Top officials in the army’s Southern Command, whose units will deploy massively on Friday to prevent participants in the Palestinian “March of Return” from entering Israel through the Gazan border, will have to maneuver between two goals likely to be contradictory. On one hand, commanders were ordered to prevent mass border crossings and stop attempts to destroy the border fence. On the other hand, a heavy use of force could end in killings of demonstrators – and the conventional wisdom in the Israel Defense Forces holds that killing Palestinians means throwing fuel on the fire in the West Bank and Gaza.
Hamas is seeking to keep this flame burning at least until Nakba Day on May 15. IDF commanders will have to use force wisely to deprive Hamas of this achievement. Israeli politicians are very stressed about the unfolding of events, which coincide with the beginning of Passover. Army officials know that in the case of failure, some people will be happy to pin responsibility on the senior commanders – the chief of staff, head of Southern Command and the commander of the Gaza battalion. It seems the army has seriously and thoroughly prepared for the mission, and usually when it has sufficient intelligence warnings, this is how it acts.
Some of the officers navigating the handling of Friday’s demonstrations were burned in similar circumstances in the past. It happened in May 2111, when the Assad regime triggered demonstrations by Palestinian refugees on the border with Israel in the Golan Heights, for the purpose of diverting attention from the civil war that was just beginning to break out in Syria. There was a problem with transferring early intelligence, or with the interpretation given that intelligence, and dozens of demonstrators managed to break through the fence near the Druze village of Majdal Shams.
One would hope that lessons have been learned since then. This time, thousands of Nahal and Givati soldiers, most of whom will have to spend seder night in the field, have been brought in. Barbed wire fences have been laid out, and a large number of snipers have been deployed. If there is a weak spot, it seems to be the army’s decision not to rely on the knowledge and experience of the police and Border Police in handling mass demonstrations. Army officials give the excuse that the police are already burdened this weekend with Land Day demonstrations by Israeli Arabs and the fear of attacks in Jerusalem.
In recent days, perhaps inspired by widespread coverage by the Israeli press, Hamas escalated its rhetoric. Army officials note the active involvement of Hamas members in the demonstrations. According to this analysis, Hamas sees the coming six weeks as an opportunity to extricate itself from the strategic morass it has long been stuck in. The organization failed to break the siege around Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in summer 2014. Since then, the state of Gaza’s infrastructure has deteriorated, and Hamas has despaired of the attempt to manage civilian life in Gaza.
Therefore, the organization’s new leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, took a bold step: reconciling with the Palestinian Authority in the hope of handing it the reins over civilian life in the Strip. However, the reconciliation failed. Its death certificate was issued on the day of the failed attempted assassination of PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Now, two choices remain: war with Israel, the consequences of which Hamas fears, or mass civilian demonstrations, which will provoke Israel into responding and, if there are numerous killings, put the Palestinian issue back on the international stage.
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There are different assessments in the army regarding the number of Palestinians who will show up starting Friday afternoon at the fence. They vary between 15,000 to 100,000, but the events of the Arab Spring have already proven that no one can forecast mass movements in the Middle East. The army will also have to keep an eye on what transpires in Jerusalem and the West Bank. News of deaths in Gaza are liable to stir things up in other areas.
A series of incidents have overshadowed the preparations for possible clashes on Friday: Palestinians have infiltrated from Gaza into Israeli territory five times since last Saturday, but it would likely be a mistake to see these incidents as identical. The infiltration of three youths, who were arrested next to Kibbutz Tze’elim, was a resounding failure because their footprints were identified much later than they should have been, and the three managed to walk about 20 kilometers without hindrance inside Israeli territory. (Still, it is doubtful they were on their way to carry out an attack, despite carrying hand grenades and knives.)
In two other incidents, Palestinians damaged equipment on both sides of the border, exploiting gaps in the defense fortifications. However, when an ordinary Gazan in search of a job crosses an obsolete fence and is immediately captured, as happened at Zikim on Wednesday, one should not view this as a failure by the army, and there is certainly no reason to scare local kibbutz and moshav residents.
The atmosphere in the communities near Gaza is already tense, with all the Palestinian and IDF preparations for the marches. Palestinian reports speak of the return of refugees – and illustrations distributed in Gaza show children on bicycles creating a shadow in the shape of “194,” referring to the 1948 UN resolution recognizing the refugees’ right of return.
Seventy years of fraught history between Israel and Gaza informs the atmosphere along the border these days. People in communities near Gaza were reminded this week of the eulogy by Moshe Dayan at the grave of Ro’i Rotberg, a member of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, who was killed by infiltrators in 1956. Dayan, who sounded a pessimistic forecast of the future conflict with the Palestinians, specifically referred to the tension created by the refugee question. “How can we complain about their intense hatred of us?” Dayan said. “For eight years now, they have been sitting in the refugee camps of Gaza, while before their very eyes we are expropriating their lands and villages, where they and their forefathers previously dwelled.”