Why have recent mass Palestinian protests been limited to Gaza?

The recent mass protests along the Gaza-Israel border raise questions as to why similar events aren't happening in the West Bank.

al-monitor Palestinians gather at the Israel-Gaza border during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest, demanding the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City, Gaza, April 1, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.

Apr 5, 2018

The unprecedented, six-week peaceful protests that began with Land Day on March 30 in Gaza and are supposed to reach a climax on Nakba Day on May 15 have been largely confined to the Gaza Strip.

While the large, nonviolent protests have been led by an independent committee in Gaza, they were supported by all Palestinian nationalist PLO factions as well as Islamic ones.

PLO and Islamic factions have their leaders and followers in the West Bank also, so why didn’t they coordinate with each other and hold simultaneous protest activities?

Anees Sweidan, the director of the PLO’s international relations department, told Al-Monitor that in fact Palestinians in the West Bank have been constantly protesting for some time at near every flashpoint with the Israelis. “The situation in Gaza is different from that in the West Bank, and therefore they require a different set of responses to the Israelis.”

One of the major differences between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is that Gaza has been under a crippling economic siege and severe travel ban. Even medical cases have to receive permits from Israel, although a considerable number are regularly turned down.

The percentage of Palestinians who lost their homes and land in 1948 (in what is now referred to as the Nakba, or catastrophe) is much bigger in Gaza. According to the records of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), 1.3 million registered refugees live in the Gaza Strip compared to 800,000 in the West Bank. The numbers appear much greater when compared to the overall population.

The 2017 Global Report on Food Crisis indicated that “27% of people living in the West Bank and 70% living in Gaza are registered refugees.”

While the number and percentage of refugees is larger, the number of refugee camps in Gaza (eight), according to UNRWA, is much smaller than the 19 refugee camps spread throughout the West Bank. With fewer camps and a denser population, it is easier to organize large groups of people to protest.

The economic differences are also very stark. Sami Awad, the executive director of the Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust, told Al-Monitor that many Gazans have little to lose. “The underlying trigger that erupted the Gaza nonviolent protest movement at this time is the living conditions. The question is, ‘What do we have to lose?’ In the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian population has reached the point where there is nothing more to lose. Gazans are on the brink of one of the worst humanitarian disasters. In the West Bank, protesting [even nonviolently] comes with a greater loss than in Gaza.”

Although the demographics and economics might answer the question, one main difference between Gaza and the West Bank is the reaction of the security forces in charge. Whereas in Gaza Hamas security forces have made it easy for protesters and have provided them with what they need, in the West Bank the Palestinian security forces that are still coordinating their efforts with the Israeli army will not allow mass protests.

Awad, whose organization trains leaders in nonviolence tactics, told Al-Monitor that the security situation is also a major obstacle. “The Israeli military and political establishment knows and understands fully the power of nonviolent resistance and has in the past. This establishment will do anything in the future to stop, discourage or undermine Palestinians who engage in nonviolence.” Awad concedes that the Palestinian security coordination shifts the effort to crush protests to the Palestinian security, while in Gaza the Israelis are forced to deal with it directly.

“The violent deadly response of the Israeli army, as painful as it is, only shows the threat to Israel that nonviolence brings,” he said.

Mubarak Awad, the founder of Washington DC-based NonViolence International, suggests that the people of Jerusalem should take the lead in the West Bank protests. “Despite the overwhelming Palestinian security restriction on large protests, if 20 protests are organized at the same time in the West Bank, the PLO security will be outnumbered. Also, the people in Jerusalem can protest, and they will be able to do so because they will be out of the reach of the Palestinian security forces,” Awad, who was deported by Israel in 1988, told Al-Monitor.

While the two major Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, are publicly on the record as supporting peaceful protests, it appears from what has been happening in Gaza that the chances for the success of large numbers of Palestinians protesting in Gaza is much higher than in the West Bank for a variety of reasons —​ not the least because of the absence of national unity.

Palestinians in Gaza have shown that nonviolent protests can do more to shake up Israel and the world community than more violent means of protests. Leaders in the West Bank are too engrossed in the post-Mahmoud Abbas succession process to pay serious attention to this useful form of protest.

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