Israeli security authorities are breathing a sigh of relief. After stormy protests on March 30 in which 19 Palestinians were killed and hundreds injured, the number of Gaza residents heeding Hamas’ call to a second demonstration at the border fence with Israel dropped significantly. Despite the Palestinians’ sense of triumph at having challenged the “Zionist enemy,” which fears a mass Palestinian march to its border, only some 10,000 demonstrators showed up at the fence on April 6, according to assessments by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). In other words, despite the organized busing and repeated calls for Palestinians of the besieged enclave to come out en masse to protest Israel's blockade and to support a return to Palestine, the number of those who showed up plummeted by 75%. According to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, 40,000 Gazans turned out for the March 30 march.
The high number of casualties during the first demonstration may have kept many Palestinians away from life-threatening clashes the second time around. The event Hamas has dubbed the Great Return March appears to be a resounding failure given that Hamas' leaders had expected 100,000 of Gaza’s 2 million residents to show up for the first demonstration and fewer than half that number actually took part.
“The photos speak for themselves,” a source in Israel’s civil administration for the Palestinian territory told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity. “The number of worshippers at the fence during [Friday] noon prayers was far smaller than on the first week of the protests, and that is significant.”
The source also said that fear of a violent confrontation with Israeli troops was not the only reason Hamas had failed to drum up a larger crowd. “Although Hamas supposedly succeeded in drawing international and Arab attention to the Gaza issue once again, it turned out the movement’s leaders themselves are coming under harsh criticism by residents of the Strip,” he said. “The situation in Gaza today is the worst it has been since the blockade was imposed, and many in Gaza blame Hamas, too, for the terrible state of things.”
According to the source, encouraging results can be found on Al-Munaseq, the Arab-language Facebook page of the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories and its head, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai. The page, designed to provide a platform for direct contact with the Palestinians, has more than 250,000 followers, the source noted, adding, “There’s no doubt the message is getting through.” He cited, for instance, Israel’s repeated claim that Hamas is stealing electricity from residents and investing money in building tunnels through which to attack Israel rather than putting it toward easing the dire plight of Gazans.
Still, Palestinians in Gaza hardly need an Israeli internet campaign to grasp their grim predicament. The humanitarian crisis is severe, and they have identified those responsible. A human rights activist told Al-Monitor that Palestinians undoubtedly blame Israel and the chokehold it exerts over its population every hour of every day for the shortages and poverty reminiscent of the poorest neighborhoods in Africa or Asia. They also, however, blame Hamas and its leadership’s misguided priorities. They are afraid to say so out loud for fear of reprisals, the source said, but every adult and child in Gaza, whether a Hamas supporter or opponent, knows the organization’s priorities are skewed and that it takes care of its activists, leaders and the movement itself, neglecting other residents.
The border fence protests began as a private, civilian-led initiative by Mohammed Abu Artema, a human rights activist. Abu Artema had pondered on Facebook what would happen if hundreds of thousands of Gazans were to march to the Erez border crossing and protest against the siege. His initiative drew enthusiastic responses from many young Palestinians, and Hamas saw in it an opportunity to be exploited for its own ends. Abu Artema had hoped for a nonviolent protest, but Hamas decided to turn it into a series of “marches” under its sponsorship in the hopes that they would help the movement extricate itself from its diplomatic and economic plight. After only one week of mass demonstrations, it transpired that the protest against the Israeli siege was also directed against Hamas and its rule.
“The situation in Gaza is terrible,” another human rights activist told Al-Monitor, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We find ourselves in situations we would never have believed possible. Society is breaking down, hunger is rampant, and businessmen who came to symbolize Gaza’s wealth are now in prison because they failed to meet their obligations.” He attributes the dire straits to “the siege and cruelty of the occupation.” That said, he further stated, “Hamas is not helping residents to the extent it is able.”
“Yes, we blame you, your army, your government, your citizens, who know that people are dying here but don’t care,” he remarked. “But we are also complaining against our leadership in Gaza.” The activist also mentioned one phenomenon that has yet to make headlines — girls in Gaza engaging in prostitution for a pittance to buy necessities for themselves and their families.
With Hamas taking credit for the events at the border, many of the demonstrators who showed up on the first week for a civil, nonviolent protest stayed away the second week. “There are many people in Gaza who no longer care about dying,” he said. “It doesn’t scare them. They live like the dead. They didn’t come to the demonstration, not because they were afraid of death, but because they did not want to serve Hamas.”
Israel now believes that the protests at the fence, which were planned as a campaign of attrition lasting until May 15, the day Palestinians mark the Nakba, the “catastrophe” of Israel’s independence, will fail to achieve the goals set out by Hamas. Still, one goal has already been achieved. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had planned to impose new sanctions on Gaza and Hamas following the March 13 attempt on the lives of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and Palestinian Authority intelligence chief Majid Faraj. The renewed international interest in Gaza and the high number of casualties caused by Israeli fire have led him to reconsider. The plan has been shelved, for now.