Border protests allow Hamas to redirect anger from their abject failure in Gaza

On Friday, there are likely to be more violent clashes on the Israel-Gaza border. It will be the third week of violent protests and Israeli security forces are braced for extensive use of improvised weapons such as molotov cocktails and firebombs to damage the border fence. Many people in Britain will be wondering what’s going on and why now? Most confusingly why are “protestors” being shot by Israeli soldiers?

The “March of Return” was originally conceived several months ago by young, desperate Gazans who felt helpless with their plight. They did not identify with either the corrupt and inept leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and similarly have failed to see any benefit of 10 years of rule by the Hamas. They are understandably angry at the failure of both major Palestinian political parties. They also have plenty of anger and hostility for everyone else; Israel and Egypt who share control of Gaza’s borders as well as the Western and Arab world who pay lip service to their predicament but in practice do little to help.

When Hamas understood the potential power of the protest movement they quickly adopted it as their own. This was primarily for self-preservation, lest the protests be directed inwards.  Hamas has run out of options, every military option has failed; their missiles have been tackled by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defence system which protects Israeli citizens. When Hamas invested heavily in tunnel warfare to infiltrate Israel, an “underground Iron Dome” developed by Israel seems to have successfully neutered the threat and aims to destroy every Hamas tunnel by the end of the year. Other tactics have also failed; their sea commando unit failed to breach the beach in Kibbutz Zikim in summer 2014 and their apparent investment in drone technology was also allegedly thwarted. The final failure is on the political level when the much-touted reconciliation deal between the rival Palestinian factions failed again to be implemented.

Given very limited options, Hamas has embraced the march and taken ownership, as a result there is a balance between innocent, desperate Gazans demonstrating and the overall control maintained by Hamas that view the population as human shields to be exploited as a cover for their ongoing military campaign aimed, as ever, at attacking Israel.

So far the protests have taken on various “stages” at the onset there have been the general public, careful not to go too close to the fence. It should be noted that there are actually two barriers on the border the external fence with its sophisticated monitors and sensors and inside that, another barrier/obstacle often consisting of barbed wire and other measures to prevent access to the external fence.  It’s the space in between that people are prohibited to enter as the only purpose of getting that close is to infiltrate or sabotage the fence.

Into this malaise, the IDF has clear rules of engagement, as the IDF spokesman Lt Col Jonathan Conricus recently clarified to BICOM, “to the greatest extent possible, not to use lethal means in order to mitigate a threat. We resort to live fire only when absolutely necessary and when there is clear threat to infrastructure or to Israeli soldiers. If there is, then we use snipers who fire specifically and under very clear guidance by commanders.” What seems to have transpired that last Friday towards the end of the demonstration a large group of men charged the barrier, some of whom were armed with the explicit aim of breaching the fence. One can only imagine their intentions on the Israeli side were they to succeed. In fact, as jurists here have pointed out the casualties would be far higher if any of them were actually successful in breaching the border.

Tragically, a higher number of casualties serve Hamas, not only in terms of international opinion, but also in the ability to preserve, at least superficially, a form of civilian struggle, which distracts from its responsibility for the grim and failing situation in which the Gaza Strip has found itself under Hamas’s leadership. It’s fascinating to note that no parallel demonstrations have yet appeared on the West Bank in solidarity with Gaza and even the official PA media has noted wryly that Gazans are dying so Hamas gains more media exposure. It is also interesting that despite the tension, not a single missile has been fired towards Israel by Salafi Jihadist groups in Gaza. The could seem to indicate that Hamas is able to maintain very tight control over other radical jihadi groups when the situation demands it.

In an effort to avoid repeating the cycle of events over the last 2 weeks, Egypt is trying to mediate and has reportedly offered to open the Rafah crossing. Another option being discussed is some Arab custodianship of the Gaza strip possibly under the auspice of Saudi Arabia. This may be a pipe dream but for all the covert contact between Israel and the Saudis, it would be a very positive development if this could result in a new initiative to alleviate the plight of Palestinians in Gaza.

Richard Pater is Director of BICOM’s Israel Office.