Hamas And The Mass Protests In Gaza

Since this was published, on Thursday, April 5th., demonstrations resumed; Hamas brought out fewer people, but vowed to continue the mobilization. Nine more protesters were shot and killed as they encroached on the border fence. Over two hundred were injured. As the protests grow, Khalil Shikaki's analysis seems increasingly valuable.    
On Friday, March 30, thirty-five thousand Gazans staged a march to the border fence with Israel under the banner of “Return.” The demonstrations have thinned but not abated this week; large tents have been set up within the sight of Israeli snipers, as if base camps for future acts of daring. Some demonstrators encroached on what the Army has designated a prohibited area, three hundred metres in front of the fence. Others slung rocks, or burned tires. Since the demonstrations began, including clashes over the past seven days, nineteen Palestinians have been shot and killed, and a thousand have been wounded, according to reports from Gaza hospitals. Another march is called for Friday, April 6. Hamas, which has organized it, hopes to bring out as many as fifty thousand people, and eventually, week by week, turn the demonstrations into a cause the civilized world, such as it is, cannot ignore.

The soldiers’ use of live ammunition against unarmed demonstrators prompted the U.N. Secretary-General, António Guterres, to call for “an independent and transparent investigation.” A Times editorial called the gunfire “excessive.” The Israeli civil-rights groups B’Tzelem (“In the Image,” as in “image of God”) and Shovrim Shtika (“Breaking the Silence”) have called on soldiers to refrain from shooting. But for most Israelis the soldiers’ shoot-to-kill response seems no more than business as usual, comparable to the actions of the military when Palestinian-refugee demonstrators tried to storm the border in the Golan Heights, in 2011, leaving twenty dead and hundreds wounded. The demonstrators are talking about “return,” after all, and infiltrators in the past have murdered civilians. Hamas organized dozens of suicide bombings in restaurants and buses in its thirty-year history, and, since it took control of Gaza, in 2007, has launched hundreds of missiles into civilian areas.

“They all talk about destroying and hating Israel, and about returning refugees to Safed, to Haifa, to Jaffa,” the Israeli Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said, after the killing of demonstrators. Lieberman is notoriously hard-line, but the leaders of the government’s centrist opposition, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, and Labor’s Avi Gabbay, back him on this. Gaza, they know, unites the Israeli public and makes it sore. When Kobi Meidan, a veteran broadcaster on Israeli Army Radio, spoke of being “ashamed to be Israeli” after the shootings, he quickly retreated in the face of the backlash, apologizing for offending the soldiers and speaking “before he had all the information.” Of major parties, only the Arab Joint List has condemned the Army for its fire.

There is no question that many Gazans are suffering, and that the demonstrations are an expression of desperation; for years, the press has reported on electricity being restricted to a few hours a day, and of the imminent collapse of systems supplying water and sewerage. About half of Palestinian youth are unemployed, and large numbers of children suffer from depression. But, when Lieberman talks of “they” and their hatred, he is calling attention to Hamas’s decade-long rule of Gaza. Most Israelis suppose, not without cause, that Hamas is committed to a severe Islamist theocracy, and armed struggle against Israel, or against any Palestinian willing to reconcile with it. Of Gaza’s 1.8 million tightly packed residents, two-thirds are refugees, or the descendants of refugees, from what is now Israel. Israelis also assume that most Gazans heedlessly back Hamas and its program. Hamas’s military wing has, in the past, hidden missile sites in populated areas, knowing that these could be bombed. If it is prepared to use such “human shields” to deter attack, could it not use human sacrifices to gain a public-relations victory? “Anyone who approaches the fence endangers his life, and I would recommend that Gaza residents put their efforts not into protesting against Israel but into regime change within the Strip,” Lieberman said.

So Gaza has become something of a black box for the Israeli public, the inputs known—siege and periodic repression—the outputs known, depravation and periodic defiance. Hamas’s motives are presumably indistinguishable from its capabilities: if it gains the power to injure Israel it will do so, as if by reflex. Its popularity is presupposed. The harsh and consistent Israeli inputs are meant to bring Gazans to their senses. What’s unknown, because it is largely unexamined, except by military intelligence, is Hamas’s strategy after more than a decade of ruling the Strip—is it still wedded to ceaseless violence or does it have a growing incentive to pursue a nonviolent mass mobilization?

Read on in The New Yorker