Wednesday 26 September 2018

Border protest an attempt by Hamas to channel rage in Gaza away from itself

A Palestinian boy holding his national flag looks at clashes with Israeli security forces near the border. Photo: Getty
A Palestinian boy holding his national flag looks at clashes with Israeli security forces near the border. Photo: Getty

Raf Sanchez in Jerusalem

Yahya Sinwar is a man used to being boxed in. The 55-year-old leader of Hamas in Gaza spent half his life in an Israeli prison cell for abducting and killing two Israeli soldiers. Today, the militant fighter finds himself in another tight spot with few good options.

He is ruling over a desperate population of two million people in the Gaza strip. Unemployment is at 45pc - the highest in the world - and Gaza has only a few hours of electricity every day. In public, Gazans blame Israel for their woes but much of their anger about the situation is directed at Hamas.

The Islamist group's international backers like Qatar, Turkey, and Iran are distracted with their own issues and have less time and money to devote to the Palestinian cause. The Arab world is fractured and its leading states - Egypt and Saudi Arabia - are drawing ever closer to Israel.

Hamas' armed forces have enough rockets to start a war with Israel. But they don't have the weapons to win it. Hamas knows that a shooting war with Israel's superior military will end only in more destruction of Gaza's shattered infrastructure and more anger among the people.

And so the Hamas chief has turned to a new tactic: massive protests along the Gaza border with Israel.

The demonstrations, which began in late March, were originally the idea of a group of independent activists. The activists centred the marches around the 'Right of Return' - the demand that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to their forefathers' land in what is today Israel.

But Hamas quickly seized on the protests and put its organisational muscle behind them.

The group hoped to get more than 100,000 people to the Gaza border yesterday and - according to Israeli intelligence - send hundreds or even thousands of them breaking through the fence.

Large demonstrations may seem unambitious for a group that has an arsenal of rockets and hopes one day to destroy Israel.

But from Hamas' perspective the marches potentially achieve a number of goals.

Firstly, they channel public anger in Gaza outwards against Israel, not inwards against Hamas.

People in Gaza are frustrated, angry, and desperate. The marches are a way of channelling those feelings against Israel.

The 'Right of Return' is a unifying idea that all Palestinians can agree on, regardless of whether they support Hamas or not. And the large number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces has galvanised rage against Israel.

The marches also tip the scales in Hamas' favour in its internal Palestinian struggle.

Hamas has been locked in a decade-long struggle with its rivals in the Palestinian Authority (PA), the internationally recognised body based in the occupied West Bank. The marches allow Hamas to present itself as the real resistance against Israel, while the PA co-operates closely with Israel on economic and security issues.

The PA has watched the marches with deep discomfort. It doesn't want to say it is supporting protests that are being driven by Hamas. But it also can't afford to ignore the demonstrations because there is much popular support for them.

Hamas made a serious effort at reconciling with the PA earlier this year but its entreaties were largely spurned by its rivals. By being seen as the owners of the popular marches, Hamas strengthen its hand against the PA.

Finally, the protests push the Palestinian issue back up the international agenda.

The Palestinian cause has been overshadowed for years by the war in Syria, the rise and fall of Isil, and the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The demonstrations are a way of refocusing the world's attention back on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hamas hopes to pressure its international backers to once again rally to its cause.

The Palestinian death toll has also drawn Western criticism of Israel - another win from Hamas's perspective.

There is one other benefit the protests bring to Hamas: they buy time.

Hamas is in a desperate situation, perhaps the lowest its been since it won Palestinian elections in 2006 and seized control of Gaza by force a year later. Anything it can do to buy time right now is welcome.

The group wants to keep a lid on discontent in Gaza, hope that its external situation improves and, most importantly, live to fight another day. (© Daily Telegraph London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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