The plumes of smoke rising in the distance from Gaza were already visible on the drive from the Negev town of Netivot Monday morning. Over the next several hours, the smoke grew thicker from burning tires at dozens of protest sites along the entire Strip, from the area across from Netiv Ha’asara in the north to the Rafah and Kerem Shalom crossings in the south.
Monday marked the eighth round of Hamas-led protests since the beginning of the current wave on March 30. One conclusion of the organizers was the need to stretch out the friction along a broad area and at a great number of points to make it more difficult for Israel to deal with it. The army deployed 13 battalions, backed up by the police, along the entire border, with a relatively senior officer – battalion commander or above – in charge of each sector. The army called a complete halt to training of its conscript forces this week and turned its attention to the Strip, and to a lesser extent to the West Bank.
Palestinian protesters gathered fairly slowly at first. At noon the army still estimated their number at about 10,000, and the level of the clashes was relatively low. But then came a shift. Tens of thousands more Gazans streamed to the border (at the height of the protest there were apparently 40,000 to 50,000 people there) and at the same time the friction became more severe. Many hundreds of protesters tried to reach the fence itself. The sound of exploding tear gas canisters gradually joined the sniper fire. According to the Israel Defense Forces, Hamas had paid Gazans to reach the fence and saw to it that many young women were in the first lines of protesters. In three cases soldiers shot armed squads who tried to place explosive devices at the fence and opened fire on IDF forces.
Through binoculars, from various observation points a few hundred meters from the fence, it could be seen that the protests were planned and controlled by Hamas. Masses of people had gathered near the Karni crossing, opposite Kibbutz Nahal Oz, and suddenly began to move southward along the border in an orderly convoy, with men on motorcycles nearby. The convoy on foot was stopped about two kilometers from there, at which point it began to reorganize, opposite an earthen embankment nearby where Israeli sharpshooters were stationed. Within minutes, clashes broke out there, with ambulances rushing to wait from behind for the evacuation of the first killed and injured.
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The beefed-up presence of the army could clearly be seen on Monday. Soldiers were almost everywhere. Snipers were stationed along the fence, and behind them, troops in the fields of the kibbutzim and moshavim. A little farther back, in parking areas, police Special Forces were waiting if needed to handle a mass breach of the fence and a move deep into Israeli territory. That didn’t happen, but many Palestinians were hit in the clashes along the fence.
By 6 P.M., when the protesters left, as directed from on high by Hamas, 43 Palestinians had been killed, hundreds wounded by live fire and hundreds more by inhaling tear gas. A great deal of tear gas was used, but it dissipated quickly in the open areas, as in previous demonstrations. It seems that its impact is minor and fleeting. Sniper fire was the main weapon, and the number of casualties on the bloodiest day in Gaza since Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014 was accordingly high.
In the corrals
This all happened as clearly stated and predicted beforehand: Hamas said exactly what it was planning for mid-May back at the end of March; and Israeli intelligence was able to precisely predict what was going to happen on Monday. The large number of Palestinian casualties will now draw harsh international criticism from some countries (others, like the current American administration, have become quite indifferent to these developments). Questions will no doubt be asked about the IDF’s rules of engagement.
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But after a series of visits to the border, it’s difficult to complain about the sharpshooters or their direct commanders. To resort to the harsh expression that was a favorite of the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the man who evacuated the Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip, many of the protesters marched here, encouraged by Hamas, as if they were entering corrals they knew was there. Like a line of bulls on the way to the slaughter, the protesters pushed toward the line of fire – and the snipers had little room to maneuver.
One a few dozen meters separate the earthen embankments and the snipers’ positions from the fence to the west – and a few more dozen meters between the fence and the line where the protesters were crowding. From time to time young people would emerge from the line and head for the fence. When firing at such close range, especially when the crowd is moving, a large number of killed and wounded is almost inevitable.
And so the main question is what did Israel do to prevent this bloodbath before it happened? The answer is, almost nothing was done. For months now, security forces have been warning that Gaza’s infrastructure and economy is in desperate straits, unemployment is surging and with it, feelings of frustration and rage. It is also known that Hamas is under unprecedented strategic pressure: It can’t bear the economic burden of governing the Gaza Strip (also because it insists on investing huge sums in its military forces), its relationship with the Saudis and Egypt is poor and all efforts at reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority have failed.
It was therefore clear that Hamas sees these demonstrations – under the guise of popular, spontaneous protests – as a way of extricating itself from this trap, even at the price of the lives of dozens of people who stormed toward the fence under sniper fire.
But throughout this period, the prime minister and the defense minister equipped themselves with a document by the Shin Bet security service that there was still no humanitarian crisis in Gaza (only a “humanitarian situation that was not simple”), and they prohibited the professionals from using the specific term “humanitarian crisis.” When Hamas sent out feelers for a hudna, a long-term cease-fire, among other means via Qatar, Israel disparaged it. It is very likely that the proposal was not sincere, or would not have gone anywhere. But the bottom line is that Israel hardly lifted a finger to ease the distress in the Strip. The events along the fence were a disaster waiting to happen. Israel took a fatalistic line, that what happens is a sign of what was meant to be.
Not that this disrupted the holiday spirit that took over television and radio broadcasts Monday, from the ceremony opening the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and then the Eurovision victory parties in Tel Aviv. Reality is reflected back to us as if from a split screen, whose sections have hardly anything to do with each other. In Gaza the health system is collapsing under the burden of treating hundreds of gunshot wounds, in the kibbutzim and moshavim on the Gaza border there is fear over what might happen, in Jerusalem, ministers and rabbis thank God and President Trump for a historic day, and in Tel Aviv they’re partying like there’s no tomorrow.
Diffidence in West Bank
On Monday afternoon, near the Qalandiyah checkpoint northwest of Jerusalem only a single plume of smoke was rising. It was coming from the largest protest in the West Bank, which also made little impression compared to events in the Gaza Strip. At its height, the Palestinian protest drew about 1,800 people, only a few of whom clashed with Israeli forces. Experienced IDF and Border Police officers dealt with the protesters without difficulty. Distance between the two sides was maintained and stone-throwing was answered with rubber bullets and tear gas. Only a few protesters were injured.
The West Bank is responding diffidently to the events. Neither the embassy nor the dozens of fatalities in the Gaza Strip have so far brought the masses into the streets. In the Strip, the situation is different. The first statement by senior Hamas officials after the killing today showed no signs of retreating or re-thinking. Tuesday is Nakba Day and then the holy month of Ramadan begins.
During the years of the intifadas, when large numbers of people were killed, the grass roots were infused with huge energy and the dozens of funerals sparked more clashes and demonstrations. This could also happen now, and might lead to renewed rocket fire, from which the Palestinian factions have refrained over the past two months, apparently under strict instructions from Hamas.
On Sunday, a Hamas delegation headed by senior Gaza official Ismail Haniyeh left for Cairo and came back in short order, apparently empty-handed. It seems that what is needed now is intervention by the Arab countries, first and foremost Egypt, if the intention is to avoid continued escalation that could also lead to rocket fire on the south, followed by Israeli bombardment.