Only One Factor Will Determine if Protests on Gaza-Israel Border Become a Bloodbath

Monday's rocket to central Israel was most likely a Hamas mistake, but the complex situation is not a comedy of errors; it's a tragedy

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinian demonstrators run away from Israeli fire and tear gas during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border fence, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 15, 2019.
Palestinian demonstrators run away from Israeli fire and tear gas during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border fence, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 15, 2019. Credit: \ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The numbers, they say in the army, are what will decide things. If Hamas decides to bring 50,000 demonstrators to the Gaza Strip border fence on Saturday – which is both Land Day and the first anniversary of the Marches of Return – the organization will have difficulty controlling the height of the flames. In such circumstances, there’s a good chance that at some point, some people in the mob will run towards the border and try to break through the fence.

As in the cases of the first demonstrations a year ago and the demonstrations surrounding the transfer of the American embassy to Jerusalem in mid-May of last year, the Israel Defense Forces will not have any effective way to stop the storming of the border, apart from sniper fire. Even when the shots are aimed at ankles, in accordance with the orders on opening fire, bad things happen. The outcome is liable to be a bloodbath along the fence and, in its wake, renewal of the rocket fire on the Negev.

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On Wednesday evening, after a two-day cease fire, the Egyptian intelligence delegation arrived in Gaza. The Egyptians met with the head of the Hamas political wing, Ismail Haniyeh, whose offices were bombed this week by the Israeli air force. In the meeting there was renewed discussion of an outline for an agreement that had last been discussed on March 14 in talks that were cut off in the wake of the firing of two rockets into central Israel. On the agenda is a list of relief measures for the Palestinians, which the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might be able to permit itself without encountering too much political criticism. Hamas, in the nature of things, wants more.

>> Read more: 'Don't give Israeli snipers opportunity to shoot': Gaza organizers try to quell tensions ahead of mass anniversary protest ■ As Egypt brokers talks, Israel braces for mass Gaza protests ■ Despite ‘quality targets,’ Israeli army strikes in Gaza have little real effect

The Egyptians are trying to extract from Haniyeh a promise for considerable restraint in the processions on Saturday (smaller demonstrations are already expected Friday). And this, as noted, depends on the numbers: Five thousand or 10,000 demonstrators, like on the past several Saturdays, are much easier to control. During the course of the year of demonstrations, there has been a correlation between the numbers of demonstrators and the numbers of fatalities. The larger the turnout, the more the violence and the number of casualties increases. One of the problems is that in the Gaza Strip a general strike has already been declared, as well as a day off in the school system except in the schools operated by UNRWA.

The chief Israeli liaison with Egypt is National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat. He spent most of his security establishment years in the Shin Bet, among other things as head of the organization’s southern region, which covers the Gaza Strip. On Gaza, Ben-Shabbat is an expert. Now he is involved in what is looking to become one of the most dramatic moments in its history. Over time, Hamas will have difficulty keeping the reins of governance there in its hands without obtaining significant relief measures. In their absence, things could degenerate into war.

However, resolution of the dilemma will not necessarily be immediate. Life in Gaza is more complex and it is conducted between one round of blows and the next, without each clash leading to war. The round that began on Monday before dawn, with the firing from Rafah of the rocket that landed in Moshav Mishmeret in central Israel, faded within two days. Now there is a lull, undoubtedly until the next round.

In retrospect, it is clear, as amazing as this might sound, that even the firing of the latest rocket at the moshav, exactly like the previous launch of rockets at the greater Tel Aviv area, is explained as a local error by Hamas. This time, apparently, in the IDF they were careful not to relate to this, to avoid being perceived as messengers on behalf of the Palestinians, as well as (it seems) out of the reasonable concern that the public would find it hard to accept the description as credible. A comedy of errors? More of a tragedy.

Yet it is interesting to note that one of the demands the Egyptians presented to Hamas was to discontinue the use of a local model of rockets, on the grounds that it is prone to malfunctions and uncontrolled launches. The Middle East – we learn something new every day.

On Wednesday fighters from the IDF Paratroop Brigade were deployed surrounding the Gaza Strip, as reinforcements for the units that are there permanently. Two additional brigades, Golani and the Seventh Division of the Armored Corps, are continuing training maneuvers nearby and awaiting orders. The first test on the agenda will be the demonstrations on Saturday. The standing orders from the Southern Command and the Gaza Division to the forces on the Gaza border remain in effect. Commanders and soldiers must prevent demonstrators crossing the fence into Israel, defend the security perimeter to the west of it (inside the territory of the Gaza Strip), ensure the security of the forces and also avoid casualties on the Palestinian side, as much as possible.

In the army’s view, a large number of Palestinian fatalities is a loss, even if it is sometimes unavoidable. However, it appears that from the perspective of the Hamas leadership and the heads of Islamic Jihad – which is now closely coordinated with Hamas – the desirable outcome is the opposite. More fatalities means more international attention to the struggle to lift the blockade. In light of the despair in Gaza, it is not hard to attract young volunteers to the demonstrations. It is enough to promise a sandwich and free wi-fi in the tent encampments from which the processions set out. Anyone who is wounded by IDF fire can hope for a grant of several hundred shekels.

Israeli soldiers are seen next to mobile artillery units near the border with Gaza, southern Israel, March 27, 2019.Credit: \ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

While Haniyeh was conferring with the Egyptians, the Hamas nocturnal harassment cells (also known as ”the nightly confusion”) renewed their provocations along the border. From some distance away, the young people lobbed grenades and improvised explosive charges at the soldiers deployed near the fence. The noise that is heard in the Israeli communities near Gaza is very distressing, fraying the inhabitants’ nerves and above all frightening the children. This coming weekend many who live there are planning to leave the area, until the end of the anniversary demonstrations. In the IDF, they understand and aren’t complaining.

Twice a week the Israeli media deplore the death of deterrence and describe the Hamas leadership as omnipotent. In the IDF they are less impressed. According to the intelligence assessment, Hamas is longing for some kind of settlement and is very worried about the recent outbreaks of protests against it, some of which occurred in the refugee camps, its traditional strongholds of support. The protest is authentic, though Fatah is encouraging it. It is not by chance that Hamas used an iron fist to subdue it.

The IDF has at its disposal a relatively wide range of plans, from practical demonstrations of its capabilities to a complete occupation of the Gaza Strip. The reservations about an extensive action on the ground has to do only with the price that would be paid by the Israeli side in the lives of civilians and mainly soldiers. No one in the security establishment has come up yet with a convincing answer to the question of to whom the keys to Gaza would be handed after realization of the long-held dream of toppling the Hamas regime. Neither Egypt nor the Palestinian Authority will agree to that. The more likely scenario is anarchy, something between Somalia and Haiti, both under temporary military control by Israel and after its withdrawal.

At the heart of the matter are the insufferable living conditions in Gaza. Without massive economic rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip, nothing will be solved. The tremendous income gaps between Israel and Gaza along with the high unemployment rates there and the sense of futility will serve as fuel for another confrontation.

“The idea that the worse it is for them, the better it will be for us is distorted thinking,” says a man who has held high positions in the security establishment. “The Gazans are living in hell. It is difficult to threaten them. Hamas is an isolated organization, with its back to the sea. From its perspective, all the options at its disposal are bad options.”

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