Gaza’s ‘March of Return’
The Israeli-Palestinian issue is back on the front pages, after 16 people were killed and more than 1,400 were wounded last Friday as Palestinians launched the “Great March of Return” on the Gaza border.
The march to defend the rights of the Palestinians to return to their lands after they were forced out in the wake of the 1948 war will continue until May 15, the anniversary of Israel’s founding – and the date known as the Great Catastrophe (Nakba) by the Palestinians. There are worries that the increasing violence could ignite a new intifada. Considering the United States’ decision to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem on May 15, tension could rise even further.
The protests in Gaza reflect the power struggle between Fatah and Hamas within the Palestinian Authority. Palestine has not gone to the polls since 2006, but the parties announced last November that they had agreed to hold general elections by the end of 2018. Given that Hamas has become increasingly isolated in the wake of the Arab Spring, it would not be wrong to suggest that Hamas’ march in Gaza was designed to increase its regional support by putting the Palestinian problem back on the international agenda. But under current political conditions, there is little chance that Hamas will succeed in isolating Israel through a propaganda war.
Although the Gulf states and Egypt appear to be sensitive on the Palestinian issue, they shy away from unsettling the U.S. by making moves that could jeopardize their military and economic interests - as we saw after U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision on Jerusalem. That is why it was no surprise that Saudi Arabia and Egypt dragged their feet when Qatar convened the Arab League for an extraordinary meeting after the incidents in Gaza.
The goal of containing Iran’s regional influence unites Arab countries with the U.S. and Israel. This anti-Iran alliance enables Israel to break the regional siege it has complained about since its foundation, while also reducing the costs of making unilateral decisions on the Palestinian issue.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been overshadowed since the Arab Spring by the Syrian civil war and the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). However, the rapidly worsening living conditions of the Palestinians, along with their hopelessness about any sort of political solution, provide ideal ground for ISIL and other jihadists to grow.
Unfortunately, the current political conjuncture seems highly unfavorable for a new round of peace talks to start. Truth to be told, nobody expects Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner - the man entrusted with drafting a Middle East peace plan despite a total dearth of experience in diplomacy - to come up with a just deal that benefits both sides. Israel, on the other hand, is content with maintaining the status quo.
As expected,the clashes in Gaza have created new tension in Turkish-Israeli relations. The inflammatory remarks of both leaders might not overturn the slow-moving normalization process, but the deepening crisis in confidence will delay steps to develop ties. Already, Turkey’s cooperation with Iran in the Astana process is leading Israel to proceed cautiously.
Turkish society has always been sensitive on the Palestinian issue. Turkey has therefore up until today generally maintained a balanced approach in its relations with Israel and Arab countries in order not to alienate the Arabs. But in an era in which the collaboration between Arab countries and Israel has broken into the open,the Turkish government’s focus on the Palestinian issue to a far greater degree than any other Muslim country is as much about its “principled foreign policy” as it is about maintaining its leadership role in the Muslim world and mobilizing its domestic constituency.
Given this, there is no question Turkish-Israeli ties will continue to go downhill ahead of May 15.