Analysis

Hamas Hijacked the Gaza Protests, Which Are Set to Continue for Weeks

The organization finds itself stuck between Israel and Egypt, with PA financial aid cut off and Iran not supplying the assistance the Palestinians had expected

Israeli soldiers are seen next to the border fence on the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza border as Palestinians protest, April 6, 2018.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

The burning of tires at Friday’s protest at the Gaza border turned out to be a gimmick, an attempt to give a special character to the second weekend of protests that are meant to continue until mid-May.

The pillar of smoke over Beit Hanun could be easily seen from the Ashkelon area and farther south; smoke also rose from the Karni crossing opposite Kibbutz Nahal Oz. But this probably didn’t really impede the army’s sharpshooters at points where protests were taking place along the Gaza border.

This Friday too ended with many wounded Palestinians, and if the number was at all limited it was because both sides tweaked their modus operandi. The smoke from the burning tires certainly caused a great deal of damage to the environment on both sides of the border. But without a western wind, the people of the Gaza Strip choked on the fire set by their own people.

Fewer Palestinians took part in the protests compared to the previous Friday. There was also less shooting. Even with binoculars it was hard to see from Nahal Oz’s fields, a short distance from the fence, what was happening at the fence. A few thousand Palestinians were congregating at a safe distance a few hundred meters from the fence. Behind them were ambulances and motorcyclists, apparently Hamas men, directing traffic.

From time to time a few people appeared to be moving toward the fence. Israeli army sharpshooters were stationed in trenches and on embankments on the Israeli side, and through the thick smoke a single sharpshooter could be heard firing. The clash was focused around the abandoned compound of the Karni crossing, which Israel closed after a series of attacks related to the 2005 Gaza pullout.

Over more than two hours, soldiers fired three or four bullets and tear gas canisters, while water from a fire truck was sprayed to put out the tire fires. During the evening, according to reports from Gaza, there was one fatality and dozens of people were hurt, some by rubber-coated steel bullets and others by tear gas. A total of nine people were killed and hundreds injured throughout the Strip. According to the Israel Defense Forces, the clashes worsened after 5 P.M. when small groups of young men tried to break through the fence at a number of points.

The IDF General Staff describes the protest at as a popular initiative that the Hamas leadership latched onto for its own purposes and now sets the tone. The Hamas leaders’ calculation is simple: A few months ago, economic distress in Gaza was so severe that Yahya Sinwar decided to take an extreme and unexpected step, agreeing to hand over civilian responsibilities to the Palestinian Authority.

But reconciliation talks failed after the PA rejected Hamas’ attempt to rule the Strip using the “Hezbollah model” in which Hamas would retain military power. Now the organization finds itself stuck between Israel and Egypt, with PA financial aid cut off and Iran not supplying the assistance the Palestinians had expected.

The protests provided a shred of a chance of a way out. The protests and the many civilian casualties from the sharpshooters put the Palestinian issue back on the international agenda to some extent. If this continues, Israel might feel the pressure despite the sweeping support of the United States.

But the army rejects the idea that the protests are only a civilian operation. Thousands of Hamas operatives were ordered to appear at the border with their families. Under cover of the thousands of people, Hamas fielded small groups of men to try to breach and let hundreds of Palestinians into Israel.

This is the context in which sharpshooters were permitted to shoot people described as organizers of attacks. The army says that Friday as well, operatives came close to the fence to lay explosives. According to the army, a mass breach toward Israeli communities near the fence would lead to many more casualties on both sides that could escalate to another conflict like the 2014 Gaza war.

The IDF prevented such a breach and thwarted real damage to the fence these two past weekends. But the army concedes that the number of Palestinians killed (29 since the beginning of the protests, many of them civilians) is high and there might be implications for Israel, both diplomatically and in terms of Hamas’ desire to keep up the momentum in the coming weekends, at least until Nakba Day in mid-May.

This situation highlights Israel’s failure to develop riot-control methods that would also be effective at some distance. There have also been coordination failure between the various security services. The IDF didn’t ask for police assistance, saying it could manage. At the end of the second week, the police weren’t quick to help and asked to be informed if Palestinians breached the fence.

Two things haven’t happened. Despite the many Palestinians wounded, no rockets have been fired at the Negev, which also shows that Hamas doesn’t want this and is apparently the decision-maker on this). And for now, the casualties haven’t dragged the West Bank into protests. For now the West Bank and Gaza are acting as two separate entities in this crisis. The PA has likely lost any remaining sympathy for the troubles in the Strip after the attempted assassination of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah on a visit to Gaza last month.

In addition to the international attention Hamas has drawn, it is also tying down Israeli forces on the Gaza border and might eventually disrupt the IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot’s training program as well. The General Staff believes Hamas has found an effective means of action, so it wants to make this more costly for Hamas to prevent a war of attrition in the form of protests and incidents along the fence.

Neither side wants an all-out clash, which for Gaza would be especially destructive. But at the moment, civilian distress in Gaza is the most dominant element and without a solution on the horizon, it seems the weekly clashes will continue for a while.