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14 May 2018updated 04 Sep 2021 3:41pm

The Gaza protests are about more than the US embassy

With food and electricity shortages, the population is becoming desperate. 

By Daniel Amir

Donald Trump has called today a “big day for Israel”. In Jerusalem, dignitaries and politicians including Benjamin Netanyahu and Ivanka Trump clapped as the US embassy moved to the disputed capital. On the beach in Tel-Aviv, Israelis and tourists alike were enjoying the afternoon sunshine. In Gaza, up to 52 Palestinians have been killed and 2,238 injured in what is now the bloodiest day on the Strip since 2014.

Gazans have been protesting the US embassy’s transplant to Jerusalem for weeks. For them, as for other Palestinians, the city remains a political flashpoint in their hampered struggle for statehood. Protests have been accompanied by burning tyres, flaming kites, stone throwing, and other low-tech means of aggression. The Israel Defense Force has so far suffered no casualties nor injuries.

Images of these two afternoons, placed side-by-side, are circulating on social media. But although the day is undoubtedly symbolic, to see this anger as relating to Jerusalem alone would be short-sighted.

Gazans suffer daily from severe shortages in electricity, water, and employment. This already oppressive situation is exacerbated by Israel’s imposition of restricted movement on land and sea. And this sense of isolation, too, is furthered by Trump’s decision to withhold $65m from the Palestinian relief agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

At the ceremony in Jerusalem attendees were in high spirits. Israel’s justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, accused Hamas, the Islamist party which rules the Strip, of “sacrificing its people as part of a PR effort”. Former finance minister Yair Lapid stated that the protests in Gaza were “designed to spoil a happy day for Israel”.

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Officials in Israel fear a rush on the fence that separates the blockaded strip from the Israeli mainland. In the Israeli state media, the protests are characterised as led entirely by Hamas as an effort to consolidate its rule, rather than a legitimate airing of grievances. As anchor Geula Even-Saar told the Israeli Arab politician Ayman Odeh, Hamas “has no regard for human life”. 

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The Israeli right is buoyed by the US embassy’s move. Trump’s consistent support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has strengthened the latter’s grip on the country’s political life. Though the PM faces accusations of corruption and breach of trust, his close relationship with Trump adds to his prestige.

Between the move to Jerusalem and Netanyahu’s showmanship over Iran’s historic nuclear activities, he would only stand to gain if an election was held today. Depicting the protests as a security risk and a threat allows him to side-step the issue of grievances. Israelis trust Netanyahu for his security pedigree and this strategy plays to the PM’s strength. 

In short, Israel seems to face little political cost for continuing to pursue hawkish policies. For Palestinians, the increasingly aggressive steps by the United States have hindered chances of peace and discredited the Trump administration as a future mediator. In a statement today, the Palestinian Authority called the move a show of “blatant ignorance”. Protests, then, are unlikely to die down despite casualties.

Tomorrow (15 May) Palestinians will mark Nakba Day, commemorating their national catastrophe, where an estimated 700,000 Palestinians were pushed out of Israel in the period following the country’s independence in 1948. On the same day, Muslims will mark the beginning of the month of Ramadan. In the immediate future, then, protests show no sign of waning as Palestinians gather to mark these dates.

According to Kan News, an Israeli broadcaster, some 40,000 Palestinians are present on the separation fence, with others protesting in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The IDF has warned Palestinians over the next few days to not allow Hamas to use them “cynically as a puppet”. This, however, fails to acknowledge the very real discontent of Palestinians. 

Minister of strategic affairs Gilad Erdan declared that, for those interested in truth, moving the embassy was a move towards peace. For Gazans, the truth is bleak and dark. Israel’s denial of this will continue to come at a cost for the country and its Palestinian neighbours.

Daniel Amir is a Tel-Aviv-born graduate of Oxford University in Persian Studies and an MSc candidate in Conflict Studies at the London School of Economics. He has extensive experience in counter-terrorism and foreign policy research in Jerusalem, London, and Washington DC. Follow him @Daniel_Amir1