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Palestinian protesters carry keys during a demonstration on April 6, 2018, in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron.HAZEM BADER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Shimrit Meir is the founding editor of Al-Masdar.

As the editor of an Arabic-language news site in Tel Aviv and an Arab affairs reporter for my entire adult life, I’ve been watching the recent events in Gaza – the mass protests, the attempts to breach the border – with the growing realization that as we approach the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding next week, what we’re seeing in Gaza marks an important shift in this conflict.

We are in the middle of the biggest Palestinian campaign in recent years, an almost desperate attempt to turn back the world’s attention to what used to be, for decades, one of the top issues on the international community’s agenda, before it lost its place to more pressing matters, such as the catastrophe in Syria.

The six-week-campaign will reach its peak on May 14: “Naqba Day” (“The Day of the Catastrophe”), which is the Palestinian term for Israel’s Independence Day. It aims to ruin the celebrations for Israelis, protest U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and remind us all that, 70 years later, the Palestinians are still here but there is still no Palestinian state.

The Palestinians unsubtly call this campaign “The March of Return” and are focusing on Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, where Hamas – the Islamic Resistance Movement – has been in power for more than a decade. The war in 2014 – and the political split with the other Palestinian quasi-state in the West Bank – resulted in an awful economic situation: four to six hours of electricity a day, a collapsing health-care system, water shortages and high levels of unemployment (46 per cent).

With not much else to do, Hamas managed to transport tens of thousands of people, in well-organized buses, to the border area, despite the fact Israel has warned them, in Arabic, that any provocation or attempt to cross the border will not be allowed. So far more than 30 Palestinians have been killed – many of them affiliated with Hamas, Islamic Jihad or even the Islamic State. The protesters, young children among them, have been marching with huge keys – a long-time icon that symbolizes their aspiration to go back to the homes of their ancestors, within Israel.

As someone who has followed this conflict for years, I found it alarming. To me, it seems as if the Palestinians are so desperate that they are “outing” their real goal, one that has been talked about in Arabic but less so in English: not to have a state next to Israel, but to create a state that will replace it.

In the years since the peace process began, Israeli right-wing politicians, journalists and non-governmental organizations made a special effort to track and broadcast to the Israeli public (and to the world) evidence that shows that the Palestinian leadership talks to the international community about its desire to co-exist with Israel, but says something completely different to its own people. The code name has always been “48” (Israel was founded in 1948) and referred to the taking back, by force, the entirety of what they see as historic Palestine. With the recent events in Gaza, there is no need to use coded language as they are saying it loud and clear: We are marching back in.

This, of course, reassures those in Israel who were always skeptical of the Palestinian leadership’s intentions. But even someone who supports Palestinian statehood can’t help but wonder: How much of their scant resources do the Palestinians put into building their future state and how much into fuelling the conflict with Israel?

The recent events in Syria remind us that Israel has much bigger concerns than Gaza. The “March of Return,” unpleasant and annoying as it may be (the Palestinians made sure to schedule it on Jewish and Israeli holidays), is a small military concern. An annoyance, maybe a trigger to an internal debate between right and left in Israel, but not much more. The Palestinians are choosing again the path of victimhood, trying to get back the world’s attention that they lost, refusing to accept the fact the world is busy elsewhere.

Tracking social media, one can see that a majority of Palestinian youth get it. They are simply not interested. In recent days, for example, there had been some discussions whether the theme of this week’s demonstration should be burning hundreds of Israeli flags or throwing Molotov cocktails on the Israeli side of the border. Those on Facebook voted flags, while Twitter users were partial to Molotovs, but, in both cases, only a small group of people participated in the discussion. There are two million people in Gaza. The majority of them live under, and are paralyzed by, severe economic conditions, with no hope for the future. However, only 30,000 of them bothered to show up to the most-hyped protest in years. The rest chose to stay home, a vote of no-confidence in their leadership.

For decades, we were told that the precondition for normal relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours was a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. The past few years have proven it wrong. The mutual perception of Iran as the biggest threat to the region has brought the sides together. Israel’s relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have never been better. The new Saudi Crown Prince talks openly about Israel’s right to exist. The economic opportunities are enormous. The Palestinians could have been the main benefactor of these developments. They, or rather their leadership, chose again to say no and to continue marching to the unknown.

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