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Palestinian Nationalism Is at Its Lowest Point Ever

Might the failures of Hamas and Abbas pave the path to peace?

Jonathan Schanzer
May 15, 2018
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Anti-Israel riots on May 14, 2018 in Gaza City, Gaza.Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Anti-Israel riots on May 14, 2018 in Gaza City, Gaza.Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The riots on the border of the Gaza Strip could be the beginning of a new round of Middle East violence. Yet, they are also an indication that Palestinian nationalism is at its lowest point since the “Nakba,” the Israeli victory in the 1948-1949 War of Independence.

Palestinians still dream of statehood. But that dream appears increasingly distant, with a divided and feckless Palestinian leadership—Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority in the West Bank—that have both recently suffered debilitating defeats.

For Abbas in the West Bank, it’s been a perfect storm. The United States just recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and opened its embassy there, brushing away Palestinian protests indifferently. Now, the table is set for other countries to follow suit at a time when Abbas’ currency is at its nadir, following an anti-Semitic outburst that has left him looking toxic and incapable of rehabilitation to the few friends he had in the West.

The Arab states, meanwhile, are also drifting away from the aging Abbas. They are drawn to Israel’s military and intelligence capabilities, which were on full display this past week. It’s hard not be impressed after the Mossad stole a half ton of sensitive documents from Iran’s nuclear archive, not to mention the shellacking that Israel gave the Iranian Qods Force in Syria shortly thereafter.

Isolated and angry, with intelligence agencies worldwide now trying to either influence or predict the octogenarian’s successor, Abbas has arguably never been further from realizing his dream of statehood since becoming president in 2005.

This would normally be a good opportunity for Abbas’ political rivals, Hamas, to demonstrate their leadership. But Hamas is reeling for other reasons. The terrorist group-cum-government, is currently without a reliable patron. Iranian support is mostly limited to military assistance, Israeli analysts say. Turkey, a strong proponent of the Islamist group that once contributed more significantly, has drawn down support under pressure from the West. And Qatar, the group’s longstanding top financial patron, finds itself squeezed by its Gulf neighbors, who vow to impose a blockade on the tiny nation until it ceases its support for terrorism.

This is bad news for Hamas, which has consistently struggled to rule the Gaza Strip since wresting the territory by force from the Palestinian Authority in 2007. The group sealed its fate after launching several rocket wars against Israel. This has prompted Israel to draw an ever-tightening cordon around the coastal enclave, making Israel the only lifeline for Gaza imports and exports (especially after 2012, when Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi came to power and began to block the group’s access to the adjoining Sinai Peninsula).

It’s not surprising but always worth repeating: Terrorist groups are not good at governance. Hamas is no exception. They have diverted significant portions of the minimal aid that Gaza receives to bankroll their military machine, consisting primarily of an army, a rocket arsenal, and a team of tunnel diggers, but also to enrich their own cadres.

The Gaza Strip has thus descended deeper and deeper into despair. Hamas shows no sign of leaving. Nor does it show signs of significant reform. Surprisingly, Israeli officials believe that Yahya Sinwar, the leader of the Hamas enclave with an almost mythical record of brutality and violence, is more committed to governance than the analyst hive thought possible. But the situation has already deteriorated too badly for him to make much of a difference.

This leads us to the recent riots on the Gaza border. Israeli officials are in broad agreement that Hamas is encouraging the unrest—the group pays children to try and breach the fence and recently released prisoners to do so as well. But the sad truth is that Gazans need little encouragement. And it’s not just “desperation,” a word often used to justify Hamas violence. Rather, Gazans are putting themselves in the line of Israeli fire because they can’t bring themselves to protest against Hamas itself. Hamas won’t tolerate it. But it may also be a matter of national pride. As the Gazans see it, Hamas may be failing miserably at governance, but it is an organic Gaza phenomenon that fights Israel.

It’s not clear what Hamas aims to gain right now. They know by now that Israel will not endanger its own people with new policies that empower a terrorist group. And there are no other regional actors who want the burden of managing the problem directly. So, the tires burn, the rocks fly, the flaming kites soar, larger crowds gather each Friday, and the numbers of dead and wounded continue to climb.

Of course, the Israelis dispute Hamas’s official casualty numbers, which they say are greatly exaggerated. But they also admit that their response thus far does not showcase the ingenuity usually exhibited by the military in times of crisis.

According to the IDF spokesman, they are calling out to the protesters through bullhorns, warning them not to approach the border. They are firing warning shots. And they are using non-lethal munitions. But they also openly concede that they are letting loose lethal munitions, particularly against those who have either fired across the border, laid IEDs, set fire to Israeli land through burning kites, or simply tried to violate their sovereignty.

The Israelis would like nothing more than to see an end to this crisis. It’s terrible PR during what has otherwise been a proud national moment. It’s also a grim reminder of the fact that enemies are still quite literally at their gate, even after two weeks of consecutive and conclusive military and diplomatic victories.

Perhaps even more disheartening to decision makers, it’s a sign that the Palestinian problem persists, despite Israel’s attempts to focus on more pressing matters. And it was the focus on more pressing matters that may explain the self-described “lack of creativity” exhibited by the IDF on the border.

Interestingly, despite the current despondency, or perhaps because of it, there is a sense of possible opportunity. The West Bank government is irrelevant. The Gaza government is collapsing. The Palestinians need a way out of all this. And so do the Israelis.

Reports continue to circulate that the White House, with input from Jerusalem and Arab capitals, have been mulling plans for a new “regional architecture.” The details are still fuzzy. And it may not be the peace long chased by American diplomats. But right now, the desperate Palestinians, and even the frustrated military analysts in Tel Aviv, may be ready to listen.

Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the United States Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.