Hamas has hijacked Gaza protests to use as a bargaining chip

Hamas has hijacked Gaza protests to use as a bargaining chip

It began as a grassroots movement in Gaza to mark the 70th anniversary of Al-Nakba, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The Great March of Return was launched on March 30 along the Gaza-Israel border as a peaceful protest to remind the world of the plight of Palestinian refugees. Thousands of Gazans participated: Men, women and children chanting and raising Palestinian flags. Hamas, the Islamist group that is in control of the besieged Strip, stepped back, allowing people from all walks of life to express themselves peacefully.

But Israel was bent on spilling blood, even though its entrenched soldiers were never in danger. Snipers were given orders to shoot at will and tens of Palestinians were killed or injured. Israel expressed no remorse, even as the media showed clips of medics, reporters, children and handicapped Palestinians being gunned down in cold blood. 

Originally the Great March of Return protests were to be held every Friday for six weeks, culminating on May 15 — marking Israel’s birth and the loss of Palestine. This year there was another solemn occasion: The opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem. But the protests continued after May 15, and every Friday more Palestinians were killed and injured. But, as the world’s media shifted its attention elsewhere, Gaza’s killing fields faded slowly from the news.

Last Friday was the 25th week since the start of the protests. According to Gaza health officials, 168 Palestinians were killed and 18,000 injured by Sept. 8. All those who fell were unarmed civilians and at no point in time did they pose a threat to Israel. 

But what started as a symbolic and apolitical movement has turned into a bargaining chip by Hamas in its covert negotiations with Israel to reach a long-term truce. When Hamas and Israel were close to reaching an agreement, through Egyptian and UN intermediaries, the tempo of the Friday protests decreased considerably. Hamas even bowed to Israeli pressure and prevented protesters from using incendiary kites that had caused tremendous damage to nearby Israeli settlements.

Hamas and Israel had fought each other at least four times since the former took over Gaza from the Palestinian Authority (PA) in a bloody coup in 2007. Between 2008 and 2014, Israel inflicted horrific destruction on the Strip’s infrastructure and caused the deaths of thousands of mostly civilian residents. Israel had imposed a tight blockade on Gaza in 2007, resulting in an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. Today, Gaza continues to suffer from electricity and water shortages. Raw sewage seeps into the sea, increasing health risks, while hospitals are running out of essential medicines. More than half of Gaza’s 2 million residents are unemployed and one-third depend on UN food stamps.

Making the situation worse is the latest US decision to suspend its financial contribution to UNRWA’s budget. The agency that is responsible for more than 5 million Palestinian refugees in the region could run out of money by the end of this month.

Neither Hamas nor Israel is in the mood for a major military showdown, but Gaza finds itself in the center of a US-backed plan to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The proposed truce includes offers to end the naval embargo and allow access to an airport, as well as ending Gaza’s water and electricity shortages. But the Palestinian leadership sees this sudden generosity as a trap to separate Gaza from the West Bank in order to liquidate the Palestinian cause.

As truce talks have faltered, Hamas has responded by escalating the Friday protests, and Israel has unashamedly continued to shoot protesters in cold blood

Osama Al Sharif

Pressure on Hamas to embrace a long-term truce was matched by a series of punitive measures taken by President Mahmoud Abbas against Gaza residents. Abbas wants Hamas to bow to his conditions for a reconciliation that would allow the PA to return to Gaza and assume control. Efforts to implement previous reconciliation deals have collapsed as Hamas refuses to stand down or to disband its military wing.

For now it appears that indirect talks between Israel and Hamas have reached a dead end. Egypt is resuming its mediation between Fatah and Hamas to conclude a reconciliation deal. But, as truce talks have faltered, Hamas has responded by escalating the Friday protests, and Israel has unashamedly continued to shoot protesters in cold blood. The use of civilians by Hamas as political leverage must stop.

A new deal between Fatah and Hamas must rest on an agreement to hold presidential and legislative elections as soon as possible. Hamas has no right to control the fate of millions of Palestinians in Gaza, while Abbas’ mandate has long expired. The legitimacy of both is questionable and the Palestinian people have the right to elect a new leadership and choose their representatives, more than a decade since they last went to the polls. 

  • Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: Twitter: @plato010


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