The Gaza Strip is a territory that no faction wants to take responsibility for, not even the Palestinian Authority. Most of the time, the global community prefers to ignore it until some incident forces the world to take note. The latest repetition of this cycle of violence occurred on May 14th when thousands of Palestinians tried to storm the Gaza-Israel border fence. The Palestinian organizers who refer to the series of protests as the ‘great march of return’ seek for the re-entry of their kin to what is now Israel.
For the past seven weeks, Palestinians have protested at twelve locations along the border fence separating Israel and the Gaza Strip. Israeli troops responded to the protesters by using non-lethal as well as excessive lethal force such as drones that dropped tear gas and sharpshooters that fired live ammunition. Since the start of the events seven weeks ago, the number of Palestinian casualties has mounted to well over a hundred, some of them members of militant groups like Hamas that carried lethal weapons, while others were just unarmed ordinary civilians who were depressed with the circumstances inside Gaza. Regardless of the details, human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch immediately condemned the excessive use of force by the Israeli Government and said that there was plenty of time to come up with alternative methods to contain the situation.
Meanwhile, at the peak of the violence, American and Israeli officials celebrated the relocation of the U.S Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The split-screen moment captured the surreal geopolitics of the region with Prime Minister Netanyahu calling it a ‘great day for peace’. Although President Trump’s decision to move the embassy has certainly aggravated a level of unrest in the region, the blame for the current crisis falls on multiple factors.
For most, Gaza is no ordinary piece of land. It is practically a large open-air prison measuring at around 365 square kilometers and home to nearly two million people making it one of the most crowded places in the world. Gaza also faces some dire shortages of food, water, power, medicine, and other basic necessities. For instance, the tap water is undrinkable and power outages usually last most of the day. As a result, hospitals are experiencing difficulties of functioning properly and most people only have four hours of access to electricity daily. There is also a shortage of schools and nearly half of the residents in Gaza are unemployed. In addition, almost half of the children in Gaza suffer from malnourishment. Due to these circumstances, about half of the residents have expressed no will to live.
The blockade of the Gaza Strip is the catalyst of the region’s despair. Israel, having withdrawn its troops in 2005, insists that it is not to blame. Yet, the Israeli Government still retains control over Gaza’s land, sea, and air space to the north and east. Israel also determines what goods get in and out of Gaza. Israeli officials argue that these measures are necessary because Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, is likely to use the materials for the construction of rockets, bombs, and smuggling tunnels. Either way, the lack of freedom of movement means that people cannot leave the region even if they wanted to (only a small number can leave for exceptional reasons).
Egypt also contributes to the despair in Gaza. The sole crossing point in Rafah to the south, has been practically closed for years due to security concerns in the Sinai Peninsula.
Meanwhile, Hamas, which won the elections in 2006 has proven to be corrupt, incompetent, and oppressive. Last year, the militant group basically admitted that it is not up to the task of governing the strip and tried to concede the administrative tasks to Fatah as part of a reconciliation pact. The religious-based Hamas and the nationalist-based Fatah have been at odds for over a decade since the former expelled the latter from Gaza. Since then, Fatah has been restricted to the West Bank, but for the past few years, the two factions have been trying to come to an agreement to unify the Palestinian Authority.
Thus far however, the deal has failed to bring about a functioning government because Hamas is not yet prepared to give up its weapons. In response, Fatah has withheld the salaries for civil servant employees in the Gaza Strip as a means to pressure Hamas into political concessions. At the same time, the Israeli side led by the government of Netanyahu rejects the idea of a Palestinian state and has encouraged the construction of settlements in the West Bank. With Israel’s booming economy, it is hard to convince the Israeli leadership to change course. As such, Netanyahu prefers to manage the conflict rather than trying to solve it.
Moreover, since the 2015 legislative elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu has faced several predicaments including criminal investigations and ministerial resignations. In February, Israeli law enforcement agencies recommended that the Attorney General indict Netanyahu for multiple cases of corruption.
Then, at the right moment, protests in Iran erupted, the situation in Gaza festered, and it seemed as if war with Lebanon was imminent. With so many conflicts in and around Israel, Netanyahu’s diplomatic and military knowhow complicated his image in Israeli domestic politics. For nearly a decade, the status quo has allowed the Israeli Government to keep Palestinian violence in check, and whenever a skirmish erupts, it damages Israel’s international reputation but not much more. All these political events, as well as the social economic conditions have placed Gaza on the brink of eruption.
What has changed recently is that the flow of financial aid to Gaza has diminished. Even though much of the global community boycotts Hamas, hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance are still poured into Gaza annually. This is what essentially kept the region from falling into a total economic meltdown. But since the start of the year, foreign donors have scaled back their financial aid to the area because there is too little to show for it. This includes the United States which cut around $300 million in contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
In addition, roughly a million residents in the Gaza Strip rely on UNRWA for assistance. Now however, with depleted funds, the agency is unable to fulfill its tasks which leaves half of the population in Gaza to fend for themselves. Since the reduction of international aid, Gaza has struggled with cash shortages. Subsequently, the purchasing power of Palestinians in the region has plummeted by half. This has forced people to seek credit wherever they can. However, the increasing level of debt has triggered a domino effect in the area which has crippled the local economy. For Hamas, the recent border crisis is a means to divert attention away from the internal social economic depreciation. None of this is going to kick-start the economy, but it does help bolster the legitimacy of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian cause raises questions on a broader scale. An increasing number of regional governments are losing patience with the Palestinian crisis, particularly the Arab states who recognize the sentimental topic amongst their citizens. As such, the Palestinian crisis represents an instrument to shift the attitudes of citizens and shape the electoral outcomes. It is also a means for governments to gain regional influence. How exactly regional players exploit the Palestinian cause differs from state to state.
Iran, for example, uses Hamas to undermine President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority who has kept Iranian influence in check near the West Bank. Ultimately, this has strengthened Iran’s hand in the area.
Another state that uses the Palestinian question to enhance its role as the original regional power is Turkey. In response to the recent protests, the Israeli Ambassador to Turkey was expelled from the country. In practice, the decision is due to the upcoming elections in Turkey which is scheduled for June 2018. The ruling AK Party hopes to use the Gaza crisis to rally voters in their favor.
Other powers like Saudi Arabia face a complicated political reality. The Saudis condemned the use of force by Israel against Palestinian civilians, but government officials in Riyadh considered the actions of Iran a far more pressing issue than the Palestinian question. As such, Saudi policymakers must navigate between the traditional sentiments and the geopolitical necessity to forge better relations with Israel.
Every state deals with the Palestinian question differently, but the recent crisis in Gaza highlights to what extent the Palestinian people have been abandoned by the world, even by their own leaders. Considering all of these social, political, and economic circumstances, one thing is certain. There are no innocent actors.