Analysis

Hamas Trying to Use Deadly Gaza Clashes to Secure Humanitarian Relief, Israel Believes

Tuesday's events will show whether Hamas will actually rein in violence. Israeli officials: The organization is not headed for war, but seeks an easing of restrictions in the Strip

Israel Defense Forces troops at the Gaza Strip border fence during a day of violent and deadly clashes with Palestinians, May 14, 2018.
Ilan Assayag

The messages sent by Hamas to Israel at the end of the bloody day of protests on the border with the Gaza Strip Monday may attest to the organization's willingness to try to rein in the violence Tuesday. What happens near the fence later in the day will show whether there’s a chance of that happening.

The messages from Hamas arrived via intermediaries in Egypt and Qatar, and mentioned the possibility of folding up the protest encampments opposite the fence, from which tens of thousands of demonstrators set out toward Israel proper.

At the same time, the Palestinian organization was also said to be considering efforts to reduce the intensity of the friction along the border – probably in reaction to the number of casualties in Monday's clashes. With 60 dead and thousands wounded, in addition to the over 50 fatalities and thousands injured in the demonstrations held since late March, Gaza's healthcare system is finding it extremely different to cope.

In recent days, via Egyptian intelligence channels, Israel has threatened that a continued escalation of violence could lead to a decision to strike at Hamas' leaders. In addition, although Tuesday is Nakba Day, the month of Ramadan begins on Wednesday – and the leaders of the organization are probably taking the month-long religious holiday into account as well.

At the same time, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has reportedly accepted the Israel Defense Forces' recommendation to reopen the Kerem Shalom crossing, which was seriously damaged in the protests held there in recent weeks. This also seems to signal an attempt to cool down tensions along the Gaza border.

Israeli intelligence assessments are that Hamas is not headed for a war. The reasonable assumption is that its leadership seeks to achieve two goals by means of the violent wave of demonstrations: to restore the narrative of popular Palestinian resistance to Israel, and to force Israel, by means of the violence and killings at the fence, to agree to easing restrictions on the economy and on freedom of movement in Gaza, which may in term help halt the deterioration of living conditions there.

Hamas is struggling to continue to administer the Strip under the present circumstances, in light of its diplomatic isolation and a decline in financial assistance from the Palestinian Authority and the Gulf states.

The violent clashes along the Strip's border refocused international attention on the Palestinians, when in the background, at the same time on Monday, the ceremony inaugurating the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem was taking place. In the wake of the fatal confrontations, Turkey and South Africa protested and announced diplomatic moves against Israel, the PA in the West Bank declared days of mourning, and Arab governments issued declarations stressing their identification with Gaza's residents. But in fact, it seems that the level of emotions has become dulled, especially in the Arab world.

Viewers of Arab television stations have been barraged for the past seven and a half years with daily documentation, often in real time, of the mass killing and terrible suffering in most of the countries swept up in the turmoil that was initially called the Arab Spring. The sights from Gaza are not an exception, as compared to the daily images emanating from Syria or Yemen, and identification with the Palestinians looks like mere lip service at present.

The effect of Monday's events will be examined by means of the Friday sermons in the mosques and demonstrations in countries such as Jordan and Turkey – and all that depends on Hamas’ willingness to continue pushing the masses toward the border fence, at the price of their death.

In interviews on media outlets on Tuesday morning, there seemed to be an attempt to sum up the events at the border fence and to point to winners and losers. That seems premature. It’s a good thing that the IDF succeeded in its mission Monday, and prevented a mass Palestinian penetration of the Jewish communities near the Strip, which could have ended in a disaster on the Israeli side.

Nevertheless, the price in human lives has been high and the consequences of these developments will only become clear in the coming days. The expectation is that Tuesday will also be a tense day, even if the size of the demonstrations is reduced. We must also hope that the images of the killing along the border will not ignite a wave of attempts to carry out attacks of identification and revenge in the West Bank as well as in areas within the Green Line.