by Meron Rapoport
Gaza’s “Great Return March” has the potential to change the Palestinians’ strategy. If Hamas can ensure that the protests remain nonviolent and bring 100,000 people to the border to demand freedom and an end to the siege, it will be a nightmare for Israel — and a serious challenge to the status quo.
This is what Dr. Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, and one of the most well-respected Palestinian analysts, tells me during a meeting in his Ramallah office. Shikaki believes that if that number of Palestinians killed continues to increase, the Gaza return march will snowball into new, violent confrontation. This is a scenario that neither Israel nor Hamas wants.
While many supporters of Fatah and other Palestinian movements are participating in the Great Return March, Shikaki has no doubt that the events are connected to Hamas. “Hamas is funding the buses and tents, but does not want to take full responsibility,” he explains. And though Hamas does not want the protests to turn into a show of force, it wants participation to be as high as possible. “That is why there are no Hamas flags, only Palestinian ones. This is the only way to gain the cooperation of all the factions in Gaza,” he says.
The success of the Great Return March is especially impressive since this is not the first time such a march has been considered, Shikaki says. “It failed in the West Bank, it never gained momentum.” In Gaza, it has succeeded despite the animus between Fatah and Hamas.
The success was buttressed by the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, as well as by tying the march to the Palestinian right of return. “This issue speaks directly to 80 percent of those living in Gaza,” Shikaki explains. The slogan transcends party politics and unites all Palestinians. Slogans about ending the blockade, on the other hand, could be viewed as part of the internal struggle between Hamas and Fatah.
Ending the blockade is not the stated target of the Great Return March, but, Shikaki says, it is the main goal of the organizers, especially Hamas. “Hamas wants to emphasize the despair in Gaza, to turn the world’s attention to it and tell Israel: we can no longer take care of this ourselves, you are also responsible.”
That is why the organizers chose the tactic of nonviolence. “Nonviolence is what Hamas really wants,” he adds. “They want many people to come, but they don’t want the demonstrations to deteriorate into violence. That is why they checked that no one was bringing weapons to the border, that is why they asked protesters not to throw stones or get too close to the fence. Israelis might think that the goal is to bring thousands of people over the fence and humiliate Israel. I do not think that is the intention.”
The best case scenario, for Hamas and the other organizers, is that on May 15, Nakba Day, a sea of people will stand at the Gaza-Israel border fence and demand freedom, Shikaki says. A mass of people by the fence will be “humiliating for Israel.”
Hamas’ target is not the Israeli public. That much is clear from the choice to use the right of return — which frightens Israelis more than anything — as the march’s central slogan. “Hamas is not looking for sympathy from Israelis,” Shikaki says. “It wants the sympathy and attention of Palestinians in the West Bank, as well as from the Arab world and the international community.”
This does not mean that Hamas is uninterested in how Israel will respond. On the contrary: Hamas is directing its message to the Israeli military and political elite, says Shikaki. On the one hand, the Israeli elite does not want to see tens of thousands of Palestinians near the fence, let alone dead Palestinians, which happened on the past two Fridays. On the other hand, Israel is worried about another war in Gaza. After all, Israel took part in an aid-donation committee for Gaza, and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz spoke about building a port in Gaza City.
The best outcome for the organizers, Shikaki says, is a “deal” with Israel to ease the blockade. Although Hamas, like all Gazans, wants the blockade gone completely, the movement is realistic and understands that will not happen. If residents of Gaza can travel to and export goods to the West Bank, and if the idea of a port is actually taken into consideration by Israel, this will be seen as a huge success, Shikaki adds.
Will Israel agree? It’s hard to know. “Israel’s current policy contradicts the Israeli policy of preventing a crisis in Gaza,” he says. “This is a stupid policy.”
Does Hamas’ decision to join or even lead the nonviolent struggle mean there is a serious change taking place in the movement? It is too early to tell. The changes in the Hamas covenant, which were made a year ago, hint at this possibility. “Hamas will not give up on its weapons as long as the conflict does not end,” Shikaki explains. “But it is not saying: we need a war with Israel. It is saying: we have the right to resist.” This dynamic can be seen in national reconciliation talks as well. Hamas is willing to transfer civilian control of Gaza to Fatah, but will not dismantle its armed wing as long as the conflict with Israel continues. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not accept this kind of arrangement.
According to Shikaki, the Great Return March is strengthening the ties between Gaza and the West Bank after years of disconnect. But as long as the split between Hamas and Fatah exists, it will be difficult for Palestinians to take advantage of this moment for reconciliation. Shikaki does not foresee similar “return marches” taking place in the West Bank, where the number of refugees living is relatively smaller, and due to the lack of trust in Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas. “According to my polls, three-fourths of Palestinians do not trust Abbas and Fatah,” he says. “Fatah is losing much of its popularity, and there is much criticism for their attitude toward Gaza. The feeling is that Abbas is not supporting Gazans.”
For now, the number of protesters is smaller than expected, yet the number of deaths, 31 in total, remains high. The question is whether the high death toll will deter Palestinians from approaching the fence. In this case, Shikaki worries, the protests will either dwindle or deteriorate into armed violence, even if Hamas is currently uninterested in such a scenario. And that, Shikaki says, could be catastrophic for everyone involved.