Gaza The Crucible

On Friday, 24th of August, Return demonstrated from the Eastern side of the Gaza fence in solidarity with the weekly Great March of Return in Gaza, which took place for the 22nd Friday in a row. Return activists were quickly forcibly removed from the area, but got to a hill where they waved multiple Palestinian flags and were seen by demonstrators on the other side of the fence. (Photo: Haim Schwarzenberg)

by Helena Cobban, Published on Mondoweiss, March 13, 2019

The Gaza protests will mark their one-year anniversary on March 30. For 50 weeks, the Gaza Strip has seen thousands of residents taking part every Friday in the creative mass protests called the “Great March of Return.” Might this well-organized nonviolent action mark a new trend in Palestinian politics?

If it does, it would not be the first time that densely populated Gaza has acted as a crucible for the emergence of new political forces in Palestinian society.

The Great March has two main demands: to lift Israel’s brutal, 13-year siege of Gaza and to implement the Palestinian Right of Return. It has been sustained this long despite the brutal response it has received from Israel Defense Forces fighters stationed just across the Armistice Line with Israel. Between March 30 and December 31 of last year, those IDF soldiers killed 183 protest participants with live fire, and six protesters in other ways. They also injured more than 7,500 (some extremely seriously) with their bullets and their shrapnel.

In late February, a Commission of Inquiry convened by the UN Human Rights Council  reported that it had received reports of thousands of cases from last year and actively investigated 489 of them (including 189 killings), and in all but two, they

“found reasonable grounds to believe that… the use of live ammunition by Israeli security forces against demonstrators was unlawful.”

(Under international law, live fire against protesters is permissible only if the person is targeted is engaged directly in hostilities, or if he/she presents an “imminent threat to life or serious injury” of the security forces.)

This large collection of individual crimes may also, the Commission found, constitute “crimes against humanity.” And it recommended that Israel’s actions be referred to the International Criminal Court.

Over the coming months, we will see whether that happens. Meantime, I am fascinated by the bravery and dedication of the massive numbers of Gaza Palestinians who for nearly a year have returned, week after week, to these nonviolent citizen protests. Is something new going on here?

It may well be, even though there are other places in occupied Palestine where weekly mass protests have been sustained for a very much longer time—in Bil’in, for example, or Nabi Saleh (both of them in the West Bank.)

But the Great March protests in Gaza are different, both because of their eye-popping scale, and because of Gaza’s historic role as a crucible for the emergence of new political forces in Palestinian society. Back in the 1950s, when the Palestinian refugees Yasser Arafat, Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), and Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) were putting together the activist networks that later became Fateh, they did so primarily in Gaza. Thirty years later, in 1987, when Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his colleagues were launching Hamas, they likewise did so, in the first instance, from Gaza.

Why has Gaza played this role? For a number of reasons—but primarily, I think, because it is the area inside historic Palestine that has the largest concentration of people who are refugees from the lands that became Israel in 1948, and because the return of the refugees has always been a key driver of the nationalist movement. Some 75% of Gaza’s two million people are refugees.

Forty years ago, when I was researching the book I wrote on the history of Fateh and the PLO, Arafat, Abu Iyad, and other founders of Fateh talked a lot about the intensely political atmosphere in Gaza in the 1950s. As Palestinian society struggled to deal with the national collapse that the Haganah/IDF inflicted on them in 1948, “Return” became the strongest rallying cry, for Fateh (which tries to avoid any ideological entanglements apart from Palestinian nationalism) and for other more avowedly leftist organizations in the Strip.

In the 1950s, the Strip was controlled by Egypt. With some difficulty, Fateh’s early organizers were able to come and go between Gaza and Cairo—and also, from Cairo, to other Arab capitals.

Already in that decade, many Palestinian refugees from Gaza and elsewhere were getting good jobs in the Gulf. Their education level was much higher than that of the herders and traders who made up the sparse population of those countries, so they ended up creating and running the whole administrative apparatus of places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or Qatar. (The latter two remained under British control until 1970, but they always needed administrators, teachers, doctors, and engineers… Palestinians exiled from their homes in 1947-48 took on most of those jobs.)

Gaza and Kuwait became the two key organizing nodes for Fateh, and so it remained until 1990. In the early 1980s, I was doing intensive interviewing with Khaled al-Hassan (Abu Said), one of the Fateh founders who had headed Kuwait’s city administration for some years. He took me to a Fateh/PLO fundraiser at a big hotel there which could have competed in glitz and enthusiasm with any big-time Jewish community fundraiser in Los Angeles or New York.

All that ended in 1990-91. Arafat had given implicit support to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. So once the Kuwaitis had ousted Saddam, with huge support from an international community strongly opposed in that case to “the acquisition of territory by force,” they turned on their large Palestinian population, expelling most of them.

Many Gazans remained loyal to Fateh or the leftist Palestinian groups they had long supported. But in December 1987 Gaza also saw the birth of Hamas, which is an acronym for the “Islamic Resistance Movement.”

Hamas was created by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (a Gaza-based refugee from 1948 who was also a quadriplegic) and his colleagues just a few days after the grassroots activists of Fateh and other secular-nationalist groups in Gaza and the West Bank had launched the First Intifada. Soon enough, Hamas was also mounting its own parallel series of grassroots, anti-occupation actions.

Hamas’s launching, and the fiercely anti-Israel charter it issued in 1987, were a little paradoxical, given that the impressive, specifically Islamic, philanthropic networks that Yassin had built up over the previous 14 years had been given much encouragement by Gaza’s Israeli-military administrators. The Israelis always hoped to use those networks to counter the influence of the secular nationalists– and for several years they did just that. But in 1987, Yassin and the resilient, deeply rooted organization he had built up, mainly in Gaza, turned decisively against the occupation.

In 2004, the Israelis assassinated Yassin with an airborne missile, aimed against him as he was being wheeled home after early-morning prayers.

I have interviewed several other founders and leaders of Hamas over the years, seeking to understand the roots of its resilience. As a political body dedicated to ending the occupation and securing the Palestinians’ right of return, it has built strong organizations of supporters in the West Bank and among all the communities of exiled Palestinians.

In the mid-aughts it made some key adjustments to its previously hardline program. It ended its use of suicide bombings against Israeli targets. It amended its previous call for the destruction of the Israeli state by saying that on the path to that, it would be prepared to accept a lengthy hudna (truce), during which a Palestinian state could live alongside Israel. And on the basis of its support for the hudna, it agreed to suggestions from Israel and Washington that it participate in the Palestinian legislative election of 2006.

It then did participate, peacefully and fairly, in that election, and it won. The Israelis and Americans, who had been confidently predicting a Fateh victory, were furious! Ever since 2006, both governments have worked super-hard to punish Hamas and its presumed home-base in Gaza very strongly indeed…

Nowadays, Hamas’s base of support is very much wider than just Gaza. But for Hamas as for Fateh, Gaza was its birthplace—and for a very specific set of reasons.

So now, for the past year, Gaza has been the scene of these amazing, extremely courageous mass demonstrations, every single Friday, and on some other key days, as well.

Last year, the organizers of the Great March decided to launch it on March 30, a date that for Palestinians everywhere is “Land Day”, a date to reaffirm their attachment to the actual soil of their homeland. This year, March 30 will also see the first anniversary of the Great March of Return. Will this movement—which is backed by Hamas, Fateh, and all the political and social organizations in Gaza—go down in Palestinian history as the third great political movement to be born in Gaza? We shall see.


Helena Cobban is the President of Just World Educational (JWE), a non-profit organization, and the CEO of Just World Books. She has had a lengthy career as a journalist, writer, and researcher on international affairs, including 17 years as a columnist on global issues for The Christian Science Monitor.

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