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.
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?
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.
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.
Nathan Thrall oversees Crisis Group's Arab-Israeli Project.