Friday was the third consecutive week that the Great March of Return and Breaking the Siege protests did not take place in the Gaza Strip. They had been held every week since 30 March 2018 until this hiatus.
The High Committee for the Great March of Return said that the protest was cancelled last Friday for security reasons so as not to give the Israeli occupation forces the opportunity to shoot more protesters. This was almost verbatim the same statement as was issued on the previous two Fridays. The Palestinian factions which are part of the High Committee all insisted that the protests could resume at any time when needed.
According to one member of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, which is the most prominent faction behind the protests, their main goals had almost been achieved. “Look at the siege imposed on Gaza,” explained Khalil Al-Hayya, “Israel has opened the crossings, lifted a number of trade restrictions, increased electricity supplies, allowed trade with Egypt, allowed Qatari aid and extended the fishing zone, and many other things.”
He added that the issue of the Palestinians’ right of return had also been put back on the international agenda as a result of the protests, which have demonstrated that Israel opposes that legitimate right. “We also achieved other goals, such as the reinforcement of national unity which has materialised through the Joint Military Room and includes the military wings of all the Palestinian factions.”
The relative quiet period of the past three weeks suggests that the factions in Gaza want an agreement with Israel which would see the Palestinians enjoy some economic and social stability. Israeli officials at all levels, it is said, share this idea.
“The Hamas leadership in Gaza, headed by Yahya Sinwar, is showing great interest in coming to a long-term agreement with Israel,” wrote Amos Harel in Haaretz last week. “The Israel Defence Forces’ General Staff supports far-reaching relief measures in Gaza in exchange for assurances of quiet… [but] the final decision rests with the politicians.”
Harel seemed afraid that Israel might lose this opportunity when he explained that Israeli politicians are currently “mired in a legal and political crisis centred on three indictments against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as great difficulties in forming a new government.
“The quick end to the latest round, which lasted two days [and during which 36 Palestinians were killed in Israeli attacks], has given Israel a rare chance of making progress – and perhaps capitalising on the opportunity that was missed five years ago, after the 2014 conflict.”
On Saturday, Israel’s Channel 12 reported that Defence Minister Naftali Bennett had ordered the Israeli army to conduct a feasibility study for an artificial island port off the Gaza coast to facilitate trade into and out of the enclave. According to the Times of Israel, Bennett also instructed Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi to carry out a security study to examine the possibility of also having an airport on the proposed island.
This idea was initiated by Yisrael Katz in 2017, when he was the transportation and intelligence minister, but was suppressed by other ministers and did not reach the level of cabinet discussions. Today, Katz is Israel’s Foreign Minister, and was reported by the Times of Israel as saying that he had the go ahead to establish joint working teams between his ministry, the Ministry of Defence and the National Security Council. “For years, I have been promoting the floating island initiative,” he tweeted on Saturday. He insisted that this is the only solution for Gaza.
“This week I met Defence Minister Bennett, who, unlike his predecessors [Avigdor Lieberman who was among the ministers who opposed the idea in 2017], expressed his support for promoting the initiative. I updated Prime Minister Netanyahu, and I hope that we can go ahead soon.”
The head of Fatah’s parliamentary bloc, Azzam Al-Ahmad, criticised the idea of the port and airport, and even objected to any other measures to ease the Israeli siege imposed on Gaza if it is not coordinated with the Palestinian Authority dominated by his party. Failure to ensure such coordination, he told the Palestinian media on Sunday, “would reinforce the division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which are the two parts of the future independent Palestinian state.”
Gaza-based researcher Rifqaa Abdul-Kader criticised the Fatah official’s comments. “We welcome any measure to improve the life of the Palestinian people in Gaza, including the possible port and airport. The PA must stay silent when there are reports about such solutions.”
Speaking to MEMO, she said that the people in Gaza have been under a strict Israeli siege and faced several Israeli military offensives that led to thousands of deaths and injuries. “No state or official bodies in the entire world, including the PA, has done anything to help them or stop the Israeli measures against them,” she explained. “Instead of rejecting solutions for Gaza, the PA should lift its own sanctions imposed on the besieged enclave and pay the salaries of thousands of public servants, pay administrative and operational expenses for the ministries, including the education and health ministries, release the annual payments for educational institutions in Gaza and agree on carrying out the elections.”
However, political analyst Fawzi Mansour suggested that Israel does not have “innocent intentions” regarding the “possible” measures related to easing the siege imposed on Gaza. “Israel might be planning to reinforce the full separation between Gaza and the West Bank through the new [sea and air] terminals,” he said.
One result of the Great March of Return protests which the Palestinian factions describe as an achievements is the American hospital to be established in the north of the Gaza Strip. The hospital will have two gates: one giving access from Israel’s side of the nominal border, controlled by Israeli security services; the other from the Gaza side and controlled by the Palestinian security services in the territory.
According to Hussein Al-Sheikh, the PA Minister of Civil Affairs, this hospital is “an American base being built in Gaza and Hamas does not have the right to strike a deal with any party regarding the establishment of such a facility.” He claimed that this is one of the negative outcomes of the Gaza protests. PA Health Minister Mai Kila, meanwhile, has accepted that it is a hospital, but said that it should be run by her ministry.
Hamas spokesman Hazim Qasim told MEMO that the PA claims are completely false. The issue of the hospital was not accepted by Hamas alone, he explained, but by all of the Palestinian factions. He added that the factions would jointly supervise the work of this hospital, not only Hamas, and this would ensure that “there is no political cost for it.” The Hamas official also called on the PA to lift its sanctions imposed on Gaza instead of “demonising any gains that the resistance has achieved for the besieged Palestinians in Gaza.”
While pointing out that negative claims about the nature of the American hospital cannot be entirely false, Palestinian academic and political analyst Hossam Al-Dajani refuted the report that it is simply going to be a US security base to help Israel. “I am sure that it is just a hospital,” he told Al Jazeera Arabic Channel on Sunday night, “but if it has other purposes, the Palestinian resistance in Gaza will keep an eye on its work in order to make sure that it does not carry out more than humanitarian activities.”
So have the Great March of Return protests backfired on the Palestinians if an American presence in Gaza is one result? Hamas does not believe so.
“The protests have proved that the popular resistance protests controlled by strong and united Palestinian factions, are more effective and less expensive than other forms of resistance at this stage,” said the movement’s spokesman. “They will remain a tool in the hands of the Palestinian resistance in order to be used when needed.”