It would be a mistake not to see the multiple ways in which all the actors involved in the March of Return are acting rationally, on both sides of the border. Looked at from two sides, this is a harsh, clarifying political moment particularly about the Palestinian Right of Return, and the rotten status quo in Palestine and Israel.
The people of Gaza protesting are acting rationally. They are isolated, barely subsisting at dead-end, under total siege imposed upon the territory by Israel and by Egypt after Hamas took control of the territory. Leading up to the March, top Israeli military brass were among those arguing that the situation there was going to ignite, absent moves to rehabilitate the economically crippled territory. About the demonstrations, before Hamas took over their organization and operation, the initial organizers of the March and the vast majority of non-violent participants at the tent encampments saw in the Right of Return and the March of Return their only best, just and rational option, which is to get out of Gaza, which is a prison, and go “home.” Meanwhile and to this date, the Palestinian masses in the occupied West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem have not risen up to demonstrate or to support in solidarity their compatriots in Gaza, who have nothing to lose.
What I understand from reading the press these last couple of months is that, as an isolated, non-sovereign governing authority and militant movement, Hamas ran out of options. The Israeli army has come up with more or less effective means of countering Hamas missile attacks and the threat of underground attack tunnels. For Hamas, the only last strategic “weapon” is the misery of the people whose lives they are misgoverning. Prior to the Marches when they began towards the end of March, the initial organizers of the March and then Hamas leaders all claimed that they would keep people away from the border, that the purpose of the march was peaceful, not to ignite a conflagration. They knew that attacking the fence was going to present a significant danger to human life and limb. That obviously was never really in the cards, and Hamas is responsible for allowing unarmed demonstrators to approach and then rush the fence in attempts to overwhelm it, and for actively organizing that activity.
For their part, the vast majority of Jews in the sovereign State of Israel, i.e. within the 1967 borders, will reject out of hand the transformation of their country into a Palestinian majority state; they recognize in the Right of Return a political threat to their national existence and personal security. This too is rational, from their perspective. In 2005, Israel withdrew all military personnel and settlers from the entire territory of the Gaza Strip. The current militarized border sits on the 1949 Armistice Line, an internationally recognized border separating Israel from Gaza, then occupied by Egypt until 1967. Those who support current attempts by the protestors to breach what is effectively an internationally recognized border are doing their part to undermine a two state resolution to the conflict for which the 1949 Armistice Lines (the so-called Green Line) is a fundamental building block.
Before the March, the government of Israel and its military leaders made clear that they were not going to allow anyone to breach the border, which has been the clear intent of those demonstrators who left the main tent encampments. With confidence, it was presumed that the ensuing mayhem following a mass breach of the border would endanger the lives of Israeli citizens in the south, eclipsing the current violence at its peak moments of carnage. Whether or not and to what extent non-lethal means of crowd control such as tear gas, water cannon, and rubber bullets are effective in open rural areas before a mass of determined demonstrators is beyond the ken of this writer and of all of his friends and social media contacts.
What is not rational, and actually wicked, is the brutalizing behavior of the respective leadership authorities of two national communities enmeshed in ongoing, asymmetrical conflict under which the Palestinian people continue to endure the brunt of the suffering, both in Gaza and the West Bank and for large parts of the Palestinian diaspora. Assuming that submission is not an option for either community, assuming that one will resist the other and the other the one, then this is what does not make sense. The March of Return and the harsh Israeli response to it are “logical” and inevitable outcomes only as long as the political leadership of the State of Israel refuses to open up a genuine political horizon for the Palestinian people by ending the 1967 occupation and facilitating the creation of a territorially viable state. The same is true as long as Palestinian leaders, primarily Hamas in Gaza, continue to promote and act out the illusion that one day the descendants of refugees will return like a wall and en masse to ancestral homes in what is today Israel.
That is the cruel rock and ugly hard place. As the sovereign hegemon, Israel, increasingly callous to Palestinian misery, is ultimately responsible for the larger political and security envelope, and for the collapse of a political and diplomatic horizon. But what then about the people of Gaza? Where will they be in two weeks, or whenever the demonstrations will have subsided into a new iteration of the miserable status quo, after the burials and amputations, and slow recovery from life altering injuries? What will Hamas have brought them except more misery? Hamas is the mirror to this rightwing Israeli government. They need and use each other. Highly cynical, it’s actually in Israel’s interest for Hamas to continue to rule Gaza because, ordinarily, Hamas maintains the necessary modicum of quiet, only deepening the rotten status quo after this spasm of violence.