Over a period of weeks, citizens of Gaza have gathered to demonstrate against Israel near the border. Repeated attempts to breach the border fence have seen Israel utilize a combination of live fire and non-lethal means to prevent incursions.
So far, 27 demonstrators have been killed, hundreds and possibly thousands have been injured and more deaths are highly likely.
The series of demonstrations in Gaza represents one of Israel’s worst nightmares. As Palestinian analyst Khalil Shikaki noted, a sea of people by the fence will be “humiliating for Israel.” In addition, pictures and videos of the Israeli military killing unarmed Palestinian presents Israel in the worst possible light and may become a public relations nightmare.
Indeed, after a while on the sidelines, the Palestinian issue is back in the international spotlight. The United Nations Security Council met in late March to discuss events in Gaza. After a period of apathy towards the Palestinian issue, the Arab states have also become more involved and some of them spearheaded a move to establish an independent investigation.
All in all, the demonstrations have the potential to overturn global apathy towards the Palestinian issue.
However, two developments have served to undermine the effectiveness of the movement. The first is the co-optation of the movement by Hamas. The terrorist organization admits that five of those killed by Israeli forces were fighters in its military wing, the Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade.
According to Israeli sources, the majority of those killed were well-known terrorists. This is a real problem for the movement. Hamas is universally reviled, not only in Israel but globally. The United States and the European Union, to name only two, have designated it a terrorist organization. Indeed, the US explained its opposition to a UN investigation by citing concerns that Hamas was using the demonstrations as a cover for violence.
The second is the pursuit of overtly maximalist goals and alienating narratives. Rather than focusing on less controversial and more realistic goals such as the lifting of the blockade on Gaza or establishing an open port in the Strip, the demonstrations were tied to the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel proper. This is a demand Israel can never accept.
The stated goal of the demonstrations, according to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, is to “break the walls of the blockade, remove the occupation entity and return to all of Palestine.” In another self-defeating development, several protesters were photographed waving Nazi flags. This guarantees the demonstrations will have no influence in Israel or the United States.
The negative consequences of terrorist attacks
Both of these tendencies render the probability of the residents of Gaza attaining their goals less likely. Max Abrahms, a professor at Northwestern University, has convincingly shown that terrorist groups which target civilians rarely attain their major political goals. This is particularly true when terrorists have maximalist goals with which the target society simply cannot comply.
Target countries view the negative consequences of terrorist attacks on their societies and political systems as evidence that the terrorists want them destroyed. Therefore, many in the target societies are understandably skeptical that making concessions will placate terrorist groups.
The reason being that societies under terror attacks tend to successfully demonize the other and can easily promote highly repressive policies of retaliation. Meanwhile, non-violent means have several advantages over murderous ones. First, non-violent movements attract more followers and adherents since most citizens are loath to put their lives at risk no matter how noble the ultimate political cause.
In addition, non-violent campaigns are far more likely to attain international support and to result in sanctions against the stronger side. After all, it is much more appealing to support non-violent figures such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King over terrorist groups. As a result, in their landmark study of non-violent protests, Chenoweth and Stephan found that most large-scale non-violent campaigns ultimately succeed.
Israel has capitalized on the mistakes by Hamas and the demonstrators. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu framed the demonstrators as a threat to Israel. He said they speak of human rights, but they really want to crush the Jewish state. “We won’t let them. We’ll stand strong. We’ll keep our country safe,” he said. By framing the protesters as opposed to the very existence of Israel, the prime minister all but guarantees they will not influence Israeli public opinion.
Israel has also used the ties of the movement to Hamas to demonize the entire enterprise. Brigadier General Ronen Manelis, the spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, said the protest was “not a non-violent protest. It was an organized Hamas act of terror using civilians as a cover.” And that rather than seeing the events as a protest, a better description would be “hundreds of terrorists used the demonstration as cover to perpetrate violent acts.”
The Israeli government also released a photo of 10 of the dead, titled “the Terrorists of the Violent Riots,” and detailed their ties to terrorism. This narrative has defanged international criticism by associating the demonstrations with terrorism.
Sadly, the Palestinians are at the mercy of stronger actors and their ability to achieve strategic goals is greatly dependent on their ability to convince stronger actors to change their behavior. The bottom line is that Hamas and Palestinian society in Gaza are weak and present no strategic threat to the State of Israel.
By pretending otherwise, the demonstrators are playing into the hands of Israeli propaganda and rendering it easy to dismiss them and their cause. If instead demonstrations were framed as designed to raise awareness for the deplorable humanitarian situation in Gaza and the Israeli involvement in it and if the means were peaceful and pragmatic, Israel would be at a loss to respond. As it now stands, this is yet another squandered opportunity to advance the flagging Palestinian national cause.