Analysis

While Palestinians Gathered on Israel-Gaza Border, Arab World Looked Away

'Hamas is not part of the Arab nation,' the Saudi press has often claimed. But Hamas is alive, kicking, and holding two million hostages

Palestinian protesters wave national flags during a demonstration marking the first anniversary of the "March of Return" protests, near the border with Israel east of Gaza City, March 30, 2019.
AFP

The directives given by the committee coordinating the demonstrations at the Gaza border with Israel were clear: “Stay out of range of fire and open areas. Gather in pre-determined places and do not leave them. Cooperate fully with the committees maintaining order and follow their instructions. Focus on creative, non-violent action and revive the national heritage. Demonstrate the determination of our people and hold steadfastly to life despite the siege and the aggression. Do not burn tires and do not use blunt objects even if they are defined as non-violent.”

These directives were issued after agreements were reached between Egypt, Israel and Hamas on the management of the demonstrations near the Gaza border and after Israel pledged, at least according to Hamas leaders, to return to previous accords. These included measures to open the border crossing, expansion of the fishing zone, granting export permits for workers from the West Bank and Egypt’s consent to leave the Rafah crossing open for the movement of people and goods.

Tens of thousands of Gazans took part in the protests and approximately another 2 million who stayed home now hope to return to square one, as they do in regular intervals.

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While the Palestinians were conducting their “quiet” face-off against Israel, in which three Palestinians were killed and dozens wounded, the leaders of Arab countries made their way to Tunisia on Saturday for the Arab League summit, which will contribute $100 million a month in assistance to the Palestinians. The money is to come from a special fund established in 2010 for the Palestinian Authority, which for the most part has remained untouched.

This time too, the announcement of the assistance seems quite vague. Will the money go to the Palestinian Authority? Will it be used to pay salaries? Will it go toward the development projects or assistance to residents of Gaza? Will Hamas be able to obtain some of the money? Will the Qatari aid be deducted from the amount? None of these questions were answered on Saturday, and the Palestinian Authority, not to mention Hamas, probably can't depend on the money being transferred.

From the outset the Arab League summit, which Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was absent from (“for reasons that do not depend on him,” according to the League spokesman), they did not intend to discuss the Palestinian question. At the top of the agenda was U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, as well as the question of whether to bring Syria back into the Arab League and the situation in Libya.

Trump’s "deal of the century" and opposition to it is the only Palestinian aspect that bothered the League. The situation in Gaza— the protests at the border and the Israeli blockade had a hard time drawing proper Arab attention. Not only did the Arab League treat Gaza like an internal Egyptian-Israeli affair that did not involve the Arab countries at all, so did the official media outlets in most of the Arab countries, which made do with brief reports of developments in the Strip.

Even these dry reports were in short supply on government media outlets in Egypt on Saturday. Neither the demonstrations nor Egyptian mediation efforts were evident in articles or commentaries, as if the situation in Gaza is a state secret on which reports are banned. The main headline was the happy announcement that the president had decided to raise the minimum wage to $114 a month and a 7 percent increase to state employees and pensioners.

The silence of other Arabs on the subject matches that of the Palestinians. The Gaza protest movement “We Want to Live” (Bidna Na’ish) that fanned the flames two weeks ago and raised the level of interest in Gaza, bringing masses to the streets to protest shortages and distress were forced to fall mute. Activists, with their sharp criticisms on social media and in the street found themselves under arrest or hospitalized after they were beaten and shot by Hamas activists, and their Facebook pages had only posts from March 20, with the slogan “we crushed the barrier of fear. We want to live in dignity.” Fear operates like the law of communicating vessels. When it goes down on the civilian side it rises on the government side, which makes very sure to maintain the power of the barrier by violent means too.

The “civilian factor” has been silenced for the 12 years of Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip. The new outbreak, its quick repression notwithstanding, shows the low threshold of despair and frustration. The problem is that Gaza is perceived as part of a refugee problem and distress there is a “humanitarian matter” rather than part of the Palestinian diplomatic solution. Gaza’s leadership is defined internationally as a terror organization and most of the Arab countries associate it with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has become the most threatening enemy of their regimes.

Egypt’s willingness to mediate and assist Hamas in controlling the Gaza Strip does not come from altruism, but from its consideration of the organization as a gang whose usefulness is in its ability to stop other terror groups against Egypt. In Jordan, Hamas is banned. Saudi Arabia, which defines the Muslim Brotherhood as a terror group, does not ban Hamas nor does it consider it an interlocutor, among other reasons because in the past it was burned when it tried to effect reconciliation between Hamas and the PA, and now because it perceives Hamas as a protégé of Qatar.

The statement “Hamas is not part of the Arab nation,” has often appeared in the Saudi media. But Hamas is alive and kicking, and holds 2 million people hostage. Ignoring this fact and Arab countries ostracizing it hasn’t really hurt Hamas' position. It seeks to be the sole representative of the Palestinian people and it seems that it is at least managing to dictate the Palestinian agenda today, certainly vis-a-vis Israel and the Arab countries.