As has been the case over the past year, the Palestinian side was the first to tell the truth. At around 6 P.M. Friday, leaders of organizations in the Gaza Strip started reporting that understandings had been reached with the help of Egyptian mediation, and that demonstrations Saturday at the border fence would not escalate. Protest organizers called on Gazans to keep a safe distance from the fence.
In exchange, they said, Israel would significantly ease the Gaza blockade. Israeli officials did not react to these announcements, just as they did not confirm that a temporary cease-fire had been declared earlier in the week.
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But things became clearer Saturday morning when the Israel Defense Forces’ Arabic-language spokesman promised Gazans that if they did not resort to violence or terror, significant steps would be taken to improve many areas around Gaza. “Think carefully before you employ violent methods,” he said.
From Yad Mordechai Junction to the south, Israeli roads were almost completely empty. At the entrance to most communities near the main highway along the Strip, Route 232, there were army jeeps and community security coordinators. Roads leading to the border were blocked. But unlike other Friday demonstrations over the past year, no smoke from burning tires rose from the Palestinian side.
This was part of the agreement reached by the Egyptians; Hamas promised not to burn tires this time. The IDF told Egyptian intelligence officials that the smoke made it hard to see what was happening along the fence — which leads to more shooting by snipers in an attempt to prevent a breach of the fence.
The details of the understandings have not been made public yet. As far as is known, Israel agreed to renew a limited transfer of goods and people through border crossings, as well as an expansion of fishing zones off Gaza. Later, the idea is to let in funds from the international community (currently, mainly from Qatar), and revive projects that were stuck in areas such as electricity, sewage and desalination.
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These ideas have been under discussion for a long time. Now Hamas has reason to believe that they will actually take place, if not immediately then after Israel’s April 9 election.
These are necessary steps, but they’re being taken after a long delay. Many infrastructure plans were on the agenda before the protest wave erupted exactly a year ago.
Other steps were also discussed over the past year. Israel delayed approval, while Palestinian violence, including rocket fire and the launching of airborne firebombs, caused an escalation several times, just as the two sides were about to agree on Egyptian mediation offers. It’s possible that the harsh reality for people living near Gaza could have been prevented or shortened over the past year.
The incidents along the border served as a pretext for assailing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his failure to address the security situation in the south. On Saturday too, opposition politicians visited the area, accusing Netanyahu of abandoning southern communities. Netanyahu seems willing to absorb this criticism as long as the situation doesn’t get out of control. From Likud’s perspective, the main threat is a serious escalation in the south, thus Netanyahu is willing to pay a relatively high price in gestures to Hamas in order to reach April 9 safely.
Hamas keeps order
On the ground, events Saturday unfolded largely in accordance with the understandings that were reached in advance. At the peak of the demonstrations, at 4 P.M., the IDF counted 41,000 participants in five points along the fence.
But unlike during the weekly protests of the past year, only a few dozen people reached the fence. The main reason was that for the first time, Hamas deployed its own people there, with hundreds of its observers wearing orange vests to keep order and place themselves between the protesters and the barrier. Most of the demonstrators were concentrated near the large tents put up a few hundred meters from the fence, thus they did not come close to Israeli soldiers.
The IDF spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, told reporters that Hamas people placed themselves between the crowds and the fence, and in several places there were clashes between Hamas members and young people who tried to get around them.
“The restraint shown by Hamas hadn’t been seen along the fence for a year,” Manelis said. The number of demonstrators dwindled within two hours to several hundred. During the protests, several dozen explosive devices and grenades were thrown at the fence, but the numbers were smaller than in previous weeks.
IDF snipers shot back, but to a lesser extent than usual. The Palestinians said one person was killed and several dozen were wounded. Earlier, a young Palestinian who was hit by IDF fire Friday evening died of his wounds. He was a member of the squads that aim to create disturbances at night by throwing hundreds of explosive devices and grenades.
In addition to sniper fire, the IDF employed other methods for crowd dispersal. Over the past year, the army had problems with these methods, mainly because the demonstrations have taken place over large areas, with tear gas being ineffective. This time, methods were used including a system creating intense noise and tankers shooting colored water at protesters. Manelis said Hamas’ restraint let commanders in the area act “judiciously” and react with restraint as well, better controlling their troops.
The IDF has decided to leave its reinforcements in the area for now, while waiting for developments. Since the weekend, eight battalions have been in the area, double the usual number. In addition, two infantry brigades and an armored brigade are holding exercises in the south.
It’s likely that moves by the IDF suggesting a willingness to use force in Gaza contributed to Hamas’ decision to eschew violence during the demonstrations. But the IDF admits that the situation along the border is fragile, and that one isolated incident of rocket fire could renew tensions.
The army hopes to use the momentum achieved by the Egyptians, with both sides agreeing to restraint, to reach more-detailed agreements on Gaza. There’s an understanding that at least until the election, tense days will rack the border, with Islamic Jihad (receiving orders from Iran) and other small groups knowing that they can complicate matters by firing rockets or initiating incidents along the fence.