Analysis

Relative Calm Since Gaza War Is Over: Hamas to Continue Protests This Summer

Hamas has a new array of tactics – violent protest, burning kites and the occasional rocket – to preserve the fire of resistance. While it's uncertain the situation will escalate into military conflict, Hamas alone doesn't decide

Palestinian protesters take cover from tear gas, Kibbutz Nahal Oz, Israel-Gaza border, June 8, 2018.
JACK GUEZ/AFP

In some Israeli media outlets, commentators were quick to call Friday’s demonstrations along the border with Israel a resounding failure for Hamas. The number of protesters was indeed lower than anticipated — around 15,000 by the army’s estimate — and at no point was the fence breached. There are a few possible explanations for the relatively low turnout. One is the event’s clear affiliation with Iran, which promised to give money to demonstrators. (Iran celebrates the last Friday of Ramadan as Jerusalem Day.) It’s also possible that the large number of fatalities during the previous demonstrations, coupled with Israel’s explicit threats of airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, kept Gazans away.

From a wider perspective, however, through trial and error the Hamas leadership arrived at a formula for its struggle against Israel that is not entirely ineffective. Hamas now has at its disposal a new mixture of instruments — mass protests that turn violent as well as incendiary kites, sometimes together with rockets — to keep the flame of resistance burning. The relative quiet that has generally prevailed in the Gaza Strip since the end of Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014 has ended. Hamas has returned to tactics of violence. Will they escalate into a full-scale military confrontation? That’s already a different question, the answer to which is not in its hands alone.

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On the Israeli side, the political directive — issued directly to the army by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — is clear. Netanyahu wants to avoid war in the Gaza Strip, and the army behaves accordingly. Friday’s protests ended with four Palestinian fatalities, compared with 60 in the May 14 Nakba Day protests, and that wasn’t only because the Gazan side employed less violence. Presumably, the lower toll reflects a difference in firing orders given to the army snipers deployed along the border.

Hovering in the background is a new threat, the incendiary kites and balloons setting fire to the fields of Israeli border communities. In them, the Palestinians discovered a simple but effective way to create damage and, more important, psychological pressure. The economic harm — an estimated 5 million shekels ($1.4 million) as of last week — is minor, certainly compared to the enormous sums being spent on defending the border. Farmers with fields near the border have rushed to complete the harvest in order to minimize the damage caused by the fires.

The sight of the fires that for more than a month have been ravaging these communities, however, is frightening and depressing. As could be expected, opposition politicians have attacked the government for its slow response to the new threat. Last week, a few cabinet members called on the army to treat the kite fliers as it does terrorists who fire rockets into Israel. So far the army has been reluctant to do so, in part due to the disproportion between the means used by the Palestinians and the means it would use against them. On Saturday, however, the Israeli military fired warning shots at a group of Palestinians it said was preparing booby-trapped balloons — the first such action undertaken against kites and balloons by the IDF.

Friday was also the last of the recent series of Palestinian anniversary dates that included Land Day, Nakba Day and Jerusalem Day, but that doesn’t mean the border protests are over. Its infrastructure in particularly bad shape, the Strip is bracing for a very difficult summer. For Hamas, the protests allow Gazans to vent by expressing opposition to Israel, making it unlikely the leadership will abandon the tactic entirely.

The Palestinians have defined the period of protests that began March 30 as an open-ended campaign that will continue to see ups and downs. As long as international intervention increases only when the situation heats up — as it did on the last day of warfare, May 29, when over 150 rockets and mortar shells were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israeli border communities — it’s hard to imagine a longer-lasting solution being reached.

In contrast, the lack of response in the West Bank to the events in Gaza is surprising. It isn’t only the Palestinian Authority. At present it seems that Palestinians in the territories are in no hurry to take to the streets to protest the deaths in the Strip. The quiet may be further proof of the extent of security coordination with Israel and the high likelihood that a confrontation will be averted when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas eventually steps down. In the wider Arab world as well, the reaction to the killing in Gaza has been negligible. In previous periods, such as the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000 and in Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 and January 2009, angry crowds took to the streets in Cairo and in Amman, in protests that seemed to endanger the future of the Egyptian and Jordanian regimes. That didn’t happen this time.

Danger in Jordan

Jordan’s King Abdullah has much more pressing troubles of his own. He ousted his prime minister last week over the cost-of-living protests, but here too the story is far from over. Naturally, the unrest in its neighbor to the east is a cause for concern in Israel.

The latest series of demonstrations in Jordan differed from previous ones in two significant ways. The first is that many participants came from the middle-class and the upper-middle-class, including large numbers of physicians, lawyers and teachers. Second, the king and members of his family came in for harsh criticism in social media and in the protests themselves.

Over the past year, political and security relations between Israel and Jordan have grown much closer. Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead, who for years coordinated the Defense Ministry’s contacts with Jordan, often says that from the military perspective Israel’s border moved eastward, because Jordan’s behavior creates a security belt that blocks any attempts to carry out terror attacks against Israel at the kingdom’s eastern border.

For both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, any future danger to the stability of King Abdullah’s rule is a nightmare. The social ties between Palestinians on either side of the Jordan River are extremely close, and prolonged unrest in Jordan could also affect the situation in the West Bank.