While the Arab uprisings were inspired at least in part by the silence – or perhaps even complicity – of Arab governments in the suffering of the Palestinian people, events of the past several weeks in the Gaza Strip have shown that little has changed. Gazans are accustomed to living in dire conditions, especially since the 2006 international blockade on the territory following Hamas’ victory in parliamentary elections.
Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 and January 2009, known in the Arab world as the Gaza Massacre, devastated the Strip, leaving at least 1,400 dead and marking the territory and its residents – both physically and physiologically – in a way that remains tangible to those who live in or visit Gaza.
Those military operations and the failure of Arab governments to act in response enraged the Arab public. The Egyptian government at the time was a particularly strong target of this outrage. The fall of Mubarak, however, has yet to bring with it the all-encompassing changes that people had hoped for. Events of the past several weeks in the Strip, including an ongoing fuel crisis and Israeli airstrikes, illustrate that the Arab Spring has, thus far, failed to truly transform regional politics with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The current crisis relates to fuel entering Gaza through underground tunnels from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. These tunnels are a crucial lifeline for residents, and commercial activity through these channels expanded dramatically at the start of the blockade, which virtually froze local production. For some, the tunnels are important as a source of employment, particularly since alternatives are largely limited to the political parties or non-governmental organisations.
Although unemployment is high in Gaza, salaries provided by the political groups Hamas and Fatah – which continues to send compensation to loyalists in the Strip despite their inability to work for the West Bank-based party – as well as the overwhelming number of non-governmental organisations in the small territory secure most of the population’s survival. NGO-distributed food coupons and United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools ensure that basic needs of the youthful population are often met.
During relatively regular times in Gaza, the roar of smuggled generators used during daily electricity cuts and the buzzing sound of Israeli drones overhead are ubiquitous. The past several weeks in particular, however, have been ones of heightened difficulty for Gazans. A fuel crisis that began in mid-February has left residents without enough fuel to power their generators, and as a result, blackouts ensue for 12 or more hours a day. Before the crisis, a main source of fuel for Gaza was smuggled from Egypt. The Hamas government, with few sources of funding, heavily taxes all goods coming through the tunnels, including fuel.
A dispute with the Egyptian government over whether or not the fuel should be taxed and which government should collect this tax led to the complete halt of the imports. Then the Fatah-led government of the West Bank interfered, complicating the situation with its suggestion that fuel enter the Strip through the Israeli border with Gaza. This would mean that the price of the fuel itself would be increased drastically, the government in the West Bank rather than the one in Gaza would collect the taxes, and the amount of fuel entering the Strip would be left to the discretion of the Israeli government. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal’s trip to Egypt to solve the crisis was unsuccessful.
Electricity shortages in the Strip are not only associated with daily hardship, but present a serious humanitarian problem when it comes to providing for basic needs, including healthcare and food preservation. In the midst of this crisis, a series of Israel airstrikes shook the territory and left dozens dead and injured. While Israel claims that these were targeted assassinations, the list of casualties includes children and other innocent civilians. The recollections of the Gazans – including women, children, and the elderly – who witnessed the strikes convey the deep trauma created by these and other military activities in the Strip.
Palestine’s Arab Spring?
When the Arab Spring began, many suggested that Palestinians would be among the first to rise due to their history of revolt and the hardship of life for them under occupation and blockade. Indeed there were some popular efforts to forge a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah last year as a first step towards a demand for greater aims. When the two political groups signed an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation deal, however, protesters felt that they had achieved a goal and retreated. One year later, the deal is far from being realised. Other forms of protest, including hunger strikes by detained Palestinians, may be a sign of increased opposition – but could simply be a more regular part of the pattern of resistance acts by an occupied people.
Some Gazans suggest that there is too much at stake for Palestinians to protest and that the fear barrier is higher than it is elsewhere. The fact that the livelihood of many is reliant upon a political faction or NGOs whose funders, especially the United States, would not greet protests warmly is a possible deterrent to greater change. Furthermore, this young generation of Gazans, unlike youth elsewhere in the region, has directly experienced the trauma of war during the 2009 invasion. Some Gazans say that this has made their ambitions limited to achieving basic needs, rather than demanding their rights.
It is clear, however, that the tides of change in the region will eventually come to Palestine. While Palestinians are accustomed to their rights being violated, growing infringements upon their basic needs may hasten rebellion. In the midst of the Gazan fuel crisis, the Egyptian gas pipeline in Sinai, which carries fuel to Israel and Jordan, was bombed for the thirteenth time this year. The series of bombings is a reminder of the Egyptian public’s disapproval of their leadership’s policy towards Israel and Palestine. While Egyptians, as well as other Arab populations, remain involved in their own revolutions, a time will come when they again focus on the suffering in Gaza.
The motives for a Palestinian uprising are pressing. As an Egyptian protester commented after the lack of popular outrage following the Port Said Massacre that left nearly a hundred dead just over a month ago: the people of this region are incredibly patient, but their delayed reactions have been and will be immense. In the Palestinian case, and specifically with respect to Gaza, the obstacles to protest are larger – but the heightened grievances of the population may lead to an even greater reaction than witnessed elsewhere in the Arab world.