When Nakba Day meets US embassy move day, expect fireworks in Gaza

When Nakba Day meets US embassy move day, expect fireworks in Gaza

While the West Bank waits for the day after Abbas, Palestinians in the Strip are using social networks to plan massive clashes with Israeli soldiers

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian protesters wave national flags during clashes with Israeli security forces on the eastern outskirts of Gaza City, near the border with Israel, on January 12, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)
Palestinian protesters wave national flags during clashes with Israeli security forces on the eastern outskirts of Gaza City, near the border with Israel, on January 12, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

May 14, 2018, will likely go down in history as one of the most festive days that Israel has ever known. At long last, the United States, the world’s greatest superpower, will move its embassy to Jerusalem. The prime minister will give a speech, joined by his ministers and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, with — just possibly — a guest appearance by US President Donald Trump himself; a real celebration.

But an “alternative party” is already in the works: enormous Palestinian protest events, with the largest of them planned for the Gaza Strip. Preparations are under way for marches that will set out toward the border fence with Israel. Such a massive event, on the scale of the refugees’ march to the Israeli-Syrian border on the Golan Heights on Nakba Day in 2011, could become problematic for the State of Israel and for the Israeli army — to put it mildly.

It bears mention that the Palestinians observe Nakba Day (nakba means “catastrophe”) every year on May 15, the day after the Gregorian date on which the establishment of the State of Israel was declared. All the Palestinian organizations, without exception, mark the event that led to the alleged expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their ancestral territories. Nakba Day has long been a hate festival, including explicit calls for the destruction of the State of Israel and the return of all the refugees to Haifa, Jaffa, and so on.

Still, this year it is is a particularly explosive combination: the seventieth anniversary of the “catastrophe” alongside the celebrations that Israel and the US are planning regarding Jerusalem and moving the embassy. Thus, on the Palestinian side there could be a surplus of motivation among the public to go out and take part in these events, including marches toward the border fence in Gaza.

Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli soldiers near the border fence east of Gaza City on December 29, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

The preparations are being made mainly on social networks. Among the prominent activists is a Gazan man, Ahmad Abu Artima, who has become one of the planners of the marches. Abu Artima has posted images from the march on the Golan Heights in May 2011, as well as photographs of small tent camps, called ribat (a kind of guard post), that were set up on the Gaza border. The first signs, in the form of these small tents, can already be seen on the ground.

Will the calls be enough to rally thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Gaza’s residents to join the march toward the border? It is hard to say. Even now, hundreds of Gaza residents approach the border fence every Friday, are faced with gunfire from the Israeli army, and retrace their steps. Often people are wounded, sometimes they are killed. The potential for a mass march on the fence exists, and the longer the hardship in Gaza continues to intensify, so will the motivation to join such marches.

And the hardship is indeed intensifying, with no real solutions in sight for the residents of the Strip. Mohammed Al-Emadi, the Qatari envoy, visited Gaza last week and transferred $9 million meant for the operation of the hospitals and clinics, as well as the steady provision of medicine. But this assistance was the equivalent of giving aspirin to a dying patient. It will not save Gaza from its suffering.

A delegation from Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate also visited the Gaza Strip. While some might have hoped that salvation would come from south of the border, the Egyptian officials could not coax a breakthrough out of reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas. Instead of an effort to save the Gaza Strip, the double visit turned into a wrestling match between the two hostile countries — Qatar and Egypt. Ultimately, it emerged that the Egyptian delegation was sent to Gaza while Hamas’s leadership was in Cairo, primarily to ensure that the Qataris and their envoy, Al-Emadi, weren’t stealing the show.

How does that look on the ground? The Egyptian delegation wanted to stay in the Movenpick Hotel, which is considered the most luxurious in Gaza. But when the Qataris found that out, they rented out all of the rooms on the hotel’s two bottom floors. The Egyptians got the hint and rented rooms in the Palace Hotel across the street. Then the Qataris hung three enormous images — of Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani; his father, the previous emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani; and the Qatari flag — that extended the length of the building.

Every time the members of the Egyptian delegation opened their eyes in the morning, they had to see huge images of the rulers of Qatar, their upstart rival — and, to borrow a line from the book of Esther, Gaza City rejoiced and was glad.

Leadership crisis in the West Bank

Where will the West Bank be on May 14? It is hard to predict. So far, the Palestinian population is refusing to heed the calls of the various organizations to participate in demonstrations of any kind. No large demonstrations, as there were during the first and second intifadas, have taken place there for some years. Why? There are several reasons.

First, as in the Israeli population, the focus among Palestinians is more on the personal, the individual, and the family, than on the national. The Palestinians in the West Bank look around and see the situation in Gaza, and of course in other parts of the Middle East such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, and pretty much everywhere else.

The economic situation in the West Bank, which is not nearly as bad, is definitely an incentive to keep the situation from getting out of hand. For many people, earning a livelihood, whether in Israel, the Palestinian government offices, or the Palestinian security services, is better than another a risky venture like the Second Intifada, which led to the collapse of Palestinian society.

Another element is involved as well: the severe leadership crisis on the Palestinian side.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reads notes as he chairs a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on February 3, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI)

Almost 70 percent of Palestinians demand the resignation of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Complaints about corruption in the Palestinian Authority are on the rise, and Fatah’s leadership is refusing to undergo any change or reform. This has created contempt and a lack of hope for any real struggle against Israel. One complaint expressed time and again is that on the day that the sons of Fatah’s leaders are seen at anti-Israel demonstrations, “we will also join them.”

Finally, the PA is conveying a clear message that it has no intention of allowing actual terror attacks or large-scale demonstrations. The PA is the one announcing that it is maintaining security coordination with Israel. So if the leadership does not want an explosion, what can the public under its authority do?

There is another important element that is less visible to the Western observer: the social networks. While it is true that they are one of the main sources of incitement in recent years, they are also the young people’s primary forum for blowing off steam. Over social networks, young people can attend virtual demonstrations, and join online intifadas — all without leaving home and endangering themselves.

To an extent, Facebook and the other social networks have become a valve for venting public fury, rather than just a place where that fury is fomented. Mostly, it is more convenient for the public to release its anger, hatred, and hostility toward Israel and the occupation online than in demonstrations that are liable to endanger human lives. If participating in the fight against the occupation once meant scrawling graffiti, hanging Palestinian flags, and throwing stones (as part of what is known as a “popular resistance”), today it is enough to “like” a demonstration “for the sake of Jerusalem.”

A caveat: As with the first intifada and the events of the “Arab Spring,” sometimes the masses go out to the streets following an unplanned and unexpected incident that could catch everyone — the Israeli leadership, the IDF, the Shin Bet security service, and even the PA — off guard.

We are in a transition period in which the Palestinian public is well aware that the Abbas era is over and yet is waiting for a new leadership — whose identity is yet unknown — to take charge. Some are calling it “apricot season,” which is known to be particularly brief. One Palestinian website reported over the weekend that Mahmoud al-Aloul, the deputy chairman of Fatah, will be Abbas’s temporary replacement in Fatah for three months, but it is hard to know for certain. There are quite a few candidates and names, and few of them are considered well-liked by the public.

Precisely in light of this leadership crisis, it seems that a new, younger leadership is forming on the ground, part of which we are likely to encounter in the future. These are the heads of the branches of Fatah’s Tanzim: in other words, the Marwan Barghoutis of today. Many of them are more or less newly released prisoners, in their late thirties, and not part of the Palestinian Authority’s corrupt generation. These are people such as Imad Kharwat of Hebron, Muhammad al-Masry of Bethlehem, Jihad Ramadan of Nablus, and Muafak Sahil of Ramallah. They were joined recently by newly freed inmates Khalil Abu Hashyeh of Balata and Rafa Jawabara of Doha. Basel Bizri of Nablus, once a major activist in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, will soon be joining them.

These people, who led the brigades during the Second Intifada, have entered the political arena more mature and sober, and with serious hopes of taking their place among the leadership cadre. They have connections with people such as al-Aloul, Jibril Rajoub, and Majed Faraj (head of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service).

It is still hard to predict how they will act in a real crisis with Israel or, to put it more precisely, on “the day after.” Will they obey the orders of Abbas’s successor, or will they try to move things in a direction of their own choosing?

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