Analysis

Israel’s Failure on the Gaza Border Could Shift the Crisis There From Bad to Worse

Accepted wisdom in the army has been that numerous casualties bring a risk of escalation, but surprisingly, Israel employed almost no ‘softer’ methods to quell Friday’s protests

Teargas canisters fired by Israeli troops fall during a demonstration near the Gaza Strip border with Israel, March 30, 2018.
Hatem Moussa/AP

The Israeli army’s actions along the border with the Gaza Strip over the weekend had two goals. The first, overt goal was to prevent Palestinians from crossing en masse into Israel and possibly the communities near the border. The military fully met this goal. The second purpose, which was mentioned only on the margins of press briefings, was to prevent the situation in Gaza from spinning out of control.

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For years now, accepted wisdom in the Israel Defense Forces has been that numerous casualties bring a risk of escalation. Every funeral adds fuel to the flames of resistance. The army did not meet its second aim on Friday. After 15 people were killed – albeit, some were armed and others were identified as members of various Palestinian factions’ military wings – it’s difficult to speak of restraint and control, even if it is clear that the clashes could have ended much worse.

One can deduce why this the military failed with its second goal. From the outset, the IDF treated the protest march in Gaza differently than it approaches demonstrations in the West Bank. The border with Gaza is marked – even if its international status is open to interpretation – and Israel wanted to prevent any breach of its sovereignty and entry into its territory. There was also the implied assumption that using major force now would deter Hamas from ratcheting up violence in the marches and protests expected over the next six weeks. And decisions were taken against the backdrop of the previous week’s events: When the army takes a beating in the media because of the “fence failure” – the three Palestinians who crossed the border and got as far as the outskirts of the Tze’elim army base before they were apprehended – the natural tendency of the brass is to act more forcefully to counter claims of weakness.

And yet, it is surprising that with all of its experience in dealing with mainly civilian crowds, Israel employed almost no sophisticated methods or “softer” means on Friday. The IDF did not rely on the police and the Border Police for crowd control, saying that their units had other urgent missions. As reported in Haaretz on Sunday, a state comptroller's report one year ago found that the army was not prepared for riot control on the Gaza border and did not have suitable riot control equipment.

A picture taken on March 30, 2018 shows Palestinians taking part in a demonstration commemorating Land Day near the border with Israel east of Gaza City.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

There is something depressing about the Israeli public discourse surrounding Friday’s events, as it seeps from social media to traditional media and vice versa. Haaretz’s Gideon Levy described the IDF as “the Israel Massacre Forces” with not even a hint of Hamas’ part in the demonstrations or the presence of its activists, armed men among them, near the border fence. Meretz’s Tamar Zandberg purified herself from the Klughaft affair by placing all the blame on the army. And pundits and columnists who normally compete in their attacks on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are showing their patriotism by expressing rousing support for the military and rejecting any debate on the rules of engagement.

But this is an internal debate, which is apparently less important. The more urgent question is whether Hamas thinks that by hitching a ride on the demonstrations, whose initial organizers were without clear affinity in terms of factions, it has hit upon a new formula that can embarrass Israel. The IDF faces a problem: A continuous series of incidents will compel the army have its forces tied up on the Gaza border at the expense of training. And numerous attempts to damage the fence will slow progress on the anti-tunnel barrier, whose construction has hardly been impeded by Hamas so far.

Beyond all this is Gaza’s real, acute distress. True, as IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot told Haaretz in an interview last week, the coordinator of government activities in the territories is calling around in the world, trying to raise money for Gaza, although it is controlled by Hamas. But as long as infrastructure in Gaza is collapsing and the Israeli-Egyptian siege on the enclave is not eased, Israel can’t pretend that it has no problem here. Even if the responsibility is split among numerous other entities – Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government in Gaza – this abscess is bound to burst, whether in a humanitarian disaster or another military clash between Israel and Hamas.