Palestinians take part in a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, May 3, 2018.
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

Last Friday marked the fifth consecutive week that thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip gathered near the border fence as part of what organizers have dubbed the Great March of Return. The weekly protests are designed to draw international attention to the disastrous impact of the Israeli-led blockade on Gaza and to the plight of Palestinian refugees and have been strategically scheduled to end on May 15. This date will mark the 70th anniversary of what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” during which most of Palestine’s Arab population fled or were driven from their homes during Israel’s creation in 1948. Approximately 70 percent of Gaza’s two million Palestinians are refugees who came from lands in what is now Israel. Since the protests began on March 30, at least 45 Palestinians have been killed and several thousand have been wounded by Israeli forces. Although there have been instances of rock throwing and attempts to forcibly breach the border fence, the vast majority of demonstrators have been peaceful, and most of those killed or injured by Israeli forces were unarmed, including children and several journalists.

The largely nonviolent protests in Gaza are reminiscent of last summer’s unrest in East Jerusalem following Israel’s installation of metal detectors, cameras, and other restrictions at the al Aqsa mosque. Israel later removed the devices following days of marches, sit-ins, and acts of civil disobedience by Palestinian Jerusalemites. As in Gaza this year, independent civil society leaders rallied the residents of East Jerusalem to take the streets, generating enough momentum that established political forces, such as Fatah and Hamas, later came to embrace the protests. The emergence of nonviolent protest movements in these two areas, which are known for their recurring instability and violence, may be a sign that Palestinian politics are entering a new phase. The fact that Gaza and East Jerusalem, which have long been neglected by both the peace process and the Palestinian leadership, have emerged as the primary drivers of otherwise stagnant Palestinian politics may be bad news for Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and even the prospects for a two-state solution. 

For years, the U.S.-led peace process has focused its energies on the roughly 40 percent of the West Bank in which the PA operates, while basically ignoring Gaza and East Jerusalem—the former because it was ruled by Hamas, an officially designated foreign terrorist organization, and the latter because of its sensitivity to Israel. In the meantime, both areas have become regular flashpoints of Palestinian unrest. 

Since 2007, an Israeli-imposed blockade, along with three major wars, have wreaked havoc on Gaza’s economy and civilian infrastructure. Unemployment in Gaza stands at a staggering 43 percent. Around 39 percent of Gaza’s two million Palestinians live in poverty with 80 percent dependent on international food aid for their survival. Meanwhile, 97 percent of Gaza’s water supply is contaminated by sewage and seawater. According to the United Nations, shortages in clean water and fuel, on top of inadequate health and education services, have essentially made the strip uninhabitable.

Although the current humanitarian crisis is primarily a result of the Israeli blockade, both Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, and the PA have contributed mightily to deteriorating conditions. The ongoing split between Fatah and Hamas has paralyzed Palestinian politics while inhibiting reconstruction efforts in Gaza. Abbas’s cuts to PA employee salaries and to fuel payments that supply the strip with electricity have worsened the humanitarian crisis and raised fears of another conflict.

The fact that Gaza and East Jerusalem, which have long been neglected by both the peace process and the Palestinian leadership, have emerged as the primary drivers of otherwise stagnant Palestinian politics may be bad news for Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and even the prospects for a two-state solution.

The isolation of East Jerusalem has been more subtle but no less systematic. As with the refugee issue, the fate of Jerusalem, including the eastern portion of the city occupied by Israel since 1967, was postponed by the Oslo Accords. Denied services from Israel and cut off from the Palestinian Authority, East Jerusalem and its roughly 300,000 Palestinians live in a kind of social and political limbo. In addition to being physically isolated from the West Bank and internally fragmented by Israeli settlements and the separation wall, the city’s Palestinian population is subjected to separate and unequal treatment in nearly all facets of life, including taxation, housing, education, water, health services, and residency rights. Although they make up around 38 percent of the city’s population, Palestinians in Jerusalem receive just 12 percent of the municipal budget. Around 75 percent of Palestinian Jerusalemites live below the poverty line. Such policies intensified in 2000 after the failure of the Camp David summit and the outbreak of the second intifada. Of the more than 14,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites to have had their residency rights revoked by Israel since 1967, more than half occurred after 2001. At the same time, Israel’s aggressive crackdown on Palestinian political, civic, and cultural institutions in the city has, in the words of one local analyst, left Palestinian Jerusalemites “political orphans and totally leaderless.”

The increasing prevalence of nonviolent tactics in Gaza and Jerusalem suggests a shift in Palestinian politics—but one that poses distinct challenges for Israel and Abbas’ PA, and, to a lesser extent, Hamas. Israel’s reliance on lethal force, including the use of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) snipers, against mostly unarmed protesters has elicited sharp criticism from international and Israeli human rights groups as well as foreign diplomats. Moreover, Israel’s deadly response to the protests in Gaza suggests that it is ill equipped to deal with a nonviolent mobilization by Palestinians. The use of live ammunition, along with recent IDF air strikes on Hamas targets following breaches of the border fence last Friday, underscore Israel’s preference for confronting its political foes on the battlefield, where it maintains a distinct advantage.

Although Hamas did not initiate the protests, the Islamist militant group has skillfully exploited and has all but appropriated their cause—in part to deflect attention from growing popular frustration with its own governance failures inside Gaza. The apparent embrace of nonviolence by Hamas, a group that has carried out numerous attacks on Israeli civilians over the years, is not a sign that it has suddenly turned over a new leaf but merely a reflection of the public mood.

The road to a Palestinian state mostly likely will need to begin in Gaza and end in East Jerusalem.

Consequently, the demonstrations in Gaza pose a double challenge for Abbas’ leadership in Ramallah. Although Hamas has been quick to capitalize on the unrest, Abbas’ administration has been forced to watch from the sidelines. PA officials have had no choice but to express official solidarity with their compatriots in Gaza, but they still simultaneously accuse Hamas of cynically exploiting the Palestinian people for political gain.

The same could be said of Abbas. Despite the entreaties of the international community, he has refused to bring the PA back to Gaza unless Hamas makes major concessions, such as disbanding its militias and surrendering its weapons. By taking such an uncompromising stance on Gaza—while skirting his responsibilities to address Gaza’s numerous social, economic, and security burdens—Abbas has made himself and his leadership increasingly irrelevant. 

Abbas’ lack of interest in Gaza appears to be mutual. More than two-thirds of Palestinians in the occupied territories would prefer that Abbas resign. In Gaza, that figure stands at 81 percent. Meanwhile, Palestinians in Gaza seem to be turning away not just from Abbas’s leadership but from his political agenda as well. Among those who have abandoned the dream of an independent Palestinian state is Ahmad Abu Artema, one of the key organizers of the Gazan protests. “I don’t believe in liberation,” he says. “I believe in ending the apartheid system in Israel like the end of the apartheid system in South Africa, and we live all in one democratic state.” Such sentiments are part of a growing trend among Palestinians in the occupied territories, where only a slim majority of Palestinians now opposes the goal of an independent state in favor of a struggle for equal rights in a single state.

Although the United States and much of the international community have spent years focusing on the West Bank, the key to both a peaceful resolution and Palestinian statehood may lie in those areas long excluded from the peace process. For a peace process to be credible, it will need to focus on reintegrating Gaza and East Jerusalem into the Palestinian polity. This includes incentivizing the PA to assume its responsibilities in Gaza and pressing Israel to end its punishing blockade. In Jerusalem, more needs to be done to pressure Israel to refrain from policies like home demolitions and ID revocations as well as to allow the reopening of Palestinian civic, cultural, and even political institutions. These issues are complex and politically fraught, but as the growing assertiveness of Palestinians in Gaza and Jerusalem suggest, they can no longer be deferred or ignored. If and when there is a credible attempt to pursue a two-state solution—assuming it is not already too late—the road to a Palestinian state mostly likely will need to begin in Gaza and end in East Jerusalem.