Do recent border protests mark turning point for Hamas?

By endorsing calls for peaceful protests along Gaza's border, Hamas is likely looking to capitalize on international sympathy with the Palestinian cause, but some question whether the movement can break its tradition of violence.

al-monitor Palestinians take part in a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Gaza City, April 13, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.

Apr 13, 2018

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Many questions remain concerning Hamas’ endorsement of the recent protests that broke out March 30 along the Israeli-Gaza border. Mass demonstrations resumed April 13 for the third Friday in a row, and at least 33 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in the clashes in the past two weeks.

The recurring protests — which Hamas dubbed the Great Return March and are slated to continue until Nakba Day on May 15 — were spearheaded by the Coordination Committee for the Great Return March and planned as peaceful demonstrations.

The pertinent question, however, is what are Hamas' motives for backing these protests? Is it a long-term strategy or merely a short-term tactic?

The Islamic movement has long advocated armed resistance against Israel and criticized the nonviolent resistance style as futile. In a March 29 statement, however, Hamas urged its supporters in the besieged enclave to come out en masse to protest peacefully.

The coordination committee includes various Palestinian factions, mainly Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine as well as independent civil and human rights figures and activists.

The committee aims to turn the march into an ongoing and sustainable action that will culminate in the 70th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba May 15, the day the US administration is expected to carry out its plan to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Committee member and Hamas leader Ismail Radwan told Al-Monitor that the main goal of the march is to remind the world of the need to implement United Nations Resolution 194, providing for the Palestinian refugees’ return to the lands from which they were expelled in 1948.

Meanwhile, political analyst Talal Awkal told Al-Monitor, “By backing the return march, Hamas is also pushing a political agenda. It seeks to present itself to the world as a more moderate party using peaceful resistance to uphold its cause.” Awkal believes that Hamas is reinventing itself by pursuing a new strategy based on nonviolent action to open channels for dialogue and forge diplomatic relations with various countries of the world, including the United States, in line with its new political charter.

The document, issued in May 2017, reads, “Hamas adopts a policy of opening up to various countries in the world, namely Arab and Islamic countries. Hamas seeks to build balanced relations based on reconciling the requirements of the Palestinian cause and the interests of the Palestinian people.”

Awkal said that with these protests, Hamas wants to embarrass Israel at the international level by portraying it as the party using excessive violence against Palestinians, regardless of whether the resistance is armed or peaceful. Hamas did not respond in kind to the Israeli military’s shooting at protesters.

Since the start of the demonstrations, 33 protesters have been killed and 2,850 others wounded by Israeli bullets along the eastern border of Gaza.

Since the start of the demonstrations, 33 protesters have been killed and 2,850 others wounded by Israeli bullets along the eastern border of Gaza.

In a March 30 statement, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed sympathy for the families of the Palestinian victims and called for an independent and transparent investigation into the incidents.

Radwan said, “Hamas supports all forms of resistance and has become more receptive to the practice of peaceful resistance on a permanent basis. But this does not mean stopping the armed resistance or halting developing of its military equipment.”

Ahmed Youssef, a former adviser to Hamas' former political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh, told Al-Monitor, “Until recently, Hamas had long believed that the popular peaceful resistance was useless in the face of Israel, as opposed to the armed resistance, which it sees as a strategic choice. This mindset, however, has started to change with the Great Return March.”

Youssef believes that this change of heart is due to Hamas becoming aware of the positive impact of the peaceful popular resistance, which has resonated with the international community and brought the Palestinian issue back to the headlines of the global media.

Ahmed Awad, a professor of political science at Al-Quds University in the city of Abu Dis, told Al-Monitor that Hamas’ support for the marches indicates that it is looking to the peaceful resistance movement that emerged in the West Bank in 2005 under the Palestinian Authority. He said, “It is clear that Hamas is trying to emulate the peaceful protests of the West Bank in a bid to narrow the gap with Fatah and its leader Mahmoud Abbas, who upholds the option of peaceful resistance as opposed to the armed one.”

Fatah spokesman Atef Abu Seif concurred, saying, “This march paves the way for the re-establishment of the concept of national unity.” He called on Hamas to make it part of its strategic vision rather than just a passing tactic.

“I believe the peaceful resistance was able to embarrass Israel internationally and gain more sympathy to the Palestinian cause, without the need to fire a single shot against Israel,” Abu Seif told Al-Monitor, asserting that Fatah fully supports the march and calling on Hamas to cooperate with the PA to integrate the demonstrations into a unified national vision.

Awad believes that Hamas is seeking an intellectual rapprochement with Fatah, paving the way for joining the PLO, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people at the international level. However, he said, this new image of nonviolence could contradict the principles of most of Hamas' rank and file as well as its veteran supporters, who have long believed in armed resistance against Israel.

Youssef countered, “Hamas found out that the nonviolent resistance resonates better with its base and that it is the best way to face the occupation at this time of military calm between Israel and Hamas.”

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