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Why Israel Feels Threatened by Popular Resistance in Palestine

Photo by Joshua Tabti | CC BY 2.0

Why did Israel kill many unarmed Gaza protesters and wound over 2,000 on Friday, March 30 and on the following days, when they clearly posed no threat to Israeli soldiers?

Hundreds of Israeli soldiers, many of them snipers, were deployed to the deadly buffer zone that the Israeli army has created between besieged Gaza and Israel, as tens of thousands of Palestinian families held mass rallies at the border.

“Yesterday we saw 30,000 people,” tweeted the Israeli army on March 31. “We arrived prepared and with precise reinforcements. Nothing was carried out uncontrolled; everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed.”

The tweet, which was captured by the Israeli rights group, B’Tselem, was soon deleted. The Israeli army must have realized that killing children and bragging about it on social media is too cruel, even for them.

Palestinian popular mobilization deeply concerns Israel, partly because it is a PR nightmare. By killing and wounding this number of Palestinians, Israel had hoped that the masses would retreat, the protests would subside and, eventually, end. This was not the case, of course.

But there is more to Israeli fear. The power of the Palestinian people, when united beyond factional allegiances, is immense. It disrupts Israel’s political and military tactics entirely, and places Tel Aviv wholly on the defensive.

Israel killed those Palestinians precisely to avoid this nightmarish scenario. Since the cold-blooded murder of innocent people did not go unnoticed, it is important that we dig deeper into the social and political context that led tens of thousands of Palestinians to camp and rally at the border.

Gaza is being suffocated. Israel’s decade-long blockade, combined with Arab neglect and a prolonged feud between Palestinian factions, have all served to drive Palestinians to the brink of starvation and political despair. Something has to give.

Last week’s act of mass mobilization was not just about underscoring the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees (as enshrined in international law), nor about commemorating Land Day, an event that has united all Palestinians since the bloody protests of 1976. The protest was about reclaiming the agenda, transcending political infighting and giving voice back to the people.

There are many historical similarities between this act of mobilization and the context that preceded the First Intifada (or ‘uprising’) of 1987. At the time, Arab governments in the region had relegated the Palestinian cause to the status of ‘someone else’s problem’. By the end of 1982, having already been exiled to Lebanon, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) along with thousands of Palestinian fighters, were pushed even further away to Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen and various other countries. This geographic isolation left the traditional leadership of Palestine irrelevant to what was happening on the ground.

In that moment of utter hopelessness, something snapped. In December 1987, people (mostly children and teenagers) took to the streets, in a largely non-violent mobilization that lasted over six years, culminating in the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993.

Today, the Palestinian leadership is in a similar state of increasing irrelevance. Isolated, again, by geography (Fatah holding the West Bank, Hamas Gaza), but also by ideological division.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah is rapidly losing its credibility among Palestinians, thanks to long-standing accusations of corruption, with calls for the PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to resign (his mandate having technically expired in 2009). Last December, US President Donald Trump compounded the isolation of the PA, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in defiance of international law and UN consensus. Many see this act as the precursor designed to further marginalize the PA.

Hamas – originally a grassroots movement born out of the refugee camps in Gaza during the First Intifada – is now similarly weakened by political isolation.

Recently, there seemed to be a ray of hope. After several failed initiatives towards reconciliation with Fatah, a deal was signed between both rival parties in Cairo last October.

Alas, like previous attempts, it began to falter almost immediately. The first hurdle came on March 13, when the convoy of PA Prime Minister, Rami Hamdallah, was the target of an apparent assassination attempt. Hamdallah was en-route to Gaza through an Israeli border crossing. The PA quickly blamed Hamas for the attack which the latter vehemently denied. Palestinian politics went back to square one.

But then, last week happened. As thousands of Palestinians walked peacefully into the deadly ‘buffer zone’ along the Gaza border into the sights of Israeli snipers, their intention was clear: to be seen by the world as ordinary citizens, to show themselves as ordinary human beings, people who, until now, have been made invisible behind the politicians.

Gazans pitched tents, socialized and waved Palestinian flags – not the banners of the various factions. Families gathered, children played, even circus clowns entertained. It was a rare moment of unity.

The Israeli army’s response, using the latest technology in exploding bullets, was predictable. By shooting dead 15 unarmed protesters and wounding 773 people on the first day alone, the aim was to discipline the Palestinians.

Condemnations of this massacre flooded in from respected figures around the world, like Pope Francis and Human Rights Watch. This glimmer of attention may have provided Palestinians with an opportunity to elevate the injustice of the siege up the global political agenda, but is, sadly, of little consolation to the families of the dead.

Aware of the international spotlight, Fatah immediately took credit for this spontaneous act of popular resistance. Deputy Chairman, Mahmoud Al-Aloul, said that the protesters mobilized to support the PA “in the face of pressure and conspiracies concocted against our cause,” undoubtedly referring to Trump’s strategy of isolation towards the Fatah-dominated PA.

But this is not the reality. This is about the people finding expression outside the confines of factional interests; a new strategy. This time, the world must listen.

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Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.

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