Mass March Hamas' Win-win Situation

Israel's concern about a possible scenario involving Hamas marching masses of civilians to the fence separating the Gaza Strip from the western Negev is not based on a vague hunch. It is founded on intimate knowledge of the intentions of the Islamist organization's Gaza leadership, and it requires thorough and detailed preparations on the part of the Israel Defense Forces.

Over the past few days, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and senior army officers have spent hours deliberating the possible scenarios. Additional troops have been deployed around the Strip, and the units on the ground have been given clear directives not to allow Palestinians to enter Israeli territory under any circumstances.

Officials in the defense establishment believe Hamas views the prospect of marching civilians over the fence as a win-win situation. If some of the thousands of people Hamas brings to the border manage to penetrate Israel despite the IDF troops in the area, then it will have once again broken the ring of economic isolation around Gaza.

If the IDF halts the marchers' advance with violent means, killing demonstrators, then Hamas will have demonstrated Israeli brutality toward the masses struggling to carve out a living in Gaza.

But there is an Achilles heel in Hamas' plans to bring down the Gaza wall as it breached the wall separating Gaza from Egypt late last month: Hamas no longer has the element of surprise. Israel is already enforcing sterile buffer zones near the fence, especially in areas near Israeli settlements. Which is to say the IDF shoots anyone who attempts to approach the fence in those areas.

This means Hamas will he a hard time assembling masses of people without being detected by the IDF. Israeli visual surveillance is bound to detect gatherings of people when they are still kilometers from the fence. But to call the masses out in the first place, Hamas will have to use the media in the Strip, which Israel monitors all the time.

Stormy days are cause for concern in the army. When visibility is limited, border-post observations are less effective. The flip side of this is that foul weather is expected to weaken the determination of the Palestinian masses.

The forces around the Strip have been on a state of alert since last Thursday for fear of mass marches. Observations along the border have been beefed up, and aerial surveillance means have been employed. The troops on the ground have received crowd dispersal gear.

Currently, the IDF has identified four stretches along the border it considers especially sensitive. The first area is around the Erez Crossing - especially sensitive because of its proximity to Netiv Ha'asara and Yad Mordechai. The second area is the Karni Crossing area, close to Nahal Oz. The third is the Kissufim Crossing near Kibbutz Kissufim and the fourth is the Kerem Shalom Crossing.

But the IDF has also carved up the area inside the Gaza Strip, at least on the army's maps. The army intends to prevent the marchers from advancing on the fence when they are still inside the Strip, using various means for crows dispersal according to a ring system: The closer the marchers get to the fence, the harsher the response.

The army plans to fire at open areas near the demonstrators with artillery that the Artillery Corps has been moving to the area over the past couple of days. If the marchers continue and cross into the next ring, they will face tear gas. If they persist, snipers could be ordered to aim for the marchers' legs as they approach the fence.

In fact, the IDF has already had to contend with mass marches on strategic points by civilian population. It happened in 2000 in the Security Zone in Lebanon, and it ended badly for Israel. It happened outside Taybeh, around an outpost manned by soldiers from the South Lebanon Army. It was the eve of the Israeli pullout when preparations for the move were well underway.

The SLA troops, in the absence of support and clear orders from the IDF and faced with hundreds of Shi'ite civilians whom Hezbollah had marched to the base, abandoned the site. In so doing, they triggered the hurried retreat by the IDF, which took place over three days, some three weeks before deadline.

For Colonel (res.) Noam Ben Tzvi, the affair is still an open wound, he says. Ben Tzvi was the only brigade commander in the Security Zone's western sector. His headquarters was in Bint Jbail. "Had the IDF insisted on blocking that march, it could have been prevented. But no order was given," he says. "We were unprepared for that situation. I hope the orders are clearer now."

He adds: "I wouldn't rule out selective use of live ammunition, as a last resort. The alternative is having them attempt a massacre of civilians in one of our towns near the border."