Analysis

It's Not a 'Hamas March' in Gaza. It's Tens of Thousands Willing to Die

The Israeli army's characterization of the demonstrations diminishes their gravity, but also unwittingly cast Hamas as a responsible, sophisticated political organization

A Palestinian demonstrator looks on at the Israel-Gaza border, May 14, 2018
\ MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

“We’re pleased our Hamas brethren understood that the proper way was through a popular, unarmed struggle,” Fatah representatives have said on several occasions recently regarding the Gaza March of Return. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said something similar during his address to the Palestinian National Council last week.

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This expressed both cynicism and envy. Cynicism because Fatah’s official stance is that the armed struggle led by Hamas has harmed the Palestinian cause in general and the Gaza Strip in particular. And envy because the implication, which the Israeli army’s statements have reinforced, is that a call from Hamas is enough to get tens of thousands of unarmed demonstrators to face Israeli snipers along the border.

In contrast, calls by Fatah and the PLO in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, don’t bring more than a few thousand people to the streets and flash points with the police and the army. It happened again Monday, when the U.S. Embassy moved to Jerusalem. The number of Palestinian protesters in Gaza was far greater than the number in the West Bank.

The decisions on the March of Return events was made jointly by all the groups in Gaza, including Fatah. But the most organized group — the one that can work out the required logistics, equip the “return camps” (points of assembly and activity that were set up a few hundred meters from the Gaza border), control the information, maintain contact with the demonstrators and declare a general strike to protest the embassy move — is Hamas. Even a Fatah member sadly admitted this to Haaretz.

This doesn’t mean that all the demonstrators are Hamas supporters or fans of the movement who are obeying its orders. Not at all. The demonstrators come from all sectors of the population, people who identify politically and those who don’t.

“Whoever is afraid stays home, because the army shoots at everyone. The crazy ones are those who go close to the border, and they are from all the organizations or from none of them,” said a participant in the demonstration.

The army’s claims to journalists that this is a “Hamas march” are diminishing the weight of these events and the significance of tens of thousands of Gazans who are willing to get hurt, while ironically strengthening Hamas’ status as a responsible political organization that knows how to change the tactics of its struggle, while also knowing how to play down its role.

On Monday, with the killing of no fewer than 53 Gaza residents as of 7 P.M., there was no place for cynicism or envy. Abbas declared a period of mourning and ordered flags lowered for three days, along with a general strike Tuesday. This is the same Abbas who was planning a series of economic sanctions against the Strip in another attempt to quash Hamas.

The residents of the Gaza Strip, with their dead and wounded, are influencing internal Palestinian politics, whether they know it or not, whether intentionally or not. No one would dare impose such sanctions now. Time will tell whether anyone will come to the conclusion that if Israel is killing so many during unarmed demonstrations, they might as well return to individual armed attacks — as revenge or as a tactic that will lead to fewer Palestinian victims.

In the early hours of Monday morning, army bulldozers entered the Gaza Strip and leveled the sand banks built by Palestinians to protect them from snipers, according to fieldworkers from the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights.

At around 6:30 A.M., the army also fired at tents in the return camps, and several of the tents went up in flames. Some of the burned tents were used by first-aid teams, Al Mezan reported.

The Samaa news website reported that police dogs were sent into the return camps and that the army sprayed “skunk” water in the border area. The frantic summons of senior Hamas figures in the Gaza Strip to meet with Egyptian intelligence in Cairo was understood even before it was reported that the Egyptians passed on threatening Israeli messages to Ismail Haniyeh and Khalil al-Hayya, deputy to the Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar.

Everyone in the Gaza Strip knows the hospitals are way over capacity and that the medical teams are unable to treat all the wounded. Al Mezan reported on a medical delegation that was supposed to arrive from the West Bank but was prevented from entering by Israel.

Everyone knows that wounded people who were operated on are being discharged too soon and that there’s a shortage of essential drugs for the wounded, including antibiotics. Even when there are drugs, many of the wounded cannot pay even the minimum required to obtain them, and so they return a few days later to the doctor with an infection. This is all based on reports from international medical sources.

All the signals, warnings, the many fatalities in the past few weeks and the disturbing reports from the hospitals did not deter the tens of thousands of demonstrators Monday. The right of return and opposition to the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem are worthy goals or reasons, acceptable to all.

But not to the extent that masses of West Bank and East Jerusalem residents would join their brothers in the Gaza Strip. There, the most desirable goal for which to demonstrate is the obvious demand and the easiest to implement immediately — to give Gazans back their freedom of movement and their right to connect with the outside world, especially with members of their own people beyond the barbed wire surrounding them. This is a demand of the “ordinary” public and not a private Hamas matter, since both its leaders and rank-and-file members know very well that once they enter the Erez crossing between Israel and the Strip, they will be arrested.