by Joel Beinin
The Palestinian Great March of Return, which began on March 30, 2018 and continued into June, was a popular mobilization of people of the Gaza Strip initiated by politically unaligned young men and women. The campaign of unarmed marches towards the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel demonstrated popular support for a new Palestinian political direction. It contrasts sharply with both the diplomatic impasse over Israel/Palestine and the emerging reactionary political realignment of the Middle East. The administration of US President Donald Trump appears to be following the lead of Israel and the Sunni Arab regimes of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt in forging a regional axis of evil aimed at confronting Iran and its allies: Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Yemeni Houthis, which the Saudis simplistically label Iranian surrogates. The animators of this anti-Iranian strategy will need to relegate the Palestinians to collateral damage in order to succeed.
33-year-old Ahmed Abu Artema (alternatively, Abu Ratima) may not have been the first to call for a nonviolent march towards the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel. But he was promoting the idea on his Facebook page as early as 2011. On January 7, 2018, a month after President Trump announced that he would relocate the US Embassy to Jerusalem, Abu Artema revived his proposal in another Facebook post. He became one of the main organizers and spokespersons for the Great March of Return.
The campaign of demonstrations raised two demands: 1) that Israel and Egypt lift the decade-long siege on the Gaza Strip; and 2) the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. However, one supporter of the protest articulated a much more modest goal: “We only want to make our voices heard. We want them to know that there are human beings living here, just like everywhere else, with dreams, just like everywhere else.”
No one could seriously have believed that 1.3 million refugees who inhabit the Gaza Strip were about to charge across the barrier Israel has erected around the territory. But raising the right of return highlights the origins of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, rather than merely its post-1967 consequences. This may partially explain Israel’s extraordinarily violent response. From March 30 to June 12, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) killed at least 135 Palestinians and injured over 14,000, of whom over 7,800 were hospitalized.
The Great March of Return overlapped with one of the most inflammatory pieces of political theater the Trump administration has produced. On May 14, Trump’s coterie of hardline Zionist funders and supporters epitomized by Sheldon Adelson and antisemitic evangelical Protestant preachers Robert Jeffress and John Hagee, the head of Christians United for Israel, celebrated the inauguration of the US Embassy in Jerusalem. Wall Street was represented at the event by former Goldman Sachs Executive Vice President, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. The same day, Israeli forces shot dead over 60 Palestinians and injured over 2,000 who required hospitalization, nearly half the Palestinian fatalities and a quarter of the hospitalizations from March 30 to June 12.
Global public opinion was shocked and widely condemned Israel’s use of live ammunition against unarmed demonstrators. Several Arab states issued pro forma verbal denunciations. But the only practical response was Egypt opening its border with the Gaza Strip for the month of Ramadan, allowing a limited number of Palestinians to exit. Egypt and Saudi Arabia reportedly pressured Hamas, which deployed is extensive resources and infrastructure to impose its dominance over the Great March of Return, to halt the demonstrations in exchange for regular opening of the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.
The desire to advance the anti-Iranian alliance with Israel largely explains the muted response of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt.
The UAE made the initial steps that eventually culminated in what is just short of an open alliance, by contacting Israel in the early 1990s to secure Israeli agreement for a proposed Emirati purchase of advanced F-16 fighter jets from the US. The architect of those contacts and the subsequent development of relations with Israel was Mohammed bin Zayed (dubbed MBZ), the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the political heavy hitter among the seven statelets that comprise the UAE. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) is MBZ’s young protégé and ally.
Although in 1979 Egypt became the first Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel, it is no longer a leading politico-diplomatic force in the region and has been outstripped by the rising prominence of the Saudis and Emiratis in Arab politics. In July 2013 General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi led a military coup against Egypt’s elected president, Muslim Brother Mohammed Morsi. Qatar and Turkey had been supporting the Morsi regime. The Saudis and Emiratis jumped at the opportunity to take their place and affirmed their regional dominance by bailing the Sisi regime out with as much as $20 billion in official development assistance and foreign direct investment from 2013 to 2015 and pledges of an additional $4 billion each in aid and investments (with Kuwait kicking in another $4 billion) at the March 13, 2015 Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm al-Shaykh.
Consequently, Egypt had little choice but to join the boycott of Qatar proclaimed by the Saudis and Emiratis in June 2017. Qatar’s offense was having dared to use its enormous wealth to pursue an independent foreign policy, most importantly détente with Iran, with whom it shares the South Pars/North Dome natural gas condensate field in the Gulf, the world’s largest. In response to the boycott, Qatar reestablished full diplomatic relations with Iran. Qatar has also supported non-Wahhabi Islamist forces in the region: Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisia’s Ennahda, Palestine’s Hamas and the regime of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In contrast to the aggressive strategy of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel, the administration of President Barack Obama sought to avoid a confrontation with Iran by approving the 2015 nuclear agreement (JCPOA) with Iran negotiated by the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). Even the vociferous and undiplomatically public objections of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not deter Obama from seeking to defuse tensions with Iran. But Obama apparently felt the political price of confronting Israel decisively over its settlements in the West Bank was too high. So although Obama’s objective was the opposite of that of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Palestinians nonetheless came out the losers.
By confronting Obama on Iran, Netanyahu enhanced his political standing at home and with the Republican Party. He was, therefore, emboldened to seek alliances with Obama’s detractors, including Donald Trump. Consequently, Netanyahu’s American and Israeli supporters found themselves in the same camp as the Saudis and Emiratis as they sought potential American allies for their project of realigning the Middle East around an anti-Iranian axis.
In August 2016 Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater and brother of Secretary of Education Betsy de Vos, arranged a meeting between an envoy of Saudi’s MBS and the Emirate’s MBZ and Trump presidential campaign officials, including Donald Trump Jr., and Joel Zamel, an Australian-Israeli social media manipulation specialist with security and counter-terrorism connections, to offer their support to the Trump campaign. The outcome of the August 2016 meeting is in dispute and under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. However that is resolved, the meeting of the minds among MBZ, MBS, free-lance Israeli right wingers, and the Trumpists acquired operational capacity with Trump’s election as president. Trump honored Saudi Arabia with his first overseas trip in office in May 2017. The following month King Salman designated MBS as crown prince of Saudi Arabia and declared the boycott of Qatar.
Turkey came to Qatar’s aid, which strained its relations with Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Turkey’s insistence that the US support its campaign to eliminate the autonomous Kurdish region of Rojava in northern Syria has tested the 65-year-old US-Turkish alliance. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, once stable pillars of American influence in the Middle East, now find themselves on opposite sides in a battle for regional influence in which US interests are not unequivocally aligned with either party.
President Trump initially followed the lead of the Saudis and Emiratis in denouncing Qatar as a “funder of terrorism.” He may not have known at the time that Qatar hosts the forward headquarters of the US Central Command at Al Udeid Air Base. However, Trump walked back his position in remarks welcoming Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani to the White House in April 2018. Relations between Israel and its Arab partners in the anti-Iranian alignment are sometimes similarly awkward.
Several secret meetings between Israelis and Emiratis have been reported. But Saudi Arabia is reluctant to openly acknowledge its alignment with Israel. Israel, nonetheless, is relentlessly seeking a more public relationship with its Gulf Arab partners. Before Saudi Arabia and Russia kicked off in the opening game of World Cup 2018, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s official Arabic Twitter account wished Saudi Arabia “best of luck!”
The stars of the governments of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, white nationalist Trumpists, American Jewish and evangelical Protestant ultra-Likudinks, and Democratic Party Israel-firsters like Senators Chuck Schumer (NY), Robert Menendez (NJ), and Benjamin Cardin (MD), appear to be aligning. By withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, President Trump, his chief Middle East advisers–first son-in-law Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and funder-in-chief Sheldon Adelson–emboldened by uber-hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton, have suggested they are willing to follow the lead of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, in confronting Iran.
The leaked details of Jared Kushner’s proposed plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace suggest that the Trump administration, with the enthusiastic support of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his American acolytes, is seeking to turn the West Bank into what Netanyahu has dubbed “state minus”–Bantustans in Areas A and B with a nominal Palestinian capital in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis. The Gaza Strip would be a separate entity: either left to rot or somehow attached to Egypt, which wants no part of it.
The normally compliant King Abdullah II of Jordan has taken the lead in articulating Arab opposition to the Trump administration’s Jerusalem policy. After a round of meetings with Netanyahu, Kushner, Greenblatt, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel he reiterated, “[T]here will not be peace in the Middle East without establishing a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.” For decades the Saudi, Emirati, Egyptian, and Jordanian regimes have accorded low priority to the Palestinian cause. However, consecrating Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem is an issue that concerns some 1.5 billion Muslims. The Saudis, whose king claims the title of “servant of the two shrines” (Mecca and Medina), and the King Abdullah II, the nominal custodian of the Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) in Jerusalem, would severely imperil their legitimacy if they acceded to it.
The combination of the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the inauguration of the US Embassy in Jerusalem linked the issues of the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem. Consequently, the drive to marginalize the rights of the Palestinian people, which is a necessary step to consolidating an anti-Iranian regional front, was at least temporarily obstructed. According to a 2015 UN report, the Gaza Strip may become “unlivable” by 2020. This humanitarian catastrophe will cast a shadow over efforts to conclude what President Trump has repeatedly called “the ultimate deal.” Moreover, the Great March of Return is one of several recent signs that young Palestinians are seeking new modes of resistance.
Ahmed Abu Artema believes that unarmed popular mobilization is the only viable method of Palestinian resistance and should continue. He writes,
…despite the response from Israeli snipers, I continue to be committed to nonviolence, as are all of the other people “coordinating” this march. I use quotation marks because when a movement becomes this large — attracting what we estimate to be as many as 200,000 people on Fridays — it cannot be completely controlled. We discouraged the burning of Israeli flags and the attachment of Molotov cocktails to kites. We want peaceful, equal coexistence to be our message.
We have also tried to discourage protesters from attempting to cross into Israel. However, we can’t stop them.
As Rashid Khalidi recently wrote, “The Palestinians have not forgotten, they have not gone away.” As long as this remains the case, the question of Palestine remains on the agenda and an obstacle to an open alliance between Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt.
Joel Beinin is Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and professor of Middle East history at Stanford University and a contributing editor of Middle East Report. Reprinted, with permission from Middle East Research and Information Project.