By Shlomi Eldar
March 13, 2018
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh delivered a sermon in Gaza on March 9, calling on residents to march toward the border fence with Israel and protest the Israeli siege. “We will not be able to control tens of thousands of civilians who join marches in the north, east and south of the Strip,” Haniyeh warned.
Haniyeh's message was directed at Israel and perhaps Egypt as well. It implied that although Hamas has so far controlled the number of protesters who gather every Friday at the fence, it is now giving the nod to mass demonstrations and clashes with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), deployed on the other side.
Since US President Donald Trump announced the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem after recognizing it as the capital of Israel on Dec. 6, Hamas has been encouraging demonstrators to clash with Israeli troops along Gaza’s northern border fence. Nonetheless, the IDF surmised that Hamas was limiting the numbers to prevent the protests from spiralling out of control, but at the same time keeping them in the public eye until the leadership deems the time right for larger demonstrations. It seems the time has now arrived.
Hamas is apparently scheduling mass marches, dubbed the Journey of Great Return, for two emotionally charged dates. The first is March 30, when Palestinians mark Land Day, commemorating Israel’s expropriation of lands from its Arab citizens. Hamas views the Land Day march as a rehearsal for the second event, which is planned for Nakba Day, May 15, also marking Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948. According to reports, the United States is planning to relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem the day before, on May 14.
Hamas' plan calls for tens of thousands of Palestinians to march toward the fence, especially to the Erez border crossing with Israel, at the northern tip of Gaza. In the coming days, the movement is expected to set up tents near the fence — symbolic of the refugees created by Israel’s independence — to house marchers ahead of the protests. Hamas also plans widespread media coverage to alert Gaza’s 2 million residents to the protest events against the Israeli siege.
Israel fears just such a scenario. How should the IDF respond if thousands or tens of thousands charge the fence? The question seems to be not how they can be stopped, but at what cost. Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders are clearly aware that by urging a mass march toward the fence and alongside it, they are in essence calling for a violent clash with the IDF that could result in a large number of casualties. For Hamas, however, the ends seem to justify the means.
A Palestinian source in Fatah told Al-Monitor that Hamas' leaders were galvanized by the plans of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for Nakba Day and the scheduled US Embassy opening. “They clearly want to show that their protest is bigger and more significant for the Palestinian people, and they don’t care at what cost,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “All that matters for Hamas is to be seen as the protest leaders.”
While Hamas is planning a violent, bloody event, the PLO is gearing up for a different kind of activity, one that will highlight Palestinians' aspiration for worldwide diplomatic recognition. As previously reported by Al-Monitor, the PLO is preparing a ceremony recognizing a Palestinian state with the participation of representatives from countries that have already recognized Palestine.
The two different kinds of protests — a violent one by Hamas versus the one envisioned by Fatah and the PLO — reflect the vastly differing modus operandi of the two main Palestinian factions: Hamas espouses armed conflict at all cost, whereas Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is convinced diplomacy is the only way to end 50 years of Israeli occupation and establish an independent state. The difference will likely sway the struggle for public opinion, with Hamas poised to steal the show, because Palestinian and foreign media will zoom in on violent protests in Gaza and Palestinian casualties. “This is a despicable and irresponsible way to win over public opinion,” the Palestinian source told Al-Monitor.
Meanwhile, the IDF is also preparing for the bloody events planned by Hamas. In an Arabic-language video posted Feb. 19, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, head of Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, said 15 Palestinians had already been killed and 400 injured in clashes with Israeli forces near the fence. “As of today, the IDF will adopt tougher measures against those rioting at the Gaza border,” he warned. “You had better stop now and go demonstrate against Hamas in Gaza.”
Mordechai’s warning did not help, and the demonstrations continued at different locations. On March 3, one Palestinian was killed and 16 others were injured by live IDF fire. In recent days, the Palestinian Health Ministry reported that three people had been injured, one of them seriously, in clashes east of Jabaliya.
According to reports in recent days, the IDF has started firing tear gas grenades from drones to disperse Gaza protesters and push them away from the border. Until now, the IDF was only known to use drones for intelligence gathering. It turns out, however, that it has drones also capable of firing tear gas and can use other means to head off protesters before they have a chance to clash directly with Israeli troops.
These new methods are unlikely to deter Hamas from carrying out its Nakba Day plans. Demonstrations and clashes will take place in any event, and the only question is how many Palestinians will pay with their lives or limbs so that Hamas leaders can prove to the PLO and Fatah that the Hamas way is the right and effective one. Experience suggests that Hamas will defeat Fatah in in terms of shaping public perceptions, but that the Palestinians themselves will pay a very high price.
Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.