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Why Hamas is protesting in Gaza — and why it will continue

- April 8, 2018
Palestinians wave flags as smoke billows from burning tires at the Israeli-Gazan border Friday. (Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

Large protests rocked the border between Gaza and Israel for the second consecutive Friday this past week.

A March 31 rally resulted in the deaths of at least 20 Palestinians, with hundreds injured, as Israeli forces used live ammunition and tear gas to push back protesters. On Friday, nine more people were fatally shot, including a journalist.

While much of the international attention has focused on the actions of the Israel Defense Forces, from inside Gaza, a different set of issues has taken priority. Hamas organized the protests, centered on the right of return for Gazan refugees and their descendants. This represents a new strategic initiative for Hamas, which has been attempting to fuel popular protest since 2015, but until recently had largely failed to generate much interest outside its own constituency.

Hamas is a socio-political and militant movement founded in 1987 to confront the Israeli occupation, periodically exchanging attacks with Israeli forces, and it is considered a terrorist organization by both Israel and the United States. It has been in control of Gaza since 2007.

The Friday protests were part of a season of weekly rallies organized by Hamas under the slogan “the Great March of Return.” Protests are scheduled to continue until May 15, a day traditionally commemorated by Palestinians for their displacement in 1948 and by Israel to celebrate its independence. Significantly, this is also the date the United States plans to officially move its embassy to Jerusalem.

How did Hamas manage to organize broad support for its protests, and why did it choose this form of collective action? Can Hamas sustain protests in the face of severe Israeli reprisals and international indifference? Its ability to do so will depend not only upon the Israeli and American response, but also upon whether its internal organizational structure provides sufficient support to ongoing mobilization and adherence to nonviolent action

What sparked the Gaza protests?

President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem generated widespread anger among Palestinians, many of whom were already disillusioned with the Oslo peace process. Gaza in particular has suffered for years from a seemingly endless economic blockade, political isolation and cyclical violence. The Trump administration’s talk of “the deal of the century” did nothing to ease uncertainty among Palestinians, who have been largely left out of the discussions and have been unsettled by leaked details of the deal.

The economic toll of years of blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt because of Hamas’s militant actions have put the Gazan population on edge, and popular discontent with Hamas’s authoritarian rule has been growing for years.

Rapidly shifting regional politics and ongoing political battles with the rival Palestinian Authority have also left Hamas with few sources of external support.

Hamas has frequently sought to generate protest focused on lifting the siege on Gaza, with little real success, but with this protest movement, Hamas has skillfully rechanneled popular grievances toward the Israeli occupation.

Can Hamas sustain nonviolent protest?

Protest demands coordination, discipline and broad participation, which in turn requires a strong level of organization. Last week’s rallies showed that Hamas was able to act as the organizational backbone of an entire season of protest. Yet the question remains as to whether Hamas can continue to function in a cohesive and organized manner in the face of potentially severe repression.

Israel’s forceful response to the recent rallies and the seemingly indiscriminate killings led to international outrage, generating unusual levels of critical attention to Israel and galvanizing greater Palestinian enthusiasm for confrontation. Further Israeli escalation against protesters will likely have similar effects, strengthening support and fueling conflict.

What if Israel targeted Hamas’s leadership in Gaza? My research in Gaza suggests that the distinctive organizational structure of Hamas would probably allow it absorb such a response and to sustain protest. Two organizational and mobilizational forms in particular distinguish Hamas from other Palestinian factions and allow it to thrive in conditions of extreme adversity. Inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, Hamas organizes itself in small groups referred to as “families.” These are its cadre incubators, where the education and training of its budding members take place.

These activities feed into channels of upward mobility within the movement. To rise through Hamas’s hierarchy, candidates go through exams and evaluations to prove their mobilizing qualifications and loyalty to the movement over stages. This means that the death or arrest of a high-ranking member does not necessarily create a leadership vacuum that throws the organization into disarray. The removal of a leader simply activates a process at the horizontal level that rapidly elevates a proven member to the suddenly vacant position.

On one hand, Hamas depends on local activism to form potential leaders and maintain the integrity of its structure. But on the other, this resilience is precisely what allows Hamas to continue to play a consequential role in sustaining popular mobilization. Hamas’s muqawama is a type of resistance that is formed from unarmed protests, virtually empowered with and by the civilian population. According to my findings, muqawma — as opposed to militancy — is the strategy that best corresponds to Hamas’s internal organizational structure.

Looking ahead to May 15

Each week of protest leading up to May 15 holds out the prospect for the escalation of violence. Will Hamas be able to sustain a nonviolent campaign despite the primacy of militants in its leadership? Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza who has organized and led the popular protests, hails from the military wing. Israel has justified the killing of protesters in part by identifying several participants as members of its armed wing.

Given the strong presence of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza, will the “success” of the wave of protest develop into a kind of internal referendum on Hamas’s choices of popular muqawama at the expense of its militancy?

For now, at least, turning its armed wing into nonviolent protesters serves Hamas’s strategy. Hamas is redirecting part of its human capital to serve its political objectives and find a way out of its Gaza straitjacket, while gaining a popular stance as defenders of the Palestinian national interest. It is aware that its major rivals — Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) — are vulnerable to popular muqawama. It believes Israel’s repressive measures will serve only to bolster Hamas’s internal popularity and will invite international support for Palestinians. The PA seems to agree because it has rushed to gain legitimacy from the protests, announcing mourning days for the dead.

Israel and the PA will work to prevent further protests, while Hamas aims to expand them to the West Bank. There is a key precedent; the First Intifada originated in Gaza but expanded to the West Bank in 1987. If muqawama indeed takes on larger proportions, Israel will push hard to militarize it. What remains to be seen with Hamas’s turn toward popular muqawama, however, is whether Hamas will be able and willing to sustain nonviolent protest as tensions and conflicts mount.

Imad Alsoos is a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. His research focuses on a comparative study of Hamas and an-Nahda’s forms of internal and external mobilization.