After a prolonged period of relative quiet, the Gaza Strip has once again roared back into international headlines: two weeks into ongoing demonstrations dubbed the Great March of Return on the Israeli border have left, at present, anywhere between 25 to 30 Palestinians dead and hundreds more wounded by live fire, with Israeli authorities claiming that many of the dead were armed combatants attempting to storm the security barrier— and were therefore fair game as targets. The protests, now approaching their third week, are scheduled to continue into May, culminating with a protest on May 15 to mark Nakba Day. As is par for the course, one’s social media feed is full of either denunciations of Israel as a bloodthirsty war-machine carrying out a miniature version of Tiananmen Square, or a necessary act by an army justified in protecting its borders from tens of thousands of armed terrorists. Like most matters relating to the conflict, there are, naturally, multiple shades of gray. But the argument regarding culpability for the current situation misses the point. What should interest observers is the timing of these events and what they negatively portend for the future if policy changes are not enacted.
Although the protests are scheduled to correspond to a number of significant dates on the Palestinian national calendar (Land Day, Nakba Day, the U.S. embassy move) the simple reality is that life is also becoming increasingly unbearable for the Strip’s inhabitants, with no discernable light at the end of the tunnel, forcing the hand of various civil society groups frustrated by Israel and the international community’s seeming indifference. Never one to miss an opportunity, Hamas, plum out of ideas on how to effectively confront Israel, saw a chance to co-opt what began as a genuine grass-roots initiative for its own ends.
More isolated than they’ve been in years and with dwindling resources, Hamas’s leaders have come to the realization their options going forward are severely limited: already teetering on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, another war with an Israel buttressed by a seemingly unconditionally supportive (at least rhetorically) American administration might lead to the Strip’s full-fledged collapse. The group’s success in burrowing into Israel over the last few years (ostensibly one of the main reasons for the launch and maintenance of Operation Protective Edge four years ago) is slowly being snuffed out as the IDF continues to uncover and destroy these tunnels and is now in the process of building underground barriers to prevent new ones from being created.
Despite much of the fiery rhetoric we’ve come to expect from Hamas leaders denouncing Israel with mounting (and creative) fervor, there are, just below the surface, various messages being relayed between the parties that essentially reveal the group’s desperation and therefore its willingness to accept certain conditions that would help ameliorate some of the Strip’s problems. Egypt, perhaps fearing that it soon will also have to deal with frustrated Gazans on its own border, has been putting pressure on Hamas leadership to call off the protests with the promise to reopen Rafah Crossing on a more regular basis. Cairo has also discussed trying to salvage the reconciliation agreement between Palestinian factions. In addition, some Hamas officials have hinted that they would be willing to tamp down on any attempts to cross the border if Israel were to ease entry to and from the Strip, allow more tradespeople into Israel, and expand Gaza’s maritime fishing zone.
In its struggle to militarily contain Hamas, Israel has effectively won. The organization no longer poses a real strategic threat to the state, and, with the exception of individuals crossing the border into Israel (in many cases hoping to be caught by authorities out of sheer desperation), much of the danger it poses to the communities close to the Strip has been neutralized. Yet instead of recognizing that with this victory comes an opportunity to rehabilitate the enclave to the benefit of its inhabitants, a move that would have broader positive implications for Israel, the government has decided to continue its policy of benign neglect and ignore the mounting crisis presented by the Gaza’s grinding poverty. Nor does this current coalition view a real and meaningful reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas as currently within its interests; a divided Palestinian polity (divided also in large part due to the latter groups’ inability to come to a meaningful agreement over any number of issues) allows the right to drag its feet in regards the diplomatic deadlock, cynically laying the lion’s share of blame on the shoulders of the Palestinians themselves.
Of course, it would be unfair to lay the entirety of the dire state in which Gaza finds itself on Israel or Prime Minister Netanyahu, despite his premiership coinciding with the majority of the ongoing blockade. In today’s hyper-partisan environment, it’s become easy for many on the left to vilify Israelis vis-à-vis Gaza as cartoonish and sadistic monsters who operate solely to inflict suffering on the Strip’s inhabitants. The effects of the blockade, and the hardships endured by its residents must also be attributed to Egypt, which has kept the Rafah crossing closed for much of the time. Millions of dollars in aid money meant to rehabilitate the Strip have been siphoned off by Hamas for personal gain, procurement of arms, and the expansion and maintenance of the aforementioned tunnels. And the failure of President Mahmoud Abbas to reach some form of agreement with Hamas to allow the Palestinian Authority’s return hardly needs prodding from Israel; the attempted assassination of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah during his visit to Gaza in March, likely by Hamas operatives, shows the extent to which its polity remains deeply divided.
But Netanyahu’s attitude towards Gaza is, nonetheless, highly reflective of his general attitude towards any dealings with the Palestinians: a problem to be managed mostly through the use of various sticks, and a smaller amount of carrots, not a recurring crisis whose ramifications inflict lasting damage on Israel on a regular basis whenever they boil over. He has been successful in convincing large swathes of the public that much like a chronic disease, the situation will inevitably flare up for a temporary amount of time, only to subside once again.
The only time, it seems, that Israeli politicians and indeed the public at large are willing to pay attention to Gaza is when there are warnings from the security establishment that the humanitarian situation is liable to lead to another round of fighting, speculation that untreated sewage from the Strip may find its way to Israeli beaches, or the fear that a possible epidemic may spread across the border.
The protests are not the problem, nor are they a problem unto themselves; they are one of many inevitable reactions to a larger dilemma that has been ignored. More protests and more deaths may lead to a larger conflagration and another war in the south, or they may not. Egypt and other powers may in fact be successful in convincing Hamas’ leadership to either call off the protests entirely or at least do its utmost to prevent breaches of the fence. It’s simply too early in the process to tell. But however the situation plays out, Israel is courting disaster if it believes that a relatively toothless Hamas means the end of all dealings with Gaza. These protests will eventually come to an end. Their existence should serve, at the very least, as a warning that it can no longer be “business as usual” regarding the Strip; the coalition seemed caught unaware by the magnitude of the Great March events. Future negligence will prove that the misery endured under the blockade in its present state will find new and unpleasant ways to affect Israel.