What did the ‘Great March of Re­turn’ achieve?

Only real suc­cess was on May 14, when it got at­ten­tion from the world about the suf­fer­ing in Gaza

The Jerusalem Post - - NEWS - ANAL­Y­SIS • By SETH J. FRANTZMAN (Ibra­heem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

Eight weeks. Up to 8,700 wounded and around 100 peo­ple killed. Those are the bru­tal num­bers of the “Great March of Re­turn” that Ha­mas launched in Gaza on March 30, to co­in­cide with Land Day.

The protests were sup­posed to reach a peak on May 15, to cul­mi­nate with Nakba Day, when Pales­tini­ans mark what they see as the cat­a­strophic cre­ation of Is­rael in 1948.

What did Ha­mas think would hap­pen, and did it ac­com­plish what it wanted?

Many ques­tions re­main about the weeks of ri­ots in which thou­sands were shot with live am­mu­ni­tion. The fall­out from the clashes will likely con­tinue to be felt through crit­i­cism from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, ram­i­fi­ca­tions in the re­gion, and les­sons learned by both Ha­mas and the Is­raeli au­thor­i­ties.

Is­rael’s goals and con­tro­ver­sies

The Is­rael De­fense Forces said from the be­gin­ning that the ri­ots in Gaza were planned and ex­e­cuted by Ha­mas. In late Feb­ru­ary, De­fense Min­is­ter Avig­dor Liber­man warned Gazans not to ap­proach the border fence, that they were en­dan­ger­ing their lives by do­ing so and be­ing used by Ha­mas. Is­rael said it would re­spond ag­gres­sively and had learned its les­sons from the use of civil­ians to mask in­fil­tra­tion at­tempts. On March 28, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot warned the army would use live fire and an­nounced 100 snipers were be­ing de­ployed. Af­ter three weeks of ri­ots IDF spokesman Lt.-Col. Jonathan Con­ri­cus tweeted on April 27: “This is terror, just masked. The IDF will con­tinue to de­fend our peo­ple and border.”

On April 30, the High Court of Jus­tice re­sponded to a pe­ti­tion by hu­man rights groups and held a hear­ing about Is­rael’s pol­icy on the Gaza border. The IDF re­sponded that it was treat­ing the border with Gaza the same way it does those with Syria or Le­banon but that its meth­ods were evolv­ing in re­sponse to each Fri­day’s protests.

The de­tails of any changes be­tween March 30 and May 15 were not made pub­lic, but the num­ber of ca­su­al­ties de­creased on each Fri­day, but on Mon­day, May 14, al­most 60 Pales­tini­ans were killed, ac­cord­ing to Ha­mas. Data de­rived from the Ha­mas-run Health Min­istry in Gaza shows that the pro­por­tion hit with live fire also de­creased, from al­most half of those in­jured on March 30 to a low of around 6% of those in­jured on May 4. This would appear to in­di­cate a more con­ser­va­tive use of live fire.

Is­rael suc­ceeded in pre­vent­ing any mas­sive breach of the se­cu­rity fence. It also had to re­spond to flam­ing kites and masses of burn­ing tires used to screen the move­ments of the ri­ot­ers. From a tac­ti­cal point of view this seems to have been a com­plete suc­cess. From a de­ter­rence point of view it’s less clear. Ha­mas sus­tained the protests and found a ready pool of mostly young men will­ing to get shot protest­ing or even for the chance to touch the fence. From a much larger strategic perspective it’s not en­tirely clear if Is­rael suc­ceeded as well as it might have by keep­ing the num­ber of ca­su­al­ties lower.

What did Ha­mas want?

Ha­mas wanted to show through these protests that it was still relevant. Af­ter 13 years in charge of Gaza it has noth­ing to show for it. It is more iso­lated than ever, hav­ing lost any friends it once had in Egypt in 2013, and hav­ing lost fund­ing from Qatar. It has lit­tle sym­pa­thy or sup­port.

And Is­rael has suc­ceeded in cut­ting off ev­ery threat Ha­mas uses. Is­rael stopped the Kas­sam threat and the rocket threat. The tun­nels were dis­cov­ered and in­no­vated meth­ods em­ployed against them. Egypt also cut off the tun­nels to Si­nai. The block­ade has harmed peo­ple’s lives in the Strip, but not suc­ceeded in top­pling Ha­mas.

To get around its po­lit­i­cal and terror-mil­i­tary prob­lems, Ha­mas sought rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the Pales­tinian Author­ity. It hoped to use this as a Tro­jan horse to reen­ter the West Bank. But each time it has failed to cre­ate any kind of deal with Ra­mal­lah. Last year when a deal seemed it would fi­nally bear fruit, the PA was not able to en­ter the Gaza Strip. Then an as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt tar­geted PA Prime Min­is­ter Rami Ham­dal­lah and se­cu­rity chief Ma­jid Faraj in March dur­ing their visit to Gaza.

Ha­mas de­cided that us­ing mass protests might be a new and suc­cess­ful method. The prob­lem is that, de­spite all the sto­ries about “non­vi­o­lent protests,” Ha­mas didn’t in­tend for them to be non­vi­o­lent. But it isn’t clear what it did in­tend. It didn’t use the protests as a cover for sniper fire at the IDF or for us­ing improvised ex­plo­sive de­vices. Once it got the 50,000 Pales­tinian pro­test­ers to five points along the fence it set­tled in for the time be­ing. It didn’t in­no­vate. Pales­tini­ans have a say­ing that “ex­ist­ing is re­sist­ing” and pay lip ser­vice to the con­cept of “samud” or stead­fast­ness. This was all Ha­mas could muster. It bragged about break­ing through and re­turn­ing to Pales­tinian ar­eas from be­fore 1948. But this never hap­pened. Also there was no sol­i­dar­ity in the West Bank.

Af­ter a while, Ha­mas an­gered Egypt and was con­stantly afraid of Is­raeli re­tal­i­a­tion. When it was tar­geted in air strikes it ap­peared to flinch, wor­ried that any­more es­ca­la­tion would re­sult in real harm to its lead­er­ship. While it was will­ing to sac­ri­fice 100 mostly young men and en­cour­age thou­sands of oth­ers to take a bul­let and ruin their lives for its plans, it had noth­ing to give them be­sides a few scraps af­ter­ward and talk of “mar­tyr­dom.”

Its only real suc­cess was on May 14, when it got some at­ten­tion from the world about the suf­fer­ing in Gaza. But even then it doesn’t seem to be able to con­vert that into more aid for the Strip or a diplo­matic open­ing it would like, via Qatari con­tacts, to the West Bank. There are ru­mors that Ha­mas has reached out via Qatar to US en­voy Ja­son Green­blatt. But Green­blatt’s only re­sponse has been to write in re­gional publi­ca­tions that Ha­mas has ru­ined Gaza and that Gaza should be re­united with the PA.

The re­gional con­text

Turkey ex­pelled Is­rael’s am­bas­sador on May 14 and hu­mil­i­ated him at the air­port when he was leav­ing the next day. This was the only real ma­jor po­lit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the deaths in Gaza. Is­rael’s live fire poli­cies have also en­raged crit­ics through­out the West. The UN, and voices in the EU have crit­i­cized Is­rael’s poli­cies. But it doesn’t seem they have gone fur­ther than that, so far. In­side Is­rael the hu­man rights groups that urged sol­diers not to fire on civil­ians and pe­ti­tioned the courts got no re­lief. If the protests re­sume to­mor­row, Is­rael will carry out the same pol­icy.

The ri­ots in Gaza do not appear to have harmed or strained re­la­tions with Egypt, Jor­dan or some of the Gulf states which Is­rael has gar­nered fa­vor with in the last years. That doesn’t mean the poli­cies in Gaza are help­ful for Is­rael. In gen­eral Is­rael has an op­por­tu­nity to work with these coun­tries to con­front Iran, and Jerusalem could ac­tu­ally en­cour­age them to help send mes­sages to Gaza or pro­pose a change that might aid Gazans.

What comes next?

Ha­mas has found that it can sus­tain mass protests. It can use this to gain some space for it­self in Gaza af­ter years of stag­na­tion. But it has also shown the short­com­ings of these protests. The high num­ber of Ha­mas ac­tivists among the ca­su­al­ties shows that it can­not con­vince most av­er­age peo­ple to die for it. The great­est vic­tory it could show in the last weeks was that a few ac­tivists brought back some coils of barbed wire. For thou­sands of wounded and 100 dead, that’s not much.

PALES­TINIAN RI­OT­ERS run from IDF fire and tear gas at the border in the south­ern Gaza Strip on Mon­day.

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