- The violence resulting from the protests in Gaza have received widespread media attention
- But what's been ignored is precisely why they are happening and why Hamas is trying nonviolence
- Further, the prospects of the protests have also gone under-reported
- Al Bawaba spoke with an expert on Palestinian issues to understand what's behind these protests
By Ty Joplin
The protests in Gaza, called the March of Return, have gone on for weeks now and promise to continue until May 15th. Already, tens of Palestinians have been killed in addition to thousands more being injured.
But while most media outlets have covered the sheer spectacle of violence, smoke, flags, soldiers and masses of people, very few have sought to actually explain the protest, its goals, or the reason why Hamas is opting for a nonviolent approach.
Furthermore, little has been said about where this leaves Palestinians, Hamas and even the Palestinian Authority (PA) who govern parts of the West Bank.
All face an uncertain future—one that is intricately woven into the fate of the protests in Gaza happening right now.
To get clarity on exactly why these protests are happening, what responses to them have been, and to understand what is happening beyond the flashy headlines relaying stories of violence, Al Bawaba spoke with Dr. Khalil Shikaki.
Dr. Khalil Shikaki (Brandeis University)
Dr. Shikaki is arguably the most authoritative voice in gauging Palestinian sentiment. He is the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), which is based in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.
For his work and surveys, he has come under attack by both the PA and even some Palestinians, who assaulted him in 2003 in anticipation of a survey that found most Palestinians would not actually want to reclaim land their families lost if they were given a right to return.
In the interview, Dr. Shikaki explained why Hamas, a militant group famous for its deployment of violence, is now turning to nonviolence. He also dispelled Israeli Army-peddled myths that Hamas is using the masses of Palestinian bodies protesting near the border as a smokescreen to infiltrate into Israel. Finally, he discussed the prospects and obstacles of these protests.
Do you think Hamas is desperate for more domestic and international backing, and do you think that’s a reason for these protests?
I believe to a large extent what Hams is hoping for is to ease the conditions of daily life in Gaza. I believe that’s the basic motivation for why they have embraced this march and why they are supporting it.
This is going to sound ridiculous but the IDF claims that Hamas is paying people to participate in the protest and be human shields for them in order for Hamas to infiltrate into Israel.
There is obviously no evidence on that and it is very clear if you want to infiltrate into Israel, the last thing you want is this kind of Israeli alert that the march is creating. Certainly this is not an ideal time for an operation.
The ideal time would be when the Israelis do not expect anything and when there is not a state of emergency at the borders. There is no evidence whatsoever that since the last war in 2014, Hamas has carried out a single infiltration of the border.
So the idea now that they would infiltrate the border for some reason seems to be fiction.
Children in Gaza fill up water jugs (AFP/FILE)
It seems like, to even harass the border fence or to get too close for Gazans—the result is the death penalty. That’s something that seems to be a given now in Israel and Palestine, that getting too close to the fences results in the death penalty.
I don’t think Hamas wants people to get even close to the fence.
It does not fit into the basic goal of bringing people out in large numbers. It does not fit into Hamas’ message that what they want is to ease conditions rather than engage in warfare with Israel.
Hamas does take a risk obviously, bringing large numbers of people. It means there will be a large number of youths that will want to do more than what Hamsa wants them to do.We will probably continue to see young people, that Hamas will not be able to control, who will be searching for ways to approach the fence and take risks, including being shot and killed.
I think the idea that Hamas creates this conditions so that this could happen seems to me to be ridiculous. I can’t find any evidence that they have any interests in that.
The immediate impact would less and less people showing up, because if this is what happens at the borders rather than being a peaceful, nonviolent demonstration, you can’t have families and you can’t have large numbers [of people].
This would defeat the purpose, which Hamas is seeking. In this case, the largest number of people expressing Hamas’ influence in Gaza and in expressing the nature of the despair and the dire economic and other conditions in Gaza.
That reminds me of something that I read recently, that Hamas and the people of Gaza recognize that violence is useless. As a means of expressing their desperation of their condition, using violence only makes it worse.
Do you think Hamas is fundamentally seeking to change approach in expressing Palestinian nationalism or trying to better the conditions in Gaza?
No, definitely not.
Hamas believes strongly in violence. It believes in armed struggle. It believes the only way they can bring about fundamental change in Gaza, Gazans and Palestinians in general is to inflict pain and suffering on the Israelis.
The questions for Hamas is whether, at this time, this is effective.
At this time, Hamas’ conclusion is that this would be very very counterproductive. It would be destructive to the interests of Hamas and to Gazans. Hamas therefore needs to find a different way to express its own demands for ending the siege and improving the conditions and so on.
The non-violence is something that I think Hamas generally is not familiar with, doesn’t know really how to organize. For them, I think this is the first time they are confronting this kind of situation. So far they haven’t done too bad.
They haven’t been able to control a lot people. But most people have in fact been willing to listen Hamas’ instructions and stay away from the borders.
A young Palestinian looks onto the devastation in Gaza following the conflict in Gaza in 2014 (AFP/FILE)
It sounds like this is the first time Hamas has experimented with a nonviolent approach.
Yes, this is the first time Hamas has experimented with a non-violent approach and it is indeed experimentation, nothing more than experimentation.
How would you judge it so far?
Well I think we can say tentatively it is successful, simply because Hamas did manage to bring large numbers.
So far, the number of people who have approached the fence is much smaller than the level of participation. We’re talking about a small number of people who have approached the fence. 25,000 to 35,000 have taken part so far.
Real success will be tested when there is zero casualties. When nobody gets too close to the fence.
If and when that happens, Hamas will then be able to bring about a situation on the border for the international media to see and for the Israelis to see where a 100,000 people, including families, will be seen demanding an end of the siege without violence and without threatening the fence itself.
What do you think will happen as we get closer to May 15th or even on May 15th?
I think we will find what Hamas would want to happen, which is the Israelis reaching out for a way out, in which Hamas would then put conditions for ending the siege.
That, I think, would be Hamas’ hope; that things would not have to continue to escalate until that point.
If the Israelis have zero interests for changing the conditions for people in Gaza and do not approach Hamas for a way out, then it will certainly mean that the risk of escalation into violence will continue.
Both Hamas and Israel might come out losers in the sense that this would snowball into a real open war. It certainly is not inevitable, we might get to May 15th without it. But that is certainly one risk. If conditions continue to escalate, we could find ourselves around this time in a situation in which things have escalated to the verge of war.
War could then happen. But as I said, things could begin to de-escalate if Hamas and Israel find themselves negotiating a way out.
Tens of thousands march in Gaza in the March of Return (AFP)
Do you think that’s likely?
It’s difficult to tell.
I think a lot depends on Hamas’ ability, in the next couple of weeks, to ensure that all the demonstrators behave in a peaceful way and do not approach the fence. And increase the number of participants. Success in this area, I think would be, a strong indication that as we approach May 15, things could reach a point where Hamas’ [chance of] success would be much greater than it is now and Israel would be isolated even more than it is, and there would be much greater condemnation of the sanctions and blockade that Israel is imposing on Gaza.
When the protests started in late March, there was about 30,000 I heard. As time has gone on, that number seems to have dwindled to about 20,000, so it seems like Hamas is becoming less successful at continually mobilizing the people of Gaza to protest for their cause.
Do you think Hamas will be able to get the kind of numbers required to get Israel to the negotiating table?
It’s difficult to tell, again. I think one reason the numbers were smaller in the second week was due to the fact that in the first week, a lot of people were killed and injured. Hamas did not do as well as it did in the second week to prevent people from reaching the fence.
Hamas’ ability to continue its improve its capacity to do that will bring about larger public participation. It’s of course not easy to bring people to the border every day or even every week. The real task will be that things do not escalate in the meanwhile.
Do you think that the response of West Bankers in solidarity with the cause in Gaza now has been adequate?
No. The response in the West Bank is definitely not adequate at all.
To a large extent, this reflects the nature of the relationship in both places with the organizers. The organizers in Gaza are civil society groups as well as Hamas. There’s much greater level of trust that the public has in this combination than the case in the West Bank where there is much greater distrust between the overwhelming majority of the public and its leadership.
It is this level of distrust prevailing in the West Bank that is turning people off and preventing the kind of solidarity the West Bankers wish to express.
Palestinians carry tires to burn in Gaza (AFP/MAHMUD HAMS)
Do you think that this will force the PA to adopt more nationalistic rhetoric and take a firmer stance against Israel, the U.S. and maybe even Saudi since bin Salman recently said in an interview that Israel has a right to a homeland?
Well, I don’t think this will lead to any fundamental change in the way the PA deals with its problems and its relationship with the state of Israel. The PA is running, like Hamas in Gaza, out of options.
In Gaza, armed struggle is something that Hamas is committed to but realizes it would not lead it anywhere this time. In the West Bank, internationalization is where the PA would like to see things moving and is the tool it is officially embracing but is realizing it doesn’t lead it anywhere.
In both places, they are experimenting.
In the PA, it’s the internationalization of the conflict that the PA has been experimenting with because it could not experiment with popular resistance due to the distrust that prevails between its society and leadership. Therefore, the PA finds that its choices are limited.
The means under its disposal to influence the Israelis in an effective manner threaten the existence of the PA and the entire two-state solution, and so the PA is limited in the way it responds to the challenges it faces. It doesn’t have a good answer what to do about it.
What do you mean by internationalization?
Internationalization means turning to the international community; joining more and more international organizations and treaties, going to the U.N. General Assembly and other such institutions asking for various resolutions, attempting to join the U.N. as a member state, seeking the support of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
This notion that the Palestinians can use the sympathy that they have in the international community to force the Israelis to change their policy is proving to be not that successful.
At the same time, the PA does have options, including options related to this notion of internationalization such as submitting an official complaint to the ICC or putting an end to security coordination with the Israelis or stopping other aspects of the Oslo Agreement.
These are options that the PA can resort to, but the risks then become higher and higher. And the risks threaten the existence of the PA (due to potential international pressure and sanctions).
Palestinian demonstrators during a protest on the Israel-Gaza border east of the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on April 6, 2018 (AFP/MOHAMMED ABED )
It sounds to me like Hamas is tied to looking inside Gaza for support because they’ve been abandoned by the international community whereas the PA cannot rely on domestic support and has no choice but to rely on the international community.
The problem will be for the PA, when it finally reaches the conclusion that this process, internationalization, at the current, is going to take it nowhere. And if Hamas also concludes that its experimentation with popular resistance and nonviolence is leading elsewhere as well.
Then that puts both in a very difficult spot, and they might begin to take more risks.
Do you think the international community’s response to the protests has been adequate?
Well, to a large extent it depends on what adequate means.
The international community is not going to go out of its way to support Hamas if that’s adequate. And it’s not going to go out of its way to impose sanctions on Israelis.
But there is no doubt that the international community is paying much more attention to the plight of Gazans today than it was before.
In that sense, this is certainly an improvement, and it’s an improvement that gives Hamas a positive mark. It can be seen as a successful policy for Hamas.
The interview has been lightly edited for grammar, structure and clarity.
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