The Politics Behind the Palestinian March of Return
On March 30, 2018, the Palestinians kicked-off the “March of Return” campaign, a series of protests and demonstrations centered in the Gaza Strip and, to a lesser extent, the areas ruled by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
The initiative is managed by the National Authority of the March of Return, a body representing a broad Palestinian political spectrum from the Islamic camp of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine to Fatah and leftist secular forces such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Palestinian People’s Party.
Hamas and Fatah are on a collision course. The Islamist and left-wing secular Palestinian groups have different and even conflicting ideologies and goals. So what brings them together?
On one level, the March of Return presents a unified Palestinian front because it is designed around two narratives at the heart of Palestinian consensus: First, the “Right of Return,” which claims Palestinian refugees and their descendants have the right to reclaim the properties they abandoned during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Second, the issue of Al-Quds (Jerusalem). In the more pragmatic narrative, this is the idea that sovereignty over Jerusalem should be divided between Israel and the Palestinians. In the more dogmatic narrative, it is the idea that Israel should be eradicated and Jerusalem made the capital of a Palestinian state.
But on a fundamental level, the March of Return must be viewed through the lens of internal Palestinian politics, particularity the power struggle between the two major Palestinian factions — Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
Fatah, the largest and most powerful party in the Palestinian National Authority, rules parts of the West Bank. It calls for “civil resistance,” i.e., forcing Israel to comply with Palestinian demands via political measures that, according to radical factions within Fatah, will eventually result in the elimination of Israel. Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007. Hamas calls for the elimination of Israel through “armed resistance.”
The PA and Hamas both face substantial challenges such as an unfriendly US administration and reluctant Arab support. The PA is heading toward a possible power struggle because PA President Mahmoud Abbas will likely step down in the near future. Hamas is struggling financially and faces growing discontent among Gazans. In addition, its military and terror tactics have been largely thwarted by Israel. It is defined as a terror group by Western powers and harshly criticized by major Arab players because of Gaza’s economic and social crisis and Hamas’ relationship with Iran.
Faced with mounting challenges and no solutions, allowing the March of Return campaign to evolve into a military confrontation with Israel — a tactic they have used in the past — may be the last card that Hamas and the PA have to play. But this is a risk they need to weigh carefully.
On the one hand, threatening to unleash a massive confrontation may result in Egypt permanently opening the Rafah crossing or the resumption of US funding to the PA. Such relief from outside entities would enable Hamas and the PA to catch their breath, address some of their domestic challenges, and keep themselves in power. On the other hand, it could jeopardize their administrations. For Hamas, another military round with Israel may be one round too many, as Gaza has not recovered from the 2014 war. And for the PA, such a strategy may bring an end to its rule.
The March of Return is also a zero-sum game between Hamas and the PA. Each side views the other’s achievements as a loss for them. Both Hamas and Fatah are determined to prevent the other from marking any significant achievements.
The march is also a stage for the different and to large extent conflicting interests of Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, and Iran. Egypt plays a constructive, stabilizing role. Turkey and Iran play a destabilizing role. Qatar’s role is yet to be determined.
Stability in the Gaza Strip is in Egypt’s interest. A major Israeli-Palestinian collision might fuel extremist Islamic and Muslim Brotherhood factors in Egypt and fuel unrest among its population. Egypt wants the Palestinian campaign to be confined and restrained. This explains why Egypt maintains open communication channels with Hamas, the PA, and Israel, as well as the fact that they opened the Rafah crossing last week for three days.
Turkey’s position is largely dictated by its rivalry with Egypt. From Turkey’s perspective, an escalation in the Gaza Strip has benefits. It would harm Egypt’s interest in stability and enable Turkey to take the lead as the defender of Gaza and the Palestinian campaign, scoring points among Arab public opinion at Egypt’s expense. Indeed, since the start of the campaign Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Israel of war crimes.
Qatar is a major sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. It has invested millions of dollars in projects in Gaza. Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood has been a source of escalating tensions between Qatar and Egypt since current Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi came to power. Qatar also owns and operates the influential Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera’s unfriendly coverage of the Egyptian president further deepened tensions between Egypt and Qatar. This became an open conflict in June 2017 when Egypt joined the blockade and sanctions imposed on Qatar by the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia.
The network is a news creator, not only a news conveyor. Its coverage often fuels demonstrations, inciting discontent and violence. Al Jazeera has extensively covered the March of Return. Yet their coverage is relatively confined to reporting rather than making the news. This may signal that, for now, Qatar does not wish to fan the flames, perhaps because it wants the US to mediate a solution to end the Gulf states’ blockade and its resulting isolation.
Iran has a clear interest in a major Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. The March of Return is supposed to reach its peak on May 14. This is the date that the US embassy will reportedly be moved to Jerusalem. It also coincides with the May 12 deadline President Donald Trump has set for the EU to support the US in amending the nuclear deal with Iran.
Israeli-Palestinian tensions at that time could play into Iran’s hands. First, to thwart changes to the nuclear deal, Iran will maintain that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — not Iran — is the source of instability in the region. The EU will be receptive to this argument. Second, Israeli-Palestinian tensions will “validate” Iran’s argument that its aggressive regional expansion policy is required in order to “liberate Palestine.”
As of now, however, both Hamas and the PA have determined that avoiding a military conflict with Israel at this time serves their interests.
The closing statement of the 29th Arab League Summit, concluded on April 15, emphasized that the Palestinian cause is an Arab affair. This signals that the Arab states wish to keep the March of Return confined and restrained.
It is likely that the coming weeks will witness intense overt and back-channel communications between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the US. The goal of these talks is to revive the crumbling Palestinian reconciliation process in a way that will enable both Hamas and the PA to claim achievements and label the campaign “successful” without another Israeli-Palestinian collision.
Therefore, it is likely that the March of Return will continue according to discreet and mutually agreed upon ground rules aimed at preventing a further deterioration. But all sides must manage the campaign very carefully, because it has the potential to rapidly escalate and spin out of control.
Avi Melamed is a former Israeli senior official on Arab affairs and intelligence, the Salisbury Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs for the Eisenhower Institute, and founder of Inside the Middle East: Intelligence Perspectives, which is designed to ensure that the next generation of leaders will apply critical thinking to Middle East affairs.