Gaza March Could Be a Turning Point in the Battle for Palestinian Leadership

As Hamas' political standing bolsters, Egypt may be forced into recognizing the group as Gaza's official representative

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Hamas movement leader Yahya Sinwar taking part in the "March for Return" near Gaza's border with Israel east of Jabalia on March 30, 2018.
Hamas movement leader Yahya Sinwar taking part in the "March for Return" near Gaza's border with Israel east of Jabalia on March 30, 2018.Credit: MOHAMMED ABED/AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The profit and loss calculators have already started to whir on the Israeli side, as on the Palestinian side. The fence wasn't breached? A point for Israel. Fifteen Palestinians killed? A loss for Hamas. It’s easy to tally the balance if these are the criteria for victory or defeat, but this is an ongoing campaign that at least according to Hamas is supposed to last about six weeks, so it’s too early to summarize.

This also isn't not a campaign to "wipe out" Israel, but rather a great struggle over the future of the Palestinian leadership. Hamas dictates both the time table and the scale of the protests. In doing so, it has presented a new challenge to Israel, but not only to Israel.

Hamas' leaders will have to show they can control the situation and maintain turnout throughout this long period, perhaps even too long. Because if turnout declines, this episode, albeit impressive, will be one that failed to chalk up a sustainable achievement, especially in terms of gaining  international legitimacy.

This is therefore a play for time in which Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority are also Israel’s partners against Hamas. Hamas already achieved a success when it forced Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to take a stand and initiate, through Kuwait, a meeting of the UN Security Council. The council failed Saturday to craft a resolution, particularly because of U.S. opposition, but the diplomatic campaign has not yet ended and has already empowered Hamas as a player in the international arena.

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Israeli soldiers fire teargas canisters at Palestinians during a demonstration near the Gaza Strip border, March 30, 2018.Credit: Hatem Moussa/AP

At the same time, Egypt and Jordan held intensive talks, some in which Israel took part, to calm things down and stop the shooting. Like similar events in the past, whether clashes on the Temple Mount or violent protests in the territories, Egypt and Jordan fear the contagion effect of a Palestinian uprising. But now these protests could have a more a significant impact, at least as far as Egypt is concerned.

Cairo continues applying robust pressure for an internal Palestinian reconciliation even after the failed assassination attempt against Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah last month. Abbas is in an inferior position in the Egyptian-Palestinian dialogue because his “starvation policy” sanctions on Gaza are turning him into a rejectionist in the eyes of the Egyptians and Saudis. In turning down the Saudi proposal, as well as the U.S. initiative, Abbas has become a “non-partner” to those two countries as well.

This doesn't mean Hamas has earned the status of sole representative of the Palestinians, because Egypt still insists that the PA be in charge of the border as a condition for fully opening it. But it could suffice with Fatah's   Mohammed Dahlan in charge, whom Abbas ousted from the leadership. Still, it’s clear that the more Hamas increases its political presence in Gaza thanks to the protests, the closer it brings Egypt to a decision on Hamas’ status as a formal representative.

In coordination with Egypt, Israel’s ally and partner in the war on terror in Sinai, Abbas will have to work very hard to ensure that developments in Gaza require action “only” in international forums and UN initiatives, even when they serve Hamas, and won't swell into a civil insurrection in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That's also the threat feared by Jordan, where the Engineers’ Association, one of the country's largest trade unions, organized a solidarity rally for the Gazans.

Mohammad Al Momani, Jordan’s minister of state for media affairs, was quick to blame Israel for the escalation and called on the international community to pressure Israel to stop the shooting. But beyond the necessary declarations, Jordan fears what it calls “the collapse of institutional government” in Gaza and the West Bank amid no sign of peace and a political leadership that has turned the fragile status quo into governmental chaos. 

But Jordan currently has no means of pressuring Hamas; its main strength is its ability to influence Abbas to lift the sanctions on Gaza and move ahead the Palestinian reconciliation, as Egypt seeks to do, thus perhaps calming things down.

Abbas for his part is in no hurry to reverse himself and retract the sanctions. He continues to charge Hamas with responsibility for the failed assassination attempt on Hamdallah, and he even strongly rejected pressure by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to adopt his plan under which Abu Dis outside Jerusalem would be the Palestinian capital.

But in the isolated corner where Abbas finds himself, he's still the recognized representative of the Palestinian people. It's he who is authorized to accept donations from the international community, and it's  he who can distribute funding and assistance as he sees fit. The question now is who will blink first: Gaza leaders Yahya Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh or Abbas. The answer will depend mostly on how long Hamas can maintain the protests and the number of casualties.

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