The killing of at least 22 Palestinian demonstrators by Israeli troops at the March of Return demonstration at the Gaza border with Israel was the first good news Hamas has had in more than a year. Hamas has decided to champion a set of demonstrations — of which this was the first — that use mass public resistance, largely if not entirely unarmed, to challenge Israel’s occupation. Every Friday will see additional protests, and already eight more Palestinians have reportedly been killed this Friday. It culminates on May 14-15, which includes the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, the Palestinian Nakba Day commemoration, and the scheduled opening of a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
The prospects for unrest, and even chaos, are obvious, especially given Israel’s prevailing military strategy at the border. But tragedy and disorder are common in this region of the world. What’s new is Hamas’s apparent strategy. How have the ardent champions of heavily militarized armed struggle as the quintessence of resistance against Israel become the advocates of nonviolent people power? The incongruity, however, doesn’t mark a contradiction, much less a moral reckoning.
There are several reasons for Hamas’s new approach. First, it is virtually out of options. The devastation in Gaza caused by the last full-blown war with Israel in 2014 was so extensive, with most of the damage still unrepaired, that it would be difficult to publicly explain to the group’s own constituents any choice to deliberately start another major conflict with Israel. The kind of scenario whereby Hamas has previously instigated or cooperated in the development of major armed battles with Israel would now be potentially politically disastrous in Gaza.
Yet Hamas is desperate. The situation in Gaza has become increasingly intolerable. Unemployment is widespread and chronic. Hunger is rampant. Water is undrinkable. Electricity is available for only two to four hours per day. Sewage treatment plants have failed, so the once-beautiful Mediterranean coast is now a repository of human waste. And there’s still no way in or out of the territory for almost all of Gaza’s close to 2 million people.
Since its violent takeover of Gaza and expulsion of the Palestinian Authority in 2007, Hamas has been adept at blaming others for the wretched conditions in the territory it controls. And because of repeated Israeli bombardments and other attacks, and the virtual lockdown imposed by both Israel and Egypt, finger-pointing at Jerusalem and Cairo has been somewhat effective. It has even been possible for Hamas to blame the Palestinian Authority — and especially President Mahmoud Abbas — for Gaza’s woes, particularly after he imposed considerable sanctions in the summer of 2017.
Abbas said he would no longer pay for many Gazan public employees hired after the expulsion of the Palestinian Authority from the territory and, among other things, would stop paying Hamas’s electric bill for the power the area received from Israeli grids. Abbas’s argument was, in effect, “You want to rule this territory alone? Fine. But we’re not subsidizing that anymore.” Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pressured Qatar to stop the aid and reconstruction projects that Doha had been providing specifically to benefit Hamas. And Israel and Egypt tightened the noose, strangling both Gazans and Hamas.
Yet the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Israel, and the others all understand that the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza is an unsustainable crisis. The question was, and still is, how to address that in a way that does not unduly strengthen or empower Hamas, especially given its recalcitrant attitudes. The answer arrived at last fall was to create the convenient fiction of political reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Egypt led the campaign to prod both sides together and get Hamas to weaken its grip on the territory and, especially, give up control of the network of tunnels it had created around the Egyptian border.
Hamas was so beleaguered that it embraced the idea and agreed to surrender administration in Gaza and control of checkpoints and crossing points to the Palestinian Authority’s Western-trained (and Israeli-trusted) security forces as the first step in a national reconciliation agreement. It was also hoping to secure a foothold back in the West Bank, the epicenter of Palestinian national politics, of which it had been frozen out since the Palestinian split in 2007. For Hamas, reconciliation was a bitter pill — but also badly needed medicine — and it was certainly willing to swallow a large amount of it.
The project, however, was sabotaged when Abbas overreached, perhaps deliberately, by conditioning additional progress on reconciliation on Hamas disarming. He made the plausible case that he wasn’t willing to allow a “Hezbollah-style situation” to exist among the Palestinians, where, as in Lebanon, an Islamist militia had enough power to effectively have its own foreign and defense policies, independent of the national government.
But Abbas knew that the very last thing, literally, Hamas would ever do was agree to disarm. The Palestinian president may have been less eager to reassume responsibility for administering Gaza than he appeared. To the great frustration of Egypt, the Gulf Arab countries, Jordan, and, presumably, Israel, Abbas’s disarmament demand essentially collapsed the project to weaken Hamas’s control of Gaza and get badly needed aid and reconstruction money into the strip in a way that did not strengthen the Islamist group.
So, Hamas found itself stuck with Gaza and no one else to convincingly blame anymore. Its popularity in the territory continued to sink to unprecedentedly low levels. And its hopes of regaining a foothold in the West Bank were thoroughly stymied. When Hamas allegedly attempted to assassinate Abbas’s prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, in March, the Palestinian president announced even stronger sanctions against Hamas. The situation in Gaza, already a full-blown crisis, was about to deteriorate even further.
It’s in this context that Hamas decided to embrace a campaign of public protests, demonstrations, and popular uprisings that, at first glance, appears far more modeled on the First Intifada than the militarized Second Intifada that propelled the organization to national leadership contender status. Hamas has always preached that armed struggle of a militarized variety is the only path to Palestinian liberation. So, these unarmed or, at most, lightly armed demonstrations, which are either nonviolent or only symbolically violent (throwing stones at troops is a far cry from firing rockets at cities, after all), represent a major shift in Hamas’s thinking.
It did not initiate the calls for the protests but rather seized on them and has effectively hijacked the movement, at least for now. But Hamas’s strategy is easy to discern. First, it relies on Israel’s long-established doctrine of disproportionate force. Particularly at the border, from its founding Israel has had only one main response to Palestinians seeking to go back to their former towns and villages, and the Israeli military announced before the March of Return protests that anyone approaching within 300 meters of the border would face the familiar shoot-to-kill policy.
It was entirely predictable that confronted with tens of thousands of Palestinian protesters, particularly at a border area, Israel would immediately resort to deadly force, even against unarmed persons. Israeli strategic and security thinking virtually guaranteed an effort to nip the protest movement in the bud by demonstrating the level of violence protesters, particularly those that challenge the border, can expect to face. Israel’s nightmare, and Hamas’s hope, is that during these protests, the border is somehow breached and large numbers of young men cross over into what used to be their country going toward their ancestral homes and villages. Israeli authorities speak in terms of a “bloodbath” even if such “infiltrators” are nonviolent and unarmed, and history strongly suggests that this is by no means hyperbole.
But even if the border isn’t breached, and Israel stops at almost nothing to ensure that doesn’t happen, Hamas stands to gain a great deal from this campaign of protests. Already Abbas is scrambling to not be outbid in terms of nationalistic rhetoric, commemorations, and anti-Israeli bluster. Hamas’s nationalist credibility is starting to be rejuvenated. It is attempting to connect with, and coopt, the deep-seated Palestinian public’s craving for a new politics, with popular agency and a new, grass roots-led drive to end the occupation and achieve national liberation.
Hamas doesn’t stand for any of that, of course. But it can pretend to, and its operatives are now fully engaged in this campaign, in a manner similar to the way in which the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt hopped right on the anti-Hosni Mubarak protests. The Brotherhood had done nothing to conceptualize or initiate those protests, but it usurped the movement and, ultimately, translated it into more than a year in the Egyptian presidency before it faced considerably larger public demonstrations against its own misrule.
Hamas now has found a way forward. And even if, ultimately, this process degenerates into another full-blown war with Israel, that may provide the group with a way out of the intolerable predicament that emerged in 2017, especially if it is not blamed for having wantonly initiated it. As always, Hamas and reactionary forces in Israel are reinforcing each other’s radicalism and playing a vicious, bloody game from which both benefit at the expense of the public at large. Whatever else happens, if Israel continues to use live ammunition against unarmed demonstrators, even at the border, Hamas will continue to reap the benefits.