Increasing Pressure on Palestinians; 2011-2021
When people took to the streets across the Arab world in 2011 demanding a change in their political regimes, commentators speculated whether the Palestinians would also rise in rebellion for a third time against continued Israeli occupation. But although there were some significant Palestinian protests in 2011-12 (noted below), many had lost faith in the possibility of resistance bringing about a fundamental change in their position. Despite the initially promising political outcomes of the First Intifada in the 1990s, the first decade of the 21st century had seen the (much more violent) Second Intifada provoke an increasingly repressive response from Israeli governments determined to protect Israeli citizens from attack. Moreover, the swing to the right in Israeli politics promoted increasing intolerance of Palestinian claims, and willingness to use military force. However, there was still significant Palestinian resistance in the West Bank to Israeli measures such as the building of the separation wall (see E.V.A.3.b.). There were also well publicized international acts of solidarity with Palestinians, for example in opposing the bulldozing of Palestinian homes, and in 2005 Palestinian civil society groups launched the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which provided opportunities for solidarity activism by sympathisers in other countries.
After 2005 the position of Palestinians in Gaza had become significantly different from those in the West Bank. Israel, on the initiative of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, began to disengage from the Gaza strip which it had occupied in 1967. Sharon forced reluctant Israeli settlers to leave and withdrew from military posts inside Gaza. However, although Gaza technically became an independent state in September 2005, a few days later Israeli aircraft dropped bombs on it, killing not only an Islamic Jihad commander but damaging a school. By 2006 Israel had begun to impose restrictions on Gaza, and by the end of 2007 it controlled land and sea borders and Gaza airspace, and had imposed a total siege. But the Israeli government refused to accept any responsibility for the welfare of the deeply impoverished Palestinians held inside Gaza. The Israeli blockade did, however, promote an international solidarity campaign resulting in a variety of dramatic attempts to challenge the siege.
The potential for effective political resistance by Palestinians has been greatly undermined by the split between Fatah, the dominant party in Palestinian politics in the occupied territories since the 1990s, and Hamas - the Islamic Resistance Movement committed to liberate all Palestinians and to end the Israeli state. Hamas originally focused on armed resistance, for example suicide bombings inside Israel, and on providing social welfare to Palestinians. But in 2005 Hamas also engaged in party politics, and won the most seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in 2006. But after bloody clashes in Gaza in 2007, Hamas became the sole party there, whilst Fatah under Mahmoud Abbas governed the West Bank in the context of Israeli occupation.
One of the Palestinian responses to 2011 was to challenge not Israel, but the autocratic governmental style of both Fatah and Hamas, and to demand that they should cooperate. A new umbrella organization, the Independent Youth Movement, held weekly sit-ins in Ramallah from February 2011, calling for reconciliation between the two governing factions. The movement evolved on March 15 into large protests in both Ramallah and Gaza against the split and resulted in a formal agreement between Fatah and Hamas in May that year, but then failed to develop a more detailed political programme. Both governments have generally discouraged autonomous protests that are not under their control.
The second decade of the 21st century has seen Palestinians in the West Bank lose ever increasing amounts of their land to Jewish settlements, and in Gaza suffer several major Israeli military offensives designed to quell Hamas attacks, such as missile launches against Israel. The July-August 2014 seven-week Israeli offensive, which killed 2,250 civilians, destroyed or damaged over 70 clinics and hospitals and numerous homes and factories in Gaza, prompted widespread international protest. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the assertively nationalist prime minister who has been continuously in power since 2009, has downgraded Arab citizens of Israel to second class status, aggressively pursued taking over more Palestinian land for settlements, and threatened in 2020 to annex formally large swathes of the West Bank and to divide its territory, which would have ended all hope of an independent Palestinian state in the future.
There is also less international support at governmental level for the Palestinian cause in the west, and even in the Arab world, despite the UN General Assembly resolution in 2012 granting the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) non-member observer status. The violent aftermath of 2011 in Libya, the war in Yemen, and in particular the long-running and devastatingly destructive and multifaceted war in Syria created new crises, and promoted the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The role of Iran has also exacerbated the rift between Shia and Sunni and the struggle for dominance in the Middle East, to the extent that the common interests of Israel and the autocratic monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in containing Iran resulted in the latter recognizing Israel in 2020. A third factor has been the rise of nationalistic right wing populist political leaders with whom Netanyahu had political affinities. He cultivated Hungary's Viktor Orban in the EU, for example, to divide EU responses to Israeli policy. But most important was the US presidency of Donald Trump from 2017-20. Trump was strongly supportive of Israel's claims, both by inclination and in deference to his Evangelical Protestant base, to the extent of unilaterally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and later moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus denying Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem. Trump also aspired to broker a peace deal envisaged almost entirely on Israel's terms.
The election of President Biden at the end of 2020 created a US Administration willing to resume aid to Palestinians and more sympathetic to the goal of a Palestinian state, but there was no suggestion of moving the US Embassy, or immediately trying to revive the peace process. The Covid 19 pandemic has worsened the position of Palestinians - although the Netanyahu government has successfully vaccinated most of its own citizens, Palestinians remain vulnerable to the virus with minimal medical resources. The political position inside the West Bank also continued to be unpromising. The 85 year old president Mahmoud Abbas (who had succeeded Yasser Arafat in 2005 and was elected for a maximum of two four year terms) announced - after 15 years without elections - that a presidential election would be held in July 2021. Parliament has been in abeyance for years as a result of conflict between Fatah and Hamas, but parliamentary elections were also announced for May. These moves were interpreted as gestures towards the new US Administration rather than a serious attempt to create a more democratic government.
Despite reasons for despair, there were some significant protests, both violent and nonviolent, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem after 2011. Angry demonstrations occurred in response Israeli raids on the West Bank, leading to hundreds of arrests, after Palestinians (allegedly Hamas) kidnapped and later killed three Israeli teenagers in June 2014. Tension was exacerbated by a retaliatory Israeli kidnapping and murder of a Palestinian boy from East Jerusalem. Riots in Jerusalem and the West Bank were matched by rocket fire from Gaza, (This was the backdrop to the major military assault on Gaza.in 2014 noted above.) The rise in protest in 2014, which included engagement in the nonviolent BDS campaign as well as various forms of violence, was at the time quite often described as some form of intifada, but failed to cohere into an organized longer term mass movement.
A number of imaginative nonviolent acts of resistance and nonviolent responses to Israeli repression (discussed in detail in references below) took place in 2017-18. These included the Sumud Freedom Camp, which brought together local Palestinians and Israeli and international activists to reconstruct a destroyed village of Sarura on the West Bank, the July 2017 prayer protests in Jerusalem after Israel installed metal detectors at the entrance to the mosque complex, and the community response to the arrest of a 16 year old girl in a West Bank village after she slapped an Israeli soldier. However some knowledgeable and sympathetic analysts of Palestinian resistance detected a decline in Palestinians taking the initiative in forms of nonviolent resistance, noting the dominant role of Israeli activists (both Jewish and Arab) and of committed international groups.
The most dramatic and widely publicized act of resistance was the 'Great March of Return', a series of demonstrations in Gaza, starting on March 30 2018, when many thousands of Palestinians assembled near the fence with Israel, flying the Palestinian flag, wearing the traditional Palestinian scarf and carrying keys to symbolize the right of Palestinians to return to the lands they had lost. The Great March was planned as six weekly demonstrations leading up to May 15, the date annually remembered by Palestinians as the official confiscation of their land by the recognition of the state of Israel, but in fact continued for six months. The demonstrations were supported by Hamas, tactically adopting methods of nonviolent resistance after their ability to use military force had been increasingly restricted by Israeli control and surveillance of the frontier. But the organization of the march was independent, and the many thousands of men, women and children who took part clearly did so enthusiastically and often at great personal risk.
The Israeli government of Netanyahu and armed forces viewed the Great March of Return from the outset as a disguise for enabling acts of violence against Israel, and therefore treated anyone approaching the border fence, or attempting to plant flags by it, as potential armed attackers. Over the weeks some demonstrators did engage in forms of violence, such as burning tyres, throwing Molotov cocktails and stones at Israeli soldiers, or trying to fly kites towards Israeli territory with incendiary devices attached. But many unarmed demonstrators and bystanders well inside the Gaza border fence were shot and seriously injured, sometimes requiring amputation. Journalists were also targeted. During the Great March protests Palestinian medical personnel who treated those shot near the fence were also fired at and injured or - as in the case of the admired Sabrine al-Najjar and other paramedics - killed, despite wearing distinctive white coats and approaching the wounded carefully with their hands in the air. During the weeks of protest Israel also used drones to drop tear gas specially designed for use in Gaza, and it was accused of deploying an arsenal of lethal weaponry.