Three groups of people stayed up wondering what Friday’s Gaza Strip protests would entail: journalists, Palestinians in Gaza, and the Israeli security forces.
On the day of the protests, all assumed their positions: Journalists deployed to a field near Kibbutz Nahal Oz; the IDF deployed at several locations opposite the protests; and the protesters came.
Friday was supposed to be the “Day of the Tires,” when the sky would turn black from burning tires that had been collected. Supposedly, the protesters and the hard core of activists among them had assembled masses of tires and mirrors to make useless the sights of IDF snipers. The protesters would burn the tires and rush the fence and pour into Israel.
Pro-Israel groups got the talking points ready: The toxic smoke would ruin the environment and the protesters were just a cover for Hamas infiltrations.
Whatever Hamas activists and those believing the protesters were all terrorists imagined would happen never happened.
The smoke from the tires was relatively thin. From what I saw near Nahal Oz and Beit Hanun, two of the five locations of the mass protests, most of the Palestinians came just wanted to watch. Food trucks also came to sell snacks.
Even so the almost two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have many reasons to protest; they have been isolated for more than a decade under blockade. They suffer poverty, an inability to travel, blackouts, deficient medical care, pollution and a raft of other problems. They can’t seem to make their demands felt in Israel, Egypt or among the international community.
Hundreds of journalists had come from all over the world and Israel to see what would happen. It felt a bit macabre to gather to see how violent the clashes would be. But even when the smoke billowed over the border and the chants went up on the other side, most of the crowd of around a thousand Palestinians held back.
On the Israeli side, soldiers also showed restraint. The IDF brought fire trucks and giant fans to deal with the flames and the smoke. Compared to the first Friday of the protests a week ago, there appears to have been less use of live fire and fewer casualties among the Palestinians. The exception was the killing of a Palestinian journalist named Yaser Murtaja.
Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, boasted that the march was successful and that he and his fellow Gazans would eventually pray in the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. He also tried to don the mantle of a previous Palestinian leader by claiming to be “following in the path of the martyr Yasser Arafat.”
Sinwar claimed that the attendance at the protests showed Israel’s blockade of Gaza had not caused the people to turn on Hamas and they were still willing to attend protests against Israel. Such comments from a Hamas leader considered a hard-liner with a long history of terrorist involvement are a bit of a climb down from the days when the Islamist movement carried out massive terrorist attacks and had many supporters in the West Bank.
WHERE ARE the protests in the West Bank in solidarity with Gaza? The lack of protests among Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem, among Arabs in Israel and among Palestinians and their supporters in the diaspora shows that the protest has not really achieved its aims so far.
Is this just apathy? Is it because Israel has succeeded in dividing the Palestinians or because the lengthy period of separate Hamas rule in Gaza has had that affect?
Palestinians I spoke to over the past week had different answers, but the general response seems to be not just apathy, but a feeling that the protests will not succeed and of a general lack of connection between what happens in Gaza and elsewhere.
The major popular campaigns among Palestinians to challenge Israel have mostly run the same course. The “metal detector” protests, which some predicted would be a “third intifada,” didn’t create a mass movement although Israel did remove the metal detectors outside the Temple Mount in July 2017. The protests opposing President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem were also supposed to ignite a new intifada. They didn’t.
Over the years, the same has been said again and again, that “this could be the spark of the third intifada.”
There is a feeling that the world no longer notices Palestinian deaths in the Gaza Strip.
When six Arabs were killed in protests in Israel in 1976, the event became “Land Day,” commemorated annually ever since. Twelve Arab citizens of Israel were killed in 2000 during the outbreak of the second intifada and those killings led to the Or Commission of Inquiry.
The latest protests in the Gaza Strip have resulted in around 30 deaths so far, and it’s unclear if they will be as significant. So far the protests have not been sustained during the weekdays, only appearing on Fridays and already seeing lower numbers of participants the second time around.
Israel appears to have checked Hamas at every move. Hamas made rockets, so Israel created the Iron Dome. It built tunnels, so Israel found a way to stop them. It trained “naval commandos,” and Israel stopped them, too. Now it has sent tens of thousands of people to the border and they didn’t get through.
The protests in Gaza have not been helped by the intra-Palestinian rivalry. On March 13, a bomb targeted the convoy of the Palestinian Authority’s Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and intelligence chief Majed Faraj during a visit to the enclave. PA President Mahmoud Abbas blamed Hamas.
Therefore, Fatah and other Palestinian factions have not sent supporters into the streets of the West Bank, since it would hand Hamas a win. There are also other considerations for the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. Its members have to balance the interests of Jordan, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt in their equations. Trump is still expected to announce some kind of peace proposal, and uncertainty hangs over who will lead after Abbas.
With so many questions, Hamas’s actions in Gaza don’t seem to provide the answer.