Since March 30, the Palestinians’ annual commemoration of Land Day, a series of protests collectively dubbed the “Great Return March” have demanded the end of the siege on Gaza and sought to remind the international community of Palestinians’ right of return under UN resolution 194. The protests peaked on May 14, when over 60 protesters were killed along the Israel–Gaza border. Attendance declined from an estimated 40,000 on May 14 to about a couple hundred during the past few Friday demonstrations. Despite this, the organizers aim to maintain continual protests.
The movement sprang from youth on social media who proposed transforming the annual May 15 Nakba Day return march from a one-day event into ongoing protests, and a coordinating body consisting of representatives from various Palestinian factions, NGOs, tribes, and independent figures set up protest camps in five areas along the border with Israel. In contrast to the traditional model of marches whose direct engagement often leads to casualties, this is instead a set of cultural and artistic activities that aim to remind the world of Palestinians’ rights. Despite not being involved in organizing the protests, Hamas has increasingly supported them. Without alternative options, adopting and supporting the marches represents the best available opportunity for Hamas to address the siege.
Hamas’s cooptation of the marches prompted Fatah to announce on May 16 it was withdrawing its own participation. In its statement, Fatah said the return marches had ended, justifying its decision by saying Hamas was trying to force its own agenda on the protests. Although Fatah’s withdrawal significantly reduced the number of participants in the marches—leaving other Palestinian factions to struggle to make up the difference—the protests have been able to persist in part because there are many organizations and activists involved in planning them and their peaceful approach holds widespread appeal.
The fact that the protests have not targeted Hamas or blamed it for the humanitarian situation in Gaza have given it opportunity to boost its image internationally and locally. Hamas has used media coverage of the return march to present itself as a political party practicing nonviolent resistance. In an April 9 speech, the head of Hamas’ political wing, Ismail Haniya, appeared before a banner with pictures of pacifist icons Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela and called for a hybrid strategy combining nonviolent, legal resistance by protesters with separate armed resistance. On the international front, Hamas has not had too much success. The EU parliament condemned the movement for “using civilians for the purpose of shielding terrorist activities,” and the White House placing sole blame on Hamas for the violence that erupted on the Gaza border on May 14.
Hamas has had more success on the domestic front, using the protests to further extract Gaza from the control of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA), particularly after the PLO’s central council and executive committee continued to exclude Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine despite a major reshuffle in April. The return marches are a chance for Hamas to trip up the PA’s political aspirations and prevent it from reaching an agreement with Israel and the international community regarding Gaza without first negotiating with Hamas and other factions excluded from the PLO. With Gaza under the control of Hamas, Fatah is unable to implement any agreement with Israel fully. To be able to commit to the terms of a potential deal, Fatah has to either find a way to remove Hamas from power in Gaza or compromise with it.
The return marches are also generating other initiatives to end the PA sanctions implemented in April 2017. These sanctions were in retaliation to Hamas creating a temporary administrative committee in March 2017 to oversee the provision of services in the absence of assistance from the PA, following its accusation that Rami Hamdallah’s national unity government was shirking its responsibilities in Gaza. The Movement to Lift the Sanctions on Gaza, a broad movement incorporating academics, journalists, former prisoners, students, NGOs, and human rights activists, was formed in late May in response to the massive marches on May 14 and 15. In a press release, the campaign noted that it would use the marches as a model to call for the end of the punitive measures imposed by the PA against the Gaza Strip—which include cutting payments earmarked for civil servant salaries, electricity, and medical supplies—and to urge people to continue to support and attend the return marches. With support from Hamas, on June 10 protests organized by the Movement to Lift the Sanctions on Gaza spread to the West Bank, where they have continued despite PA repression, and abroad—notably in Amman, Beirut, and even several European cities. If the protests against the sanctions escalate, the PA may be induced to lift them, the exact opposite of what it intended.
Before the start of the marches, Hamas had been relying on intra-Palestinian reconciliation and forming a national unity government to deal with Gaza’s humanitarian burden and shortage in services. Reconciliation to lift the sanctions stalled in January 2018, when the PA accused Hamas of obstructing the national unity government from doing its job, and hit a dead end when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Hamas of bombing the convoy of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah during a March 13 visit to the Gaza Strip. Abbas’s speech, in which he threatened additional “national, legal, and financial” sanctions and measures, was understood by Hamas to be implicitly calling on Palestinians to revolt against the movement.1
By associating itself with the return marches, Hamas sidesteps the Palestinian Authority’s attempts to undermine its popularity and incite unrest against the movement, as criticism of Hamas would be seen as criticism of the protests. Moreover, because the demonstrations are specifically directing their anger against Israel for the situation in Gaza, rather than expressing anger at the situation more generally, Fatah is less able to influence protesters to blame Hamas for these problems.
Meanwhile, Hamas’s cooptation of the protests has damaged the marches. Hamas’s rush to claim the media spotlight has hurt the popular protests’ nonviolent image by giving Israel justification to use violence against the demonstrations.2 For example, Hamas leader Salah al-Barwiel said on May 16—following the deadliest day of the protests—that “in the latest round, about 62 people were martyred, including 50 affiliated with Hamas,” a statement that Israel promptly used to bolster its argument that Hamas was orchestrating acts of violence along the Gaza border.
If the protests succeed in relieving the siege on Gaza, Hamas would consider it a political win. If the protests fail to ease the blockade, Hamas will be faced with less attractive options, whether confrontation with Israel or a clash with the PA that would drive the Palestinian factions even further apart.
This article was translated from Arabic.
1. Interview with a Hamas leader who requested anonymity, Istanbul, June 13, 2018.
2. Phone interview with Ahmed Abu Ratima, an independent youth activist from Gaza who is a protest march organizer, June 12, 2018.