The violence last Friday in Gaza, in which 18 Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli troops near the border, was the worst since the war of 2014. But everything is in place for a significant escalation in coming weeks, particularly in mid-May.
A series of major tripwires are clustered tightly together: commemorations of the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding on May 14-15; mourning by Palestinians who regard the same event as their “catastrophe” and observe May 15 as “Nakba Day”; and the scheduled opening of a United States Embassy in occupied Jerusalem on May 14, courtesy the administration of US President Donald Trump.
Things are likely to get worse because Palestinians increasingly feel they have nothing left to lose. The “March of Return” last week drew unprecedented crowds of up to 30,000 Palestinians from all parts of Gaza society. In a festive and surreal atmosphere, vendors sold ice cream to picnicking families as young men risked their lives by approaching the border. More than 90 per cent of Gaza’s almost two million people are refugees from what is now southern Israel. Unlike most other Palestinians, they are still geographically close to the towns and villages from which they were displaced in 1947-1948. Since its founding, Israel has had one primary response to Palestinians, armed or not, attempting to go home without permission. The Israeli military reiterated that anyone approaching within 300 metres of the border would face a shoot-to-kill policy.
But things are so bad in the wretched open-air prison of Gaza that the only surprise is that the death toll wasn’t even higher.
One of the most densely populated places on earth, Gaza is now barely habitable. Hunger is rampant. Water is undrinkable. Unemployment is close to just 50 per cent. Health care is scanty at best. Electricity is available just two to four hours a day. The once-beautiful seacoast is now a giant sewer. And there’s virtually no way in or out of the territory which, since a violent takeover by Hamas in 2007, has been under a lockdown.
For more than 10 years, the people of Gaza have been subjected to the misrule of Hamas, the heavily armed Muslim Brotherhood faction that exploits and intensifies their misery. Last summer, Hamas attempted to use a fictional “reconciliation” agreement with its Fatah rivals, who control the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank, to get out of this stranglehold. Hamas sought to get the Palestinian National Authority to take up the burden of administration in Gaza, secure badly needed aid and reconstruction money, and, most importantly, win themselves a new foothold in the West Bank, where they have been frozen out since the Palestinian factions split in 2007.
But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made reconciliation contingent on Hamas disarming, which the militant group won’t consider. Hamas was left virtually without options.
Abbas, too, is badly adrift. He staked his entire career on negotiations with Israel, brokered by the US. But that “peace process” has been frozen since the first term of former US president Barack Obama, and Israel is moving closer to annexing large chunks of the West Bank. Virtually, no Palestinian believes anymore that Israel will ever agree to end the occupation and allow them to create their own state.
The Trump administration has reinforced this conviction by abandoning Washington’s long-standing commitment to a two-state outcome, and has recognised occupied Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Abbas’s diplomatic strategy therefore now looks like the ultimate fiasco.
The last straw for Abbas came in March, when Hamas tried to assassinate his prime minister, Rami Hamdallah.
Enraged, Abbas has lashed out at all his antagonists in a recent series of unhinged speeches. He bitterly denounced Israel and castigated the Trump administration, describing its peace efforts as “the slap of the century” and calling the US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a “son of a dog”. He excoriated Hamas followers as terrorist “thugs and hooligans”, and said the only reason their operatives weren’t being killed all over the world in revenge is that he won’t sink to their murderous level.
Abbas announced a new series of harsh sanctions against Hamas and Gaza, and has been prodding Hamas and Israel towards another conflict, hoping to be the prime beneficiary as his two adversaries scorch each other while Washington scrambles to douse the flames.
With Hamas’s militancy and Abbas’s diplomacy both thoroughly discredited, Palestinian civilians are desperate for a new political dynamic. The recent “March of Return” protests originally promised that, but Hamas has thus far managed to hijack them. Yet, if the protest movement leads to another war with Israel, the result could prove catastrophic for Hamas’ political viability. And if widespread unrest spreads to the West Bank, that could fatally undermine the Palestinian National Authority.
Both Palestinian Islamists and nationalists are out of options, out of ideas, and out of luck. The Palestinian public is out of patience and nearly out of hope. That’s a combustible formula.
A series of demonstrations in the coming weeks has already been scheduled in Gaza. But the mid-May commemorations, set against this backdrop of frustration and despair, look incredibly dangerous.
When an entire people, at almost every level of society and across the political and religious spectrum, seem to have concluded they have nothing to hope for and nothing to lose — that all their dreams will remain deferred for the foreseeable future — an explosion may be inevitable.
— Bloomberg View
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.