This was no quiet demonstration. Of the tens of thousands of Gazans who congregated in the area adjacent to the border with Israel on Friday afternoon, only a few thousand approached the fence itself. A few firebombs were thrown, a few roadside bombs were laid down, tires were burned and there were a few attempts to cut the fence and cross into Israel.
The army responded with an iron hand: Fifteen protesters died — most of them shot by army snipers, in many cases presumably after the protesters entered the 300-meter-wide security zone imposed by Israel on the Gazan side of the fence. Several hundred demonstrators were injured, some by gunfire and others by inhaling tear gas. The numbers point to exceptional and widespread use of live fire by the army. Friday was the worst day of violence in the Gaza Strip since the end of Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014.
What’s next? It seems that Hamas, whose activists were involved in organizing the demonstrations and urging participants to clash with the army near the fence, has found a more effective way of creating friction with the Israel Defense Forces than firing rockets and carrying out attacks through its tunnels. Rockets and terror attacks inside Israel carry the risk of leading to a war that Hamas presumably does not want. Also, the Iron Dome system provides reasonable protection against rockets and the high-tech barrier that Israel is building along the border is designed to detect and block the construction of tunnels from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory. As of the time of publication, despite the large number of Palestinian casualties not a single rocket has been fired into Israel from the Strip.
Friday’s events returned Gaza somewhat to the attention of the international community, after months of indifference to its distress. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for an independent investigation into the clashes, but the international media care less about Gaza than the daily killings in Syria or the tensions between Washington and Moscow, and it’s doubtful that the Trump administration will voice even a hint of condemnation of Israel’s conduct.
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It’s very unlikely that Gazans are impressed by the protest of Israel’s actions voiced by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It was Abbas, more than anyone else, who generated the present crisis while pushing Hamas toward the fence with his decisions to limit economic aid to his rivals in the Strip. Abbas knew where the economic squeezing of Hamas would lead. Hamas has refused to disarm as part of the reconciliation process with the Palestinian Authority. Right after the failed assassination attempt against PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah as he was visiting Hamas officials in Gaza on March 13 it was clear that the reconciliation process was over, and that Hamas would look for new ways of escaping the predicament it was in.
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The original plan of the protest’s organizers, who at first operated relatively independently of Hamas, was to sit in large tents erected near the fence for a month and a half, going on marches toward the fence every weekend. Now, in view of the numerous casualties, they will have to reconsider their plans, possibly focusing their efforts more toward Nakba Day in May. The question is whether there will be enough young people still willing to risk their lives in such marches after the army’s harsh opening fire policy became evident.
Judging by the extremist rhetoric employed by Hamas leaders on Friday, it seems that the events served their purpose. There is one achievement they can already chalk up to their credit, beyond the drawing of renewed world attention. Friday’s demonstrations pinned down large numbers of Israeli troops on Passover eve, focusing the attention of top brass from the chief of staff on down. If they continue, the redeployments could affect the army’s long-term schedules. In light of forecasts of relative calm in the territories, there had been plans to use this period for more extensive training.
The General Staff justified the rules of engagement on Friday despite the high number of Palestinian fatalities, noting that this was not an ordinary demonstration but a mass attempt to cross the border fence. Nevertheless, it seems that criticism of the army last week following several incursions by Palestinians who crossed the fence influenced the severity of the means adopted by the army.
In the long term there may be a developing problem here, which again raises the question of why the army did not get assistance from the police and Border Police, who have more experience in handling large-scale disturbances. The Gaza Strip remains a ticking time bomb; the current crisis might continue for the next several weekends and could also provoke reactions from Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.