On the surface it was business as usual in the Gaza Strip. Hamas bussed thousands of residents to the border with Israel to begin a six-week protest campaign ahead of the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence—or, as the Palestinians call it, the nakba, or “catastrophe.” This protest would mark “the beginning of the Palestinians’ return to all of Palestine,” according to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.
It didn’t. Stones were thrown, tires were set aflame, and shots were fired. When the smoke cleared, the borders were still in place and 15 Palestinians lay dead, with three more succumbing later from injuries. While families endured their private tragedies, familiar controversies swirled. The usual people denounced Israel in the usual ways, countered by the usual defenders making the usual arguments.
But what is happening in Gaza today is not business as usual. Tectonic plates are shifting in the Middle East as the Sunni Arab world counts the cost of the failed Arab Spring and the defeat of Sunni Arabs by Iranian-backed forces in Syria.
In headier times, pan-Arab nationalists like Gamal Abdel Nasser and lesser figures like Saddam Hussein dreamed of creating a united pan-Arab state that could hold its own among the world’s great powers. When nationalism sputtered out, many Arabs turned to Sunni Islamist movements instead. Those, too, have for the time being failed, and today Arab states seek protection from Israel and the U.S. against an ascendant Iran and a restless, neo-Ottoman Turkey.
But the American protection on which Arabs rely cannot be taken for granted, as President Trump’s apparent determination to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria in the near term demonstrates. Under these circumstances, Israel’s unmatched access to Washington makes Jerusalem even more important to Arab calculations. Perhaps only Israel can keep the U.S. engaged in the region.
It is against this backdrop that the old Palestinian alliance with the Arab nations has frayed. Most Arab rulers now see Palestinian demands as an inconvenient obstacle to a necessary strategic alliance with Israel. The major Gulf states and Egypt apparently have agreed on two goals. The first is to strangle Hamas in Gaza to restore the authority of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. The second is to press the authority to accept the kind of peace that Israel has offered repeatedly and that Yasser Arafat and his successor have so far rejected.
Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are playing for time. They support the first goal by refusing to pay the salaries of government employees in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip even as they resist pressure to make peace with the Jewish State. It is not yet clear what the authority’s final response to the peace pressure will be. Even if it ultimately decides to accept an Arab-sponsored compromise, making a show of resistance can improve its credibility with the Palestinian public and, perhaps, extract better terms.
Hamas is in an even more desperate plight. The Arab blockade and donor strike cripples Gaza in ways the Israelis never could. Food is growing scarce, electricity is erratic, unemployment exceeds 40%, and raw sewage runs into the sea. Many Gaza residents presumably want the only thing Hamas can’t offer: relief.
Historically Hamas has reacted to this kind of pressure by launching wars against Israel, trusting its friends abroad to force the Jewish state to cease fire before it can inflict serious damage on Hamas’ leadership. But in the 2014 war, Arab foot-dragging gave Israel time to deal a serious defeat to Hamas. Another war would be equally ruinous and for the same reason: The Arab governments want Hamas crushed, and they won’t stop Israel from doing the job.
The current demonstrations, Hamas hopes, can whip up a global wave of rage and indignation against Israel without provoking a full-on war. That might weaken the Arab coalition against it. But the prime audience for Hamas’s performance this time isn’t the Arab world; it is Turkey and Iran, whose support Hamas will need to survive if it is driven from Gaza (as Arafat was once driven from Jordan and Lebanon).
Rifts between Palestinians and other Arabs are nothing new. But the collapse of Arab nationalism and the failure of Sunni radicalism have weakened the political forces that rallied Arab support to the Palestinian cause. With millions of new Arab refugees in Syria, and growing threats to Arab independence from powerful neighbors, prioritizing Palestine is a luxury many Arabs feel they can no longer afford.