The return marches constituted a qualitative development and a milestone in the conflict with Israel. They had important Palestinian, Israeli, regional and international implications, have moved the Palestine issue and the confrontation with Israel into a new reality, enabled the Palestinian people to regain the initiative, succeeded in exerting pressure and inflicting heavy material and moral losses on Israel, and restored the public will and the role of the masses after the setback caused by the counter-Arab Spring revolution.
The initial idea behind the marches was activating the right of return to the 1948 occupied Palestine, however, with time it became more concentrated on reviving the Palestine issue and restoring its status as the central issue of the Ummah (nation), breaking the siege imposed on Gaza Strip (GS), and affirming the Palestinians’ adherence to their land and their right to liberation and ending the occupation.
As for future scenarios, it seems that any possibility for the marches to halt as a result of the fatigue of the Palestinians and their despair of realizing important achievements is quite remote. Also, the possibility of the marches to spiral into full-scale confrontation between Israel and GS does not seem likely at the moment, however, its chances still stand. Current data do not favor the chances of reaching a political agreement in the short term that would lead to breaking the siege and achieving a long-term truce.
Therefore, the chances of the continuation of the status quo for the short-term are the most probable, a situation that requires maintaining the national unity achieved in the field between different national parties, seeking to expand the area of marches to include the West Bank (WB) and the diaspora, the activation of the role of the Arab political forces in encouraging the Arab street to support the march of return.
Would the marches rise up to the level of being a strategic shift in the course of confrontation with Israel, or are they just a passing struggle and political variant?
A question whose answers may vary, but, for sure, the marches are a qualitative development and a milestone in the conflict with Israel. They had important Palestinian, Israeli, regional and international implications.
The marches have moved the Palestine issue and the confrontation with Israel to a new reality, and enabled the Palestinian people to regain the lead, where new cheap innovative means were used, however, they were strong and effective enough to achieve the marches’ goals. For despite the primitiveness of some used tools, such as the incendiary kites and flaming balloons, they succeeded in exerting pressure and inflicting significant material and moral losses on Israel.
The return marches were characterized by wide participation of various forces of the Palestinian people and its sections (age, gender, and political affiliation wise). They are continuous and sustainable, and—over a full year— the Palestinians have shown solid will and strong determination to continue with their struggle and their constant efforts to end the occupation.
This strategic assessment tries to evaluate how successful the marches were in achieving their goals, and to read into their expected future scenarios.
The launch of the return marches were concurrent with important local, regional and international developments, which constituted the justifications and motives for them to begin, continue and escalate. The most noted developments are as follows:
1. The intensification of the GS siege, and the exacerbation of its humanitarian and living repercussions, which have reached dangerous unbearable levels. The continuation of Rafah crossing closure for long periods of time , and the tightening of the Palestinian Authority (PA) of its punitive measures against GS, on the basis that Hamas is accused of being responsible for the assassination attempt against the Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, on 13/3/2018.
2. The continued efforts of US President Donald Trump administration to impose the “Deal of the Century” on the Palestinian people and Arab countries, by taking advantage of the Palestinian schism and Arab weakness and fragmentation, in order to end the Palestine issue and close its basic files according to the Israeli right’s vision and program.
3. Trump’s insistence on recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and moving the US embassy to it, simultaneously with seeking to cancel the right of return by ending all US funding to United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and pressuring other countries to follow suit.
4. The dangerous escalation of Israeli normalization with many Arab countries, especially the Gulf countries. This official Arab normalization left a strong feeling among the Palestinians that they were abandoned and their issue was ignored, and that they have to carry out their responsibilities of defending their cause and rights.
5. The return marches coincided with the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day, and the passing of 70 years since the Nakbah occurred in 1948. The marches marked the two anniversaries on 30/3/2018, and reached their climax on 15/5/2018, thus expressing the Palestinians’ attachment to their land and right of return.
The return marches started as a peaceful struggle youth idea shared via social media outlets in January 2018, with the objective of achieving the return of the Palestinian refugees to the 1948 occupied territories. Marches were organized in GS, WB and the diaspora. In GS, the Higher Coordination Committee for the Great March of Return was formed, then on 17/3/2018, the Palestinian factions joined them (though remaining in its popular form), where a new frame was formed “The Higher National Commission for the Great March of Return and Breaking the Siege.” As time has passed, a number of objectives crystallized, most important are:
1. Exerting pressure on Israel and the international community to implement the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their land, and affirm the Palestinians’ adherence to this inalienable right when there are attempts to waste it and abolish it.
2. Breaking the unjust siege imposed on GS, ending the 12 years old continuous suffering of its population, drawing attention to the seriousness of the continued sanctions imposed GS, and emphasizing that the intensification of pressure on the Palestinians’ lives would lead to a popular explosion in the face of Israel, and not in any other party’s face.
3. Reviving the Palestine issue, regionally and internationally, regaining its status as the central issue of the Ummah, and ending the ignoring phase orchestrated by Israel and its international allies, who wanted to override the issue while there were Arab weakness and division and boiling regional crises.
4. Affirming the Palestinians’ adherence to their land and their right to liberation, return and reject all projects aiming to write off their cause and detract from their rights, especially the “Deal of the Century.”
5. Developing the popular resistance program as an effective struggle tool, and as a popular pressure project, indirecting the conflict with the occupation and helping in confronting the “Deal of the Century.”
6. Confronting Israeli normalization with many Arab countries, and its penetration in the Arab popular sentiments, in addition to fortifying the public arena against the unjustified wave of official normalization.
The success of the return marches in achieving their objectives can be assessed by evaluating their impact on the Palestinian and Israeli scene, and measuring regional and international interaction with them. The most important impacts of the marches and their outcomes:
1. On the Palestinian Level
The marches have had important repercussions on the Palestinian situation, for they helped to mitigate the unjust GS siege, and while the lull negotiations were taking place, in the past few months, the Rafah crossing was opened to individuals and Salah al-Din Gate to materials and goods for relatively long periods of time.
The marches have strengthened the resistance option, and proved that it is a fruitful option that—along with armed resistance—has put pressure on the Israeli side. It is a supportive factor that can integrate with other factors.
The marches has unified the position of Palestinian political forces and unified them in the field in the face of the occupation. They transcended the geographical and political schism that the multi-rounds of reconciliation did not succeed in putting an end to it.
2. On the Israeli Level
The marches have deeply affected the awareness and behavior of the Israelis, especially those living in the GS environs who have become frightened. They revealed the fragility of the Israeli internal front. They caused economic losses to the environs and constituted a security drain for the occupation amidst a long exhausting confrontation.
Politically, the marches and confrontations have further entrenched Israeli divisions, leading to the resignation of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman due to differences over the GS confrontations.
The marches have embarrassed Israeli internationally, and weakened its arguments in justifying its policies and crimes against the Palestinian people. The self-defense excuse is no longer convincing or believable anymore for many International parties.
The marches formed a strong source of pressure on Israel, prompting it to mediate regional parties to achieve calm, by starting indirect truce negotiations led by Egypt, as a mediator between Israel and the resistance.
3. Regionally and Internationally
The return marches focused on peaceful popular action supported by international stances. They strengthened the status of the Palestine issue, regionally and internationally, and brought it back to international and regional considerations after a long period of ignoring it, and while the international and regional institutions were busy with issues of more urgency.
The return marches were a source of embarrassment to Arab states seeking normalization with Israel, thus slowing the pace of recent normalization and rapprochement steps.
The marches drew international sympathy and interaction with the struggle of the Palestinian people against the Israeli occupation. On 1/6/2018, the US vetoed a Kuwaiti-sponsored draft UN Security Council resolution seeking international protection to Palestinians, after Israel had committed a massacre against the marches marking the Nakbah, in which 63 Palestinians were killed and over 3,188 were injured. However, the voting was considered a strong moral and political condemnation of Israel’s violations and US bias.
The marches restored the importance of the Arab street role, after the severe blows of the anti-Arab Spring revolutions to the role of popular movement. They highlighted also the importance of the role of the masses in moving and defending their rights.
In general, it can be said that the return marches have:
• Formed an outstanding example of popular resistance.
• Strongly confirmed that the Palestinians are attached to their land, and refuse all political projects that would deprive them of/derogate their rights and aim to delete their cause.
• Strengthened the status of the Palestine issue and restored its status regionally and internationally.
• Partially broke the siege and mitigated its negative repercussions on GS residents, despite the fact it did not achieve the ultimate objective of ending it.
• Have embarrassed the parties normalizing their relations with Israel, and made others wait before announcing their secret normalized relations. Furthermore, the marches have fortified the Arab conscience against normalization and Israeli penetration. However it did not stop the Arab official normalization efforts.
The return marches have faced several obstacles and challenges while trying to achieve their national objectives, the most important of these are:
1. The Israeli forces fierce targeting, and its high continuation cost, where the number of those killed in GS, since the marches began on 30/3/2018, reached 274 out of whom 197 were killed during the marches. As for the wounded, they exceeded 28 thousand, of whom 500 were seriously injured, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health estimates.
2. Internal Palestinian schism, and the PA’s negative stance towards the marches, and its attempt to disrupt Egyptian efforts to reach an appeasement agreement.
3. Trump’s extreme bias towards Israel and the extreme right positions.
4. The weak Arab public interaction and support to the return marches, manifesting only a short term interaction, when Israel committed brutal crimes killing a large number of Palestinians.
5. The return marches were continuous only in GS, and did not include other areas due to numerous obstacles.
6. The weak Arab official position, Arab divisions, Arab countries rushing to overtly normalize their relations with Israel, and the Arab governments’ abandonment of the Palestinian people, their marches and their continued resistance to the occupation.
In the coming period, there are four main scenarios for the future of return marches, and they are:
1. Marches would continue at their current frequency, with a limited fluctuation up and down.
2. Marches and confrontations with the occupation would strongly escalate.
3. Marches would deteriorate and stop without making any important achievement for the Palestinians.
4. The Egyptian efforts would succeed to reach a long-term lull, that would end the GS siege.
The following are the scenarios, their success factors and ensuing results to be discussed:
First Scenario: Marches would continue at their current frequency, with a limited fluctuation up and down.
This scenario describes the current situation, and it would continue if the current conditions continue, i.e., the conduct of the conflicting parties and the stances of the effective regional and international parties. This scenario doesn’t require any additional conditions, where the ensuing results are expected to continue as they are.
Second Scenario: Marches and confrontations with the occupation would strongly escalate.
Strong marches’ escalation in the field, and the intensity of the engagement with the occupation would increase to the extent that the wide strong confrontations may lead to the outbreak of a new comprehensive confrontation.
Conditions for the Realization of the Scenario:
1. The increase of the GS siege intensity, exacerbation of living conditions, and the decline of Palestinian expectations of lifting the blockade through the current truce negotiations.
2. Failure of Egyptian efforts to forge a lull agreement, and their inability to contain any coming escalation between the resistance and the occupation.
3. The increase of Israeli leadership embarrassment, due to domestic political pressures and accusations of weak ability to face the marches, where the leadership would resolve towards an open and comprehensive confrontation with GS.
4. The PA continuous efforts to foil Egyptian efforts to reach a lull, where the PA sees that these efforts are a threat to its status, role and representation.
5. The Trump administration would take tougher positions towards the marches and more biased ones towards Israel, and would carry out more provocative measures towards Palestinian rights, especially the imposition of the “deal of the century” project.
The Scenario’s Ensuing Results:
1. Promoting the chances for a broad and open confrontation between the resistance in GS and Israel, which both parties currently are keen to avoid.
2. Frustrating the Egyptian truce efforts, and putting obstacles against their success.
3. The embarrassment of the parties rushing to normalize with Israel would increase, where a strong confrontation and escalation would increase Israeli crimes in GS, hence, causing mutual strong reactions.
Third Scenario: Marches would deteriorate and stop without making any important achievement for the Palestinians.
The marches would deteriorate, due to the exhaustion of marchers, cost increase of the confrontation with Israel, and the feeling that the achievements of the marches are not worth the cost paid by the Palestinians.
Conditions for the Realization of the Scenario:
1. Escalation of Israeli repression against the popular marches, while deliberately inflicting more casualties among the Palestinians, hence, preventing them from continuing their resistance.
2. The decline in the marches organizers’ ability to mobilize the masses, while the Palestinians become frustrated and unconvinced of the feasibility of the continuation of marches and their ability to break the siege and improve the living conditions in GS.
3. Decline of the Egyptian role, and the efforts of the lull become unproductive political movements, stuck in a vicious cycle.
4. The continuous Arab official abandonment of the Palestine issue, and the acceleration of normalization efforts with Israel.
The Scenario’s Ensuing Results:
1. The continuation of the siege, and the increase in psychological and living hardships in GS.
2. Due to the loss in the battle of wills with Israel, the Palestinians’ morale inside Palestine and in the diaspora would deteriorate.
3. The morale of the Israeli authorities would rise, and their victory would be used against the Palestinians, thus burning into the consciousness of Palestinians.
4. Accelerating the pace of official Arab normalization and alleviating the embarrassment with the Palestinian people.
5. Negatively affecting the conviction of some political forces and the public of the value of the popular resistance option, and its ability to make achievements.
Fourth Scenario: Political agreement on a lull and ending the siege.
Egyptian efforts would reach a long-term lull agreement, ending the GS siege, and consequently stopping the marches which had reached their objectives.
Conditions for the Realization of the Scenario:
1. Egyptian efforts would reach a satisfactory approach acceptable to both parties, ending the crisis.
2. The marches succeed in forming a strong pressure on the Israelis, making them respond more to the lull efforts.
3. The organizers continue organizing the marches with good public momentum, making the Israelis’ bets on the fatigue, despair and retreat of the Palestinians fail.
4. The retreat of the PA’s ability to obstruct the lull agreement.
The Scenario’s Ensuing Results:
1. A very important achievement in the conflict with Israel would be realized, a new deterrent formula would be established, and the morale of Palestinians would be raised.
2. Empowering the popular resistance choice, as an act that brings results, exerts pressure on the Israelis, and supports the resistance.
3. Breaking the GS siege and easing the suffering of the Palestinian people.
Weighing the Scenarios:
By reading the conditions for the realization of the four scenarios, one can conclude that there are a number of factors expected to play an important role in defining the future of the return marches, the most important are:
1. The justifications for the continuation of the marches with an effective momentum still exist, fore and foremost the continued siege, which has been the most important motive for organizing marches.
2. The marches’ organizers conviction of the benefit of their continuation, the capability of achieving the goals set for them, and having the ability to continue to mobilize the masses.
3. The Israeli stance, and its political and on-field dealing with the marches, whether concerning the use of violence in dealing with them, or the extent of response to Egyptian lull efforts. In addition, next elections may play an effective role in the way Israel will deal with GS and the return marches.
4. The Egyptian position, the continuation of its mediation for maintaining calm, and reaching a political long-term truce agreement.
5. The extent of PA’s intransigence in foiling the Egyptian efforts to reach a long-term lull agreement. This matter is linked to reconciliation developments, which are currently facing a dead end.
6. The US administration position regarding the Palestine issue, its extreme bias towards Israel, and its imposition of the “deal of the century” project.
In case a political agreement ending the siege was not reached, it seems that the option to back down from the return marches is not considered by the Palestinian people, especially after the great sacrifices offered to achieve their national goals. Field data indicate that the Palestinians have a strong will to continue the popular resistance until a considerable part of their objectives are achieved.
The Israel conduct indicates that there is no intention to have an uncalculated escalation and an open confrontation with GS. However, things may change if the Israel elections produced new data, or if the two parties were pushed into an undesired confrontation as a result of an uncalculated error, or an intentional act by other parties, who wish to escalate the situation for their own political considerations.
As for the Egyptian mediation, it seems that the Egyptians are still making efforts to control tension and prevent things from escalating into a broad confrontation of unknown results.
It is not likely that there will be any fundamental change in the PA’s position concerning the lull efforts, in light of the reduced reconciliation opportunities and the escalation due to the decision to dissolve the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and form a new government away from national consensus.
As for the US position, it is most likely to remain supportive of Israeli priorities, and influenced by their calculations and assessments in dealing with the return marches.
In light of the above, it seems that any possibility for the marches to halt as a result of the fatigue of the Palestinians and their despair of realizing important achievements is quite remote. Also, the possibility of the marches to spiral into full-scale confrontation between Israel and GS, in the near future, does not seem likely at the moment, however, its chances still stand. Current data do not favor the chances of reaching a political agreement in the short term that would lead to breaking the siege and achieving a long-term truce. Therefore, the chances of the continuation of the status quo for the short-term are the most probable.
In light of the important results achieved by the return marches, which are considered innovative in popular resistance realm, overcoming obstacles and preserving this struggle tool become very important. To achieve this the following must be done:
1. Preserving the unity of position, direction and management of return marches, , adhering to the on-field national unity that was achieved between various national factions, and not allowing the repercussions of the political and geographical division to negatively affect that unity.
2. Seeking to broaden the areas of the return marches, and widen the popular action that affirms the right of return to include WB and the palestinian diaspora. Ensuring a state of integration. And in case these obstacles were not overcome, at least the anniversary of Nakbah must be marked next May, which would be an important support and a strong boost for the GS rallies.
3. Activating the role of political forces supporting the Palestinian right, on the Arab, Islamic and international levels, in order to gain the Arab street support for the year-old return marches and the popular resistance in GS.
4. Resuming the efforts in all international forums to demand protection for Palestinian civilians and to condemn Israeli crimes.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. ‘Atef al-Joulani for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.