On Wednesday 11 April 2018 BICOM hosted Brig. Gen. (res.) Michael Herzog, our Senior Visiting Fellow, for a briefing on the violence on the Gaza border. Below is an edited transcript.
For the last two weeks, mass gatherings and violent demonstrations have occurred on the Gaza side of the Israel-Gaza border, under the banner of “March of Return”. The stated goal is the massive “return” of refugees into Israel. The organisers announced that it was to start on Friday, 30 March and continue until 15 May, also known as “Nakba Day”, where it will culminate. It is this day which carries the most potential for serious escalation, as will be explained later.
The protests peak on Fridays when people lead Friday prayers and go to the border at five to eight main focal points. On the first Friday, 30 March, close to 40,000 people went to the border, and on the second Friday, 6 April, around 20,000 people turned up. On both occasions, the protests turned violent and about 30 people have been killed on the Gaza side. Between Fridays, only a few hundred stay near the border on a daily basis.
The initiative was born out of civil society elements in Gaza. Several months ago, the organisers created a Facebook page called the “Great March of Return” and their aim was to get at least 100,000 people to the border, protest against Israel and ultimately march on the border fence into Israel. It was born out of a sense of deep distress in Gaza, which is in very dire conditions, whatever way you look at it. They wanted to highlight this distress and to vent out local frustrations. Their idea was based on historical models of popular protests, like those espoused by Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Ghandi, and they framed it the “Return” so as to channel Gaza’s frustrations on an issue that everyone in Gaza (or in the Palestinian street at large) may agree with, namely Israel.
Whilst Hamas did not create the initiative, at its very early stages Hamas saw a great opportunity to exploit it, so they decided to embrace it and guide it logistically, operationally, politically and media-wise. They established tent camps close to the main protest centres on the border, they bussed people to the area and in some cases, they even intimidated people to go, including forcing bus companies to take protestors, and their leaders visited the protests with their families. They also announced that they will pay $3,000 in compensation to the families of those killed, $500 for severely wounded people and $200 for less severely wounded people.
Why did Hamas see an opportunity? It’s clear that the Hamas leadership felt it reached a dead end in governing Gaza. As noted, the Strip is in a very serious economic and humanitarian crisis with only four hours of electricity followed by twelve hours of no electricity, an acute shortage of fresh drinking water, big problems with sewage and very high rates of unemployment (over 40 per cent in total and between 50-60 per cent for the youth). In addition, the reconciliation process with the Palestinian Authority (PA) has totally failed and there is a very slow pace of reconstruction. Hamas is politically isolated and it doesn’t have a real military option against Israel, the latter now denying the group the strategic weapons of cross-border tunnels and rockets. Hamas therefore sees that its best option is to send thousands of people to the border to challenge Israel there, thereby serving its purposes – putting the Palestinian issue on top of the international agenda once again, motivating and channelling the energies of the population away from domestic problems and towards Israel, marginalising Mahmoud Abbas and making it more difficult for him to apply more sanctions to Gaza (before this initiative Abbas was about to cut all funding to Gaza, over $100m a month.) Hamas also thinks that the initiative will pose a challenge to the US ahead of its unveiling of Trump’s peace plan.
While Hamas have hitherto succeeded in all of the above, the number of people who have come to the border is far below Hamas’s expectations. Like the initial organisers they had hoped to get at least 100,000 people, but a lot fewer came. They were also hoping that the initiative would trigger similar events in the West Bank and in Arab states but those expectations have not materialised. There is relative indifference in those areas and Gazans have not yet managed to breach the fence.
To achieve the abovementioned goals, Hamas clearly intends to use the demonstrations in order to create violent friction with Israel. This deviates from the original intention of the protest’s initiators. The greater the level of violence for Hamas the greater the international interest in Gaza. For this reason, Hamas sent its own operatives , as well as operatives from other terror groups, toward the border fence in order to breach the fence and create openings that would be followed, they hoped, by many thousands of people. In some cases they used the demonstrations to put explosive devices near or on the fence – last Friday the IDF counted at least 8 such cases – threw Molotov cocktails and even tried to shoot at soldiers, though shootings were the exceptions and not the rule. According to the IDF, roughly 80 per cent of those killed were recognised as activists in various security branches of Hamas (mostly its military wing) or of other terrorist organisations, and most were killed either on the fence or very close to the fence.
The fact that Hamas used this initiative for its own ends has created tension between itself and some of the original organisers, who feel the event has been hijacked. For example, Ahmed Abu Rteime and Gamal Abd-e-Nabi implicitly criticised Hamas, writing on the Facebook page that the purpose of the initiative is not to create violent friction and that young people should not sacrifice their lives, as ”the nation wants them alive rather than dead.” A Hamas spokesman described Abu Rteimehim as a traitor and he responded that no matter what he is called he will speak out on this matter.
For Israel, the scenario of thousands of people tearing down the border fence and marching into Israeli territory is very serious and very challenging. It is a scenario that has been discussed in the past. The thinking in Israel is if we don’t stop Palestinians marching on the border fence in Gaza, then we will have to use much more force as masses enter Israel and there would likely be many more casualties. Non-lethal capabilities do exist, but they are ineffective when in a case of tens of thousands of people in open spaces.
The other concern is that Hamas operatives will breach the fence and infiltrate Israel under the cover of these mass demonstrations to carry out terror attacks. Some Israeli villages are only hundreds of meters away from the border. Israel is also concerned that these operatives will hit critical security infrastructure, including the border fence and the system which is currently being built to detect and destroy cross-border tunnels. Just recently three people infiltrated Gaza and torched one of the machines constructing this system. So in order to prevent this scenario, Israel is deploying considerable forces along the border, including physical obstacles and snipers. The snipers are only permitted to target Palestinians in three cases: if they identify armed Palestinians perceived to be a concrete danger to Israelis; if they identify Palestinians undermining security infrastructure; and if they identify Hamas leaders and other group leaders on the ground trying to lead people towards the fence and breach it. In such cases there are warning shots, then shots fired to the leg and then finally to the body, if necessary. The IDF established a mechanism, under the command of a Brigadier General, to investigate lethal cases to determine whether or not the soldiers on the ground acted to standard procedures and orders or deviated from them.
These events will repeat every Friday and, in addition, Hamas has marked two significant days: one on 17 April which is Palestinian Prisoners’ Day and the other on 15 May, the culmination of this initiative. This latter-day marks the Palestinian “Nakba Day”, regarded by the Palestinians to symbolise their national catastrophe by the establishment of Israel, converging with the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem as well as the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Around this time there is a high potential for greater masses to gather, march to the border fence and try to get into Israel en masse. Until now, both parties, Hamas and Israel, have been careful not to escalate the situation to the point of Hamas firing rockets and Israel responding with significant attacks Gaza, but the situation could well escalate and reach that point.
In terms of de-escalation, the best leverage over Hamas comes from the Egyptians. In early April they sent the head of their intelligence, General Abbas Kamel, to Ramallah, Jerusalem and Gaza with some suggestions to help the situation in Gaza if Hamas calms the situation on the border, such as speeding up reconstruction, opening the Rafah crossing more regularly and providing more relief and assistance.
As far as long-term solutions are concerned, it’s long been my opinion, notwithstanding my negative views on Hamas, that it’s in the interest of all relevant actors, including Israel and the international community, to fix the basic infrastructure in Gaza and bring the economic and humanitarian situation there back to a basic level. If Abbas is unwilling to participate, it should be done without him because we cannot leave the situation as a powder-keg waiting to explode.
It’s very hard to tell how many people will come to the fence in the coming weeks; numbers may go up or down, and both sides are learning lessons from each of the Fridays. For example, last Friday Hamas brought 10,000 tyres to the border and burnt them, making a large smoke cloud. Israel brought water cannons and large turbines to disperse the smoke. This Friday the protestors are planning to burn Israeli flags. It’s hard to tell how things will develop. The IDF is unlikely to change its orders but the IDF’s leadership may be more careful about the application of these orders. For example, there may be more oversight to ensure soldiers understand exactly what the orders are, and that whenever they take action it is in line with the orders and under command, and not on their own initiative. It’s easy to provide armchair advice but when you are on the ground you have to make very quick decisions under pressure. The IDF is very well aware of this challenge and no one wants to serve the purposes of Hamas