Analysis

If You Think the Gaza Border Protests Are Incendiary, Just Wait for Nakba Day

Hamas plans a mass storming of the border to bring down the fence, highlighting Gazans’ distress and symbolizing Palestinian refugees’ claim to a right of return

Palestinian demonstrators run to take cover from tear gas as they protest on the Israel-Gaza border, April 27, 2018.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

A report by The New York Times correspondent in the Gaza Strip, Iyad Abuheweila, provides a detailed picture of the demonstration Friday along the border fence with Israel. Abuheweila, who monitored the protest from the Palestinian side, recounts that after several hours of relatively restrained protest, when it seemed the confrontation was dying out, one of Hamas’ chiefs in Gaza, Ismail Radwan, arrived at the border from east of Gaza City. In a speech, Radwan called on the demonstrators not to fear death and to be ready to die a martyr’s death. Hundreds of demonstrators immediately stormed the fence.

According to the Palestinian New York Times correspondent, it wasn’t just a protest. Dozens of demonstrators broke through the barbed-wire fence that the Israeli army had installed about 30 meters (98 feet) west of the fence near the Karni border crossing. The demonstrators arrived at the fence on their own, where they burned tires, threw Molotov cocktails and tried to break through the fence at a spot less than a kilometer from Kibbutz Nahal Oz.

>> Most killings of Palestinians during Gaza protests unintentional, senior Israeli officer says ■ What is Nakba Day? A brief history

Some were carrying guns and, according to four Palestinian witnesses, two of the demonstrators opened fire at the Israeli soldiers. The army responded with sniper fire and rubber bullets. The casualty count: three Palestinians dead and hundreds wounded (and a hospital later reported that a 15-year-old boy had died of his wounds).

Friday’s events are hardly a rehearsal for what may be in store on May 15. Hamas has been ramping up the drama in the run-up to Nakba Day, which will be marked precisely between the transfer of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the beginning of Ramadan. Hamas’ leaders in Gaza plan a mass storming of the border that will bring down the fence, highlighting Gazans’ distress and symbolizing the Palestinian refugees’ claim to a right of return to pre-1967 Israel. Admittedly, the formula of Hamas, which took control of the demonstrations that at first had been organized by independent activists, has been working well.

Palestinian protesters wave a large Palestinian flag in front of Israeli soldiers during a protest at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, east of Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, April 27, 2018.
Adel Hana/AP

The New York Times report is unusual. Most of the coverage abroad has adopted the Palestinian narrative (which is unsurprising despite the support that the Trump administration provides to Israel). The demonstrations are described as legitimate protest that sometimes stray into limited violence on the Palestinian side. The mass killing of demonstrators – more than 40 dead and thousands wounded since March 30 – is perceived as an overreaction by Israel. It’s no wonder that not a single rocket has been fired from Gaza at Israel in recent weeks. The demonstrations on their own leave the impression that Hamas wants to convey.

Amid the mounting Palestinian casualties, the Israel army has been maneuvering between two conflicting goals: reducing the number killed but also protecting the border and deterring Hamas from a mass crossing on May 15. On Friday, a measure of restraint was imposed on the open-fire orders given to Israeli snipers at the border, until the incident at the Karni  crossing, after which the snipers opened fire, accounting for most of the killed and wounded that day.

As reported by Haaretz at the beginning of April, the army has begun acting against Hamas through other means in the hope that these would also provide deterrence near the border. On Friday night, two weapons depots in Gaza and four boats used by Hamas’ naval force were bombed from the air. The aim is to signal to Hamas’ chiefs that they have something to lose elsewhere too if they escalate the confrontation on the border.

In the background, the General Staff is busy with the possibility of an escalation on a more dangerous front, the north. If Iran responds to the bombing attributed to Israel of the T4 base in Syria, the tensions in Gaza will be left in the shadows.

In one recent consultation, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz raised an interesting alternative. Some of the current suffering in Gaza stems from a decision by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to suspend the payment of the salaries of PA employees in the Strip. The sanctions have hurt the purchasing power of Gazans to such an extent that the quantity of goods shipped from Israel and the West Bank into Gaza has decreased because there aren’t enough customers.

A Palestinian drives a horse-drawn cart during clashes with Israeli security forces near the eastern border of the Gaza Strip, on April 27, 2018
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

Steinitz is suggesting that Israel take an amount equivalent to the frozen salary payments from taxes that Israel collects for the PA and transfer the sum to the Gaza employees in an effort to help the economy there. Steinitz says it’s possible to carry this out. Israeli defense officials haven’t yet responded.

On Monday, the High Court of Justice will hear a petition by Israeli left-wing groups and human rights organizations against the open-fire orders given to Israeli snipers on the Gaza border. Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, the head of the operations division at the General Staff, will seek to convince the justices that the Gaza protest isn’t something ordinary and that if the demonstrators cross the border fence, they won’t be holding a peace march around the kibbutzim and moshavim on the Israeli side. Instead, a violent attempt to break into the communities would be expected.

In the current political-siege atmosphere against the High Court, it’s hard to imagine the justices interfering directly in the army’s business. As things stand, the confrontations on the border will reach their peak on May 15, and for now no way has been found to rein in the clash.

A woman holds a Palestinian flag at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, April 27, 2018
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS