Some 30,000 Gazans massed near the Israeli border on Friday in a Hamas-backed “March of Return” that swiftly descended into violence. Hamas claims 18 people were killed, and acknowledges that at least five were its own gunmen. The Israeli army, as of Saturday, had identified 10 of the fatalities as members of Hamas and other terror groups, and an 11th was identified by Islamic Jihad as a member.
The IDF Spokesman said soldiers faced “a violent, terrorist demonstration at six points” along the fence. He said the IDF used “pinpoint fire” wherever there were attempts to breach or damage the security fence.
The IDF does not allege that the tens of thousands of participants attempted en masse to march on the border and breach the fence — a scenario for which it said it was braced.
But the question is whether such a mass effort to march through the fence remains a danger — Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar vowed Friday that the campaign “will not stop until we remove this transient border” — and, if so, how the Israeli army will grapple with it. Buoyed by the “success” of Friday’s march, Hamas and other organizers are planning a series of larger mass border protests culminating with a hyped million-strong march in mid-May when Israel marks its 70th anniversary of independence.
The Times of Israel spoke in a telephone interview Monday to Maj. Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council who served for 33 years in the IDF, including as head of its Strategic Planning Branch. His assessment, to put it mildly, was not reassuring.
The Times of Israel: What’s your assessment of what happened on Friday, and how will the IDF be able to deal with the larger demonstrations now being planned?
Giora Eiland: I don’t know exactly what happened on Friday. I didn’t follow it in real-time. But my impression is that we, to a certain extent, may have been too quick to fire at a demonstration that I’m not sure endangered our soldiers and that I’m not sure would have trampled the fence and seen masses getting into Israel.
I’m not sure we couldn’t have been relatively indifferent. Indifference is better. Because otherwise you play into their hands and that, I fear, is what happened here to some extent.
I’ve been saying for years that we have a lot more in common with Hamas in the short-term. We have a policy that it’s a terrorist organization, that it must be boycotted, and that money can only go to Gaza via the Palestinian Authority. But that undermines our own agenda. We could, a long time ago, have accepted Hamas as the de facto government of Gaza and if we wanted to avoid a humanitarian disaster there, to have worked with them. Now, if we did so it would be to act out of weakness. We had three years to do it.
What can the army do and what will the army do if, say, 300,000 people, tens times as many as gathered on Friday, march on the fence?
I don’t have an answer if 300,000 people do try to trample the fence and get into Israel. With small numbers, say a few thousand, you can catch them, hold them, feed them, give them flowers and send them home. If there are tens of thousands or more, I have no good answer. I don’t know of methods of crowd dispersal that would be useful and effective in such circumstances. I can only hope that the IDF is evaluating and finding a solution to a problem that could be ten times larger.
I think Hamas has found a formula that serves it from all directions. It’s tried below ground and above ground and on the ground. It knows terrorism won’t give it legitimacy. Now it has fashioned a situation in which the [Gaza] masses, instead of blaming it for poverty, channel all their anger against Israel. If we can’t find a way to stop deaths on the other side, it will get worse.
And then it could spread to Lebanon. It will be easier for Hezbollah to organize; the distance from that border to residential areas in Israel is sometimes as little as 300 meters.
And now there’s also some increased friction in the West Bank because of the deaths.
We have let all this happen.
We over-rely on Israeli deterrence. But you need carrot and stick. We had three years to fashion a carrot… with the de facto agreement of the Israeli government to have the international community [rehabilitate Gaza] build houses, desalination plants…
The Hamas government would have had a lot to lose. Today they have nothing to lose. Three years ago the last major conflict exploded because they had nothing to lose. It exploded because Mahmoud Abbas stopped paying the salaries of PA officials, of Hamas officials, in Gaza. It’s the same now. The Israeli deterrence is not sufficient. We played into their hands.
I’m silent because this seems so extremely bleak and worrying.
I hope there are some other ideas and some other means that I don’t know about that would prove effective [if masses tried to trample the fence]. I don’t know of them, but there may be.