Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh next to his destroyed office (REUTERS/Handout).
(photo credit: HANDOUT/REUTERS)
When the weekly protests along the Israel-Gaza border began on March 30, 2018, they were planned to be a six-week campaign to demand that Israel allow Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their former homes in Israel. That’s why the organizers, mostly social media activists, chose to call the protests the “Great March of Return.”
A few weeks later, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip commandeered the weekly protests and changed their title to the “Great March of Return and Breaking the Blockade.”
One year later, the protests have failed to achieve either of their two main objectives. Palestinian refugees and their descendants are no closer to achieving their “right of return” while the deteriorating economic situation in the Gaza Strip has become worse than ever.
While the Great March of Return has brought symbolic and PR victories to the Palestinians, it has nonetheless produced no tangible benefit.
Moreover, some Palestinians believe that by hijacking what was supposed to be a “peaceful and popular uprising” and transforming the protests into a violent campaign against Israel, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have caused huge damage.
According to the Palestinian sources, more than 260 Gazans have been killed and nearly 17,000 injured in clashes with the IDF since the beginning of the protests. The fatalities include dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members who were among the civilian protesters.
Despite the high number of casualties, the weekly protests have brought no major achievements for the Palestinians or the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip.
The organizers, however, claim the protests have highlighted the crisis in the Gaza Strip and drawn the world’s attention to the continued suffering of the Palestinians there. They further claim that the protests have united Palestinians, seriously embarrassed and confused Israel, and “thwarted Israeli-US conspiracies to liquidate Palestinian rights, including the right of return, and the establishment of a separate Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip.”
Palestinian political analyst Mohammed al-Madhoun wrote on Thursday that the protests near the border with Israel were an “ambitious national project that brought about an unprecedented state of Palestinian consensus.” The protests, he said, have “revamped the most important issue – the right of return – and inculcated it in the minds of Palestinians and Arabs, 70 years after the Nakba.”
Several Palestinian political analysts said on Thursday that one of the most significant achievements of the weekly protests has been their ability to put the Palestinian issue back at the center of the world’s attention.
Another achievement, the analysts added, was the recent report issued by the United Nations, which said that there was “reasonable ground to believe that during the Great March of Return, Israeli soldiers committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law and that some of those violations may constitute war crimes against humanity.”
At one stage, it appeared as if Hamas was finally about to reap large profits from the protests when Qatar – with Israel’s approval – began sending suitcases full of cash to the Gaza Strip.
The Qatari funds, however, have proven to be both a blessing and a curse for the leaders of Hamas.
On the one hand, the millions of dollars enabled Hamas to show the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip that the heavy price they paid during the protests was not in vain.
On the other hand, Hamas’s political opponents quickly seized the opportunity to tell Palestinians that their Gaza leaders were “trading with their blood” by accepting money from Qatar and Israel. Many Palestinians took to social media to accuse Hamas of distributing the cash among its senior officials and their family members.
Earlier this month, the social media campaign erupted into anti-Hamas protests in several parts of the Gaza Strip. The protests caught Hamas leaders by surprise, prompting them to order a brutal crackdown on the demonstrators who were protesting economic hardship and increased taxes. For now, it seems that Hamas has been successful in crushing the protests after portraying them as part of a Fatah-led conspiracy to stage a coup against the Hamas regime.
As part of its effort to divert attention from its problems at home, Hamas has also been calling on Palestinians to step up their protests near the border with Israel. Defiant Hamas leaders said on Thursday that the protests will continue until the blockade on the Gaza Strip is lifted.
“Hamas has climbed a tall ladder,” said a Palestinian journalist in the Gaza Strip. “There’s no way they can end the demonstrations along the border with Israel without presenting the people with a real achievement. In addition, many Palestinians here believe that they have paid a heavy price and that’s why they insist on continuing the protests until they see real changes.”
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