Nikki Haley has created a meme about the Israeli massacre of Palestinians demonstrating for the right to return to their homes at the Gaza border: “No country would act with more restraint than Israel,” she says with a straight face. Many countries would act with more restraint than Israel has, but let me not draw on just “any” country as the counter-example. Consider Donald Trump’s United States, which faced with a caravan of 150 Central American immigrants camped on its border with Mexico somehow manages to restrain itself from shooting them down in cold blood. And this despite the fact these would be invaders don’t even have the Palestinians’ excuse of wanting to return to their ownÂ homes!
Rather than Israel, it is the Palestinians who have shown remarkable restraint. Had Nikki Haley the curiosity to ask what motivates the protests and what do they signal about Gazaâ€™s future, she might askÂ Brian K. Barber, a fellow with the New America Foundationâ€™s International Security program,Â a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, and Professor Emeritus of child and family studies at the University of Tennessee, where he founded and directed the Center for the Study of Youth and Political Conflict. Barber is working on a book narrating the lives of three men and their families from the Gaza Strip who he has interviewed regularly for more than 20 years since they emerged as youth from the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-93).
At the New America Foundation on May 8, Barber sought to answer the question: Why would Gazans continue to protest after six weeks despite a harsh response from Israel? [The following notes summarize my impression of highlights of the presentations and are not an attempted transcription.]
His premise is that if the policy is to have harmony among the peoples of that region there must be peace of mind for those people and progress requires understanding what the ordinary person thinks and feels and why they do what they do. When he first went to Gaza in March of 1995, he realized that, although he is an experienced traveler, he was unprepared, naive, uninformed and misinformed, encountering nothing that he expected to find. Rather than harsh, vengeful, and devastated people, the people he met were friendly, pleased that he was there. Instead of psychologically dysfunctional youth, he saw a population functioning well. He says he learned to listen and warns one cannot understand what is happening inside Gazans’ mind unless you’ve been there. (Are you paying attention, Nikki?)
Gaza is about 25 miles long and averages five miles in width. There are only three viable crossings, two pedestrian and one for goods and materials. There is an outside fence that is either electrified or electronic (which is debated). The air is full of drones and the cyber-grid is controlled. There are eight refugee camps. He was commonly asked “Do you like Gaza?” and “Would you come back?” They are marginalized and ostracized and this hurts. One young man said, “We can handle the electricity problems, the water problems and the sewage problems, but being made to feel subhuman is what really hurts.” About 80% of the population had their home raided at least once since 1987. The theory is that that such humiliation should quash their ability to resist, but instead it seems to trigger in us, “by no means in Palestinians alone,” an opposition and rather than quiet the population contributes to the willingness to fight for their survival as worthy human beings.
During his time there the occupation changed from direct to indirect.Â There is no more daily contact, apart from incursions. That is why you no longer see mass protests inside Gaza. Instead the protests have moved to the fence. The world ignores Gaza unless the situation turns violent or dramatic. Things are different in the West Bank. You can as likely find Gazans to protest against a political faction as against the outside occupation. There are a couple of million highly opinionated, but not monolithic, Gazans. When President Sisi took control of Egypt in 2015, he virtually closed the borders and the tunnels (called smuggling tunnels by some and supply tunnels by others) driving up prices and solidifying the physical restrictions on movement.
Palestinians are uniform in their desire for a home, self-determination, and justice, but they are not united as to what that entity should be like. There are divisions between the secular PA and various Islamic groups, but as recently as a few days ago Hamas indicate a willingness to recognize 1967 borders, etc. Until now Hamas has been successful in tamping down the more radical groups and rendering them ineffectual.
The Gaza Community Mental Health Program is very much alive. They are completing an impressive new building and continue their in and out-patient programs.Â At least 50% of Gazans are children or youth, which has an impact on the employment situation. At least 40% of the employable population is unemployment with little hope for improvement of job opportunities. The endemic industries (fishing, agriculture) are suppressed.
The humiliation is not targeted at any particular group and poor and wealthy alike go through the same experiences. The youth have less historical memory to bring with them and have not experienced the level of direct humiliation their parents have.
Before Barber’s presentation, the volume of protesters has dwindled from 30,000 to 10,000 or less, but he correctly predicted that that would change on May 15 not only because it is the anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel, but because of the move of the U.S. embassy. He is aware of no evidence that this movement was part of or an offshoot of any broader movement rather than a Gazan demand of the right of return. Among Gazans basic rights has come to dominate the conversation over any particular political vision. He thinks Gazans are cynical of any political settlement being achieved especially under the auspices of the United States.
Gaza’s populations are concentrated in eight refugee camps, two major cities, and some small villages and towns. There are hundreds of schools. Education is a prime value for Palestinians.. The literacy rate is 95%. The UN predicted the environment would be unlivable by 2020. Sewage is dumped into the Mediterranean and leaks along the way, contaminating the aquifer. Parts of Gaza are still in rubble from the war. The solution requires lifting the siege, importing goods and materials and reviving the Gazan industries, especially fishing and agriculture. There is deliberate contamination of the agricultural field.
There is a historic sense of betrayal that goes back to the First World War. Gazans are aware of the machinations of realignments going on, but the everyday citizen has not the time or energy to compute that but the politically inclined do.Â The reasons for Gazans participating in social movements is not unique except in the degree that they have. Barber was present at the Egyptian Revolution and the dynamics were much the same. People were most thrilled not at the fall of the government but at the prospect of no longer being abused and humiliated by the police.
Gazans have had a lot of hope that someday things will be better. Barber thinks that hope has dwindled on the accumulation of evidence that nothing has changed. He doesn’t think the young people participating in these marches think that they will be allowed home soon and they are more motivated to symbolically demonstrate that they are here and that they deserve dignity. There is hope of reconciliation, although not soon; there is no hope that Palestine or Israel will change their policy.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute