevertheless, Israel, Egypt and the U.S. share an interest in containing the protests, and it is possible that they will now act with greater urgency to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. On the day before Monday’s protest, according to reports in the Arab press, Egypt offered Hamas several Egyptian and Israeli concessions in exchange for containing the protests: expanding the area in which Gaza fishermen are permitted; opening Egypt’s crossing with Gaza on a regular basis; increasing imports of fuel and goods through the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel; and allowing greater numbers of medical patients to be treated in Israel and the West Bank. These are positive first steps that should be pursued, but much more needs to be done to significantly change conditions in Gaza.

Is there anything the outside world can do?

To begin, there are steps the parties to the conflict can and should take: protest organisers should do their utmost to ensure the marches are peaceful – on Monday, the Israeli army said that Palestinians had planted explosives, hurled fire bombs, and flown flaming kites – and Israel must stop using deadly and disproportionate force on unarmed demonstrators. Israelis and Palestinians also ought to pursue a comprehensive ceasefire agreement, involving an exchange of prisoners and bodies between Israel and Hamas. Beyond that, the most important measures entail ameliorating the tragic humanitarian situation in Gaza. For the outside world, it means pressing Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to end their joint strangulation of Gaza. For donors to the PA, it entails beginning investing directly in Gaza projects. Israel, for its part, ought to stop transferring taxes on Gaza goods to the PA government in Ramallah and instead use that money – which in any event should belong to the people of Gaza – on the territory’s most pressing needs: electricity, sewage, clean water, and jobs. Finally, the EU should consider direct support to the government of Gaza so long as it, and the factions of Gaza, commit to uphold a ceasefire with Israel.

A wounded demonstrator is being moved away from clashes with Israeli forces during the demonstration under the name of the "Great Return March" at Israeli border in eastern part of Khan Yunis, Gaza on March 30, 2018. Mustafa Hassona / Anadolu Agency

Gaza Protests Mark Shift in Palestinian National Consciousness

Protests in Gaza on Friday 30 March, at which Israeli forces killed more than a dozen Palestinians, were the largest of their kind in several years and are likely to grow over the coming weeks. In this Q&A, Nathan Thrall, Director of Crisis Group’s Arab-Israeli Project, says the series of planned marches reflect the Palestinians’ determination to take matters into their own hands after losing faith in outside mediation.

What happened last Friday? 

Friday was 30 March, Land Day, the annual commemoration of protests by Palestinian citizens of Israel against government appropriation of their lands in 1976. Tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza marched toward the border with Israel in what is to be the first of several weekly marches leading up to 15 May. On that day, Palestinians commemorate what they refer to as the nakba, the forced displacement of some 750,000 Palestinians during the 1948 war. Over two thirds of Gazans are refugees from villages in Israel, and this year organisers named the series of events – of which last Friday’s was the largest of its kind in several years – the “Great March of Return”, reflecting the marchers’ demand to return to their original homes. Seventeen Palestinians were killed (two of them near the border but not part of the protests) and over 1,400 were wounded by Israeli live fire, rubber-coated bullets and tear gas. On the 70th anniversary of the nakba this year, Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria plan to march on Israel’s borders and may try to cross them.

Last Friday, marchers converged on the Gaza-Israel border fence in five locations. The two largest protests took place east of Gaza City and east of Beit Hanoun, in northern Gaza. The other three were east of the Bureij refugee camp, in central Gaza, and east of Khan Younis and Rafah, both in southern Gaza. The majority of the protests were peaceful and remained at a distance of some seven hundred metres from the security fence, though several hundred younger men approached the fence at various points, including within the three hundred metres limit set by Israeli authorities, throwing stones or attempting to plant a Palestinian flag on it. In the days prior to the march, several Gazans, some of them armed, had penetrated the fence and entered Israel. Close to the end of the day, two armed Hamas gunmen, separate from the protesting crowds, tried to approach the fence and were killed by Israeli forces, which took their bodies into Israel.

The number killed on Friday is large for a single day, but it follows numerous deaths during unarmed protests along Gaza’s border in recent years. In the three weeks following President Donald Trump’s December 2017 declaration extending U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his intention to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, eight unarmed Palestinians, including a double amputee, were killed by Israeli forces during protests at the Gaza border, according to the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem; similar killings took place during protests last summer over Israel’s decision to place metal detectors at the gates of the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem. For the Israeli army – as opposed to the police – confronting unarmed protesters with military weapons rather than riot-control gear is a well-established pattern since the founding of the state seventy years ago.

Who organised the protests? 

Participants of all ages and genders responded en masse to a call by the Higher National Commission for the March of Return and Breaking the Siege, an entity formed by an array of national and Islamist factions and organisations from the occupied territories and the diaspora. They seek to expose and confront Israel’s occupation and draw world attention to their plight. Hamas views the protests as a means to confront Israel’s blockade by peaceful means, without starting a new war. Preparations for the march began months ago. All major Palestinian factions agreed to participate and keep the demonstrations unarmed. Hamas instructed its followers and security forces to ensure that no arms were displayed among the protesters and no weapons were fired at Israeli forces.

All major Palestinian factions agreed to participate and keep the demonstrations unarmed.

The organisers established several large tent encampments along the fence. They encouraged male Gaza residents to stay overnight, providing the camps with bathrooms, water, medical posts, prayer areas and Wi-Fi. In some areas, the organisers paved the ground and created soccer fields to encourage younger participants to stay. Hamas and other factions provided free transportation, with buses shuttling congregants from mosques all over Gaza to the borders just after Friday prayers. Hamas and Islamic Jihad asked imams affiliated with their organisations to deliver Friday sermons encouraging worshippers to participate, reminding them of their duties to the Palestinian struggle. Women were called upon to bring their entire families during the day, but leave their sons, husbands and brothers at the tent camps overnight.

Why are these protests happening now?

Protest organisers describe them as reflecting a shift in Palestinian national consciousness, stemming from Trump’s decision to, in his words, take “Jerusalem off the table”. They say that, to Palestinians, it is now indisputable that they cannot achieve their national aims through mediation by the U.S. or the international community. The march is an attempt by Palestinians to take matters into their own hands and shape their fate, as they attempted to do during the first and second intifadas.

On 15 May, the national day of mourning for the flight and expulsion of three quarters of a million Palestinian refugees, Palestinians in Gaza plan to break through the border fence and march toward their erstwhile villages, destroyed since 1948. The protest will take place at a tense moment: the day after Israel will celebrate the 70th anniversary of its declaration of independence and the U.S. will hold a ceremony to open its embassy in Jerusalem.

The march is taking place at a time of unprecedented suffering in Gaza.

The march is taking place at a time of unprecedented suffering in Gaza. Gazans have endured a more than a decade-old closure, with severe restrictions on imports, exports and travel to and from Gaza, which has turned the territory into a virtual prison. Youth unemployment stands at roughly 60 per cent, and overall unemployment is over 40 per cent. In March 2017, conditions worsened considerably, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO)-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank began taking a series of punitive measures against Gaza, hoping to press Hamas to fully relinquish control of the territory. The PA cut salaries of its employees in Gaza, most of whom had been paid to stay home since Hamas won the elections and took over Gaza’s administration in 2007. It also prevented Gaza patients from obtaining the insurance needed for medical treatment outside of Gaza, held up the supply of medicine and reduced the electricity supply, causing worsening blackouts, increased flows of untreated sewage and the closure of several hospitals and clinics.

Following several months of such pressure, Hamas and the PLO forged a new reconciliation agreement on 12 October 2017, but little progress has been made in implementing it. Israeli officials now complain openly of the PA seeking to drag Hamas into a new war with Israel as a way of crippling its political rival. Israeli officials interpret the current march as an attempt by Hamas to respond to PA pressure by directing the anger of Gaza residents toward Israel. But Gazans view it as a rare moment of unity following eleven years of conflict and stalemate among their political leaders.

What can be done?

There is a great deal that can and must be done for Gaza, regardless of the marches, not least by providing it with drinkable water, electricity and sewage treatment. The PA should rescind its punitive measures against Gaza. Egypt should open the Rafah crossing regularly. Israel should increase exports and exit permits from Gaza and use Gaza tax revenues to provide Gaza with additional electricity, regardless of any intended cuts by the PA. 

While such steps are urgently needed to alleviate a man-made humanitarian crisis, they are almost certainly insufficient to stop the marches that are set to take place from now until 15 May, or to restrain the protesters if they decide to push toward and across the fence. The issues driving the marchers are much larger than the collapsing Gaza infrastructure, and resolving them is not something Israel, the U.S. or the international community appear inclined to tackle in a serious way.

Nevertheless, steps can be taken to reduce the risks of escalation, which will increase substantially if more protesters are killed and Hamas and other factions respond with violence. The protest organisers should do their utmost to keep the marches peaceful and Israel must cease responding to unarmed demonstrations with deadly and disproportionate force. And the EU and the international community should take two simultaneous steps: press Israel not to use disproportionate force, and engage Hamas in order to encourage it to eschew violence and continue to embrace peaceful protest.