International attention briefly returned to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after 18 Palestinians were killed and at least 750 wounded by Israeli fire during mass protests on the Gaza-Israel border Friday, according to Gaza authorities. It was the worst day of violence in the enclave since the 2014 Gaza war.
The idea for the marches originally came from a local social media activist several months ago but was then promoted by Hamas, which rules Gaza, as part of what the AP calls a “risky strategy” to “draw attention to the difficult conditions in Gaza, without plunging into another war with Israel.” A retired Israeli general told the New York Times that Israel’s heavy-handed response to the protests was a political failure, given that “the Palestinian aim was to raise international consciousness, and to put the Palestinian issue back on the international and Israeli agenda. It succeeded.”
Perhaps—but on the agenda for how long, and with what outcome?
True, nearby countries have condemned its use of force, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who predictably referred to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “terrorist.” The EU’s diplomatic chief and the U.N. secretary general have called for an independent investigation into Israel’s use of live ammunition, an idea that Israel has already rejected. But the diplomatic fallout is likely to be limited.
Over the weekend, the U.S. blocked a U.N. Security Council statement calling for an investigation into Israel’s use of force. This was to be expected. President Trump and his U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, have frequently attacked the U.N. for criticizing Israel. In January, the administration cut aid to the U.N. agency providing aid to Palestinian refugees following the General Assembly vote criticizing Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Though Trump is still theoretically committed to reaching the “ultimate deal” for Mideast peace, the administration’s actions have made it impossible to take it seriously as a mediator in the conflict.
There are also signs that Arab governments are losing interest in the Palestinian cause, preferring to focus on containing the regional influence of Iran—an interest they share with the Israelis and the Americans. This is particularly true of Saudi Arabia. While the Palestinian issue was long a sticking point in the otherwise close U.S.-Saudi relationship, these days they seem to be in lockstep. Just as the U.S. blocked the motion in the security council, Haaretz reports that the Saudis refused a request from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to convene an emergency Arab summit to discuss the events in Gaza. While Saudi Arabia and Israel still do not have formal diplomatic relations, there have been signs of growing cooperation between the two when it comes to confronting Iran. Saudi Arabia recently began allowing flights to Israel to cross its airspace for the first time.
As for Gaza’s neighbor Egypt, while its government spoke out against Israel’s use of force, as it normally does after events like this, there’s no indication that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (just “re-elected” with 97 percent of the vote) plans to permanently open its border with the besieged territory.
As for the response within Israel, about 250 people came out to protest in Tel Aviv on Sunday, not only small compared with the protests against the (admittedly much bloodier) war in Gaza four years ago, but also in comparison with recent gatherings over the expulsion of African migrants and the Netanyahu family’s corruption scandals. It’s beginning to feel like the Israeli left is giving up on the Palestinians.
The main impact of Friday’s events may be to politically bolster Hamas at the expense of its West Bank–based rival, the Palestinian Authority, which has been trying with limited success to push for Palestinian statehood by ramping up international diplomatic pressure on Israel. In a vicious cycle, a bolstered Hamas, widely regarded as a terrorist organization, will only further dampen international enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause.
This isn’t to say that the international mood is becoming increasingly favorable to Israeli policies. In much of Europe, and on at least part of the American political spectrum, the country has never been less popular. It’s that a sense of futility is setting in, which can only help perpetuate a status quo that will make more events like last Friday’s inevitable.