Why Gaza's popular protest movement has returned

Palestinian protesters take part in a night demonstration near the fence along the border with Israel, east of Gaza City on 28 August 2021 in Gaza City. [Getty]
6 min read
30 August, 2021

In a bid to raise their voice against the unending Israeli blockade, last week hundreds of Palestinians returned to the eastern border fence separating the Gaza Strip and Israel.

Palestinian groups announced on 21 August that they were resuming popular protests along the border, nearly three months after a deadly 11-day war that killed more than 250 Palestinians and destroyed thousands of homes.

"Our people have been suffering from poverty, high rates of unemployment, as well as the ongoing Israeli violence against them through attacking them by Israeli warplanes," Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesperson in Gaza, said.

"Our people will not keep silent forever, and they have the right to live in stability even if the Palestinian resistance would escalate the situation in Gaza," he said.

"Palestinian groups announced on 21 August that they were resuming popular protests along the border, nearly three months after Israel's 11-day war that killed more than 250 people"

The Great March of Return protests which began in 2018 saw thousands of Palestinians demonstrate along the border against the blockade and for the right of return to lands from which they were displaced during Israel’s founding.

On the deadliest day of those demonstrations - 14 May 2018 - Israeli snipers opened fire on the crowds killing at least 100 Palestinians in the bloodiest day in Gaza since the 2014 war.

So far, the resumption of protests has seen at least two Palestinians killed, including a 12-year-old boy, with Israel launching airstrikes on the besieged enclave.

Mohammed Obaid from the al-Shejaiya neighbourhood in the east of Gaza City is one of the protesters. He has participated in a couple of popular events organised recently by Palestinian factions, including the Islamist Hamas movement that runs Gaza.

Israeli forces fired on Palestinian protesters at the Gaza border [Getty]
Israeli forces fire on protesters at the Gaza border fence during a demonstration against the blockade on 25 August 2021. [Getty]

The 36-year-old told The New Arab that it is the only way to claim the right to live a dignified life in one of the most impoverished areas in the world.

Obaid is one of the armies of graduates who have not found any job opportunities since finishing their studies. "In 2008, I graduated from the college of engineering with honours. But unfortunately, I did not find any work in my field," he told TNA.

While he dreams of finding a good job and having his own family, none of his plans seem possible in Gaza.

Khadija al-Farra from Khan Younis also took part in recent protests along the eastern border. The 29-year-old said that she and her friends used to participate in most of the protests in her area in 2018 and 2019.

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"Here (in the eastern fence), I feel that all of us (women, men, children and elderly people) are equal and we come for the same reason. So, we will either gain a happy life or a dignified death," she said.

In February 2019, she was shot in her right leg by an Israeli soldier during one of the demonstrations. "At that time, I felt that I was closer to death rather than life. After that, however, I insisted on continuing my participation in such protests."

For Obaid, al-Farra, and many others in this generation of Gazans, their suffering began in 2007 when the social and political situation in Gaza deteriorated dramatically.

At that time, Israel tightened its blockade on Gaza after Hamas seized power following deadly fighting with security forces loyal to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA).

"Because of the tragic living conditions, even if they do not support Hamas or the other political parties, Palestinians have resumed their popular protests"

Since then, Israel has launched four large-scale military operations in Gaza, killing thousands of people, causing devastating material damage, and effectively destroying any hopes for a promising future.

Parallel to this, political rivals Fatah and Hamas have also failed to reconcile with each other despite multiple efforts, including most recently in early 2021. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas then cancelled elections slated for the summer, the first in 15 years.

The blockade and internal Palestinian divisions have pushed the population deeper into social and economic decline.

According to a report issued by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip reached 52% in 2020, while 83% of the population lives in poverty.

The average daily income per capita is $2, which is one of the lowest in the world, according to the Gaza-based Popular Committee against the Israeli Siege.

Large swathes of Gaza were destroyed during Israel's 11-day war in May 2021. [Getty]

"Because of the tragic living conditions, even if they do not support Hamas or the other political parties, Palestinians have resumed their popular protests at the eastern borders," Hussam al-Dajani, a Gaza-based political analyst, told The New Arab.

He said that Israel insists on punishing all Palestinians in the coastal enclave by tightening its blockade and delaying the construction of Gaza after each war.

Unfortunately, he says, Israel is trying to impose a complicated equation on Palestinians; either death by starvation or death by the bullets of its soldiers, whether through war or the killing of demonstrators on the border.

With few other avenues to effect positive changes to their reality, many are willing to risk their lives.

"I feel that all of us are equal and we come for the same reason. So, we will either gain a happy life or a dignified death"

According to Mohammed Hijazi, a Gaza-based political analyst, Israel seeks to achieve its political aims of reaching a long-term truce with Hamas and a prisoner swap deal to release four Israeli soldiers who went missing in the 2014 war.

But he added that the humanitarian reality in Gaza indicates that a new round of tension could explode at any time, "even if this is not the desire of the Palestinian factions or the Israeli government".

"The humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is unbearable and the recent confrontations that took place between angry Palestinian youths and the Israeli army forces at the borderline area in the past days are a message to Israel that another round of fighting is looming," he explained.

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The borders have become the only outlet through which Palestinians can express their anger against Israel, Palestinian internal divisions, and deteriorating conditions in Gaza, Hijazi says, even if the result is uncertain.

However, he stresses that political factions should be aware that the Palestinian people and especially the younger generation need a respite from wars, poverty, and unemployment.

Palestinians in Gaza have lived through the same vicious cycle of suffering since 2007, with prolonged uncertainty about their immediate future in the absence of clear political solutions.

Therefore, according to Hijazi, political progress with Israel through Egyptian, Qatari, and international mediation that satisfies all parties and allows Palestinians to rebuild their lives in safety is crucial in the short-term future.