For Hamas, dancing on the brink of chaos is a winning tactic

For Hamas, dancing on the brink of chaos is a winning tactic

After a day of shocking losses in Gaza, there came a point when the terror group almost lost control, and engaged in some hurried course correction

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A Palestinian boy holding his national flag looks at clashes with Israeli security forces near the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel east of Gaza City on May 14, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)
A Palestinian boy holding his national flag looks at clashes with Israeli security forces near the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel east of Gaza City on May 14, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

Monday was undoubtedly among the most bewilderingly dissonant days in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: As the Israeli leadership, joined by US officials, feted the US embassy’s move to Jerusalem, and as tens of thousands of Israelis welcomed back Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai in celebrations in Tel Aviv, the Gaza Strip suffered one of its most doleful days in memory.

Sixty Gazans were killed by IDF fire as soldiers sought to prevent demonstrators from breaching the Israeli border.

The timing of the events was not coincidental, of course, and is tied to the opposing Israeli and Palestinian narratives: The US embassy’s relocation was set for May 14, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s establishment. On May 15 every year Palestinians mark what they see as the Nakba, or “catastrophe” of the establishment of the Jewish state.

Thus a day of festivities for Israelis became doubly tragic for the dozens of Gazan families of those killed, as well as those of the gravely wounded, whose lives will change forever.

At the end of such a day of jubilation on one side and grief on the other, it seems the rift between the two peoples has only been torn wider, and hatred has only grown.

Palestinians run for cover from tear gas near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, east of Jabaliya on May 14, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / Mohammed ABED)

A course correction in Gaza

In the late afternoon Monday, in at least one protest tent near the border, Hamas operatives in civilian clothing walked around and instructed protesters: “Go home.”

It was an unexpected plot twist, coming shortly after the Israeli military struck several Hamas targets in the Strip, and at a time when it was already clear that dozens of Palestinians had been killed and more than 2,000 wounded.

And in the evening one of Hamas’s Gaza leaders, Khalil al-Hayya, held a press conference in which he spoke in seemingly pacific tones, once again describing the riots as “a nonviolent march.”

Hamas’s senior political leader, Khalil al-Hayya in the Egyptian capital Cairo on November 22, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMED EL-SHAHED)

It was a somewhat surprising statement from an organization that has always espoused “military resistance” — meaning terror and rocket attacks against Israel — particularly after more than 50 people had been killed by IDF fire. In fact, many in Gaza had believed ahead of Monday’s events that if the death toll were high, Hamas would renew its rocket fire against Israel.

Shortly after al-Hayya spoke, the committee organizing the Gaza protests called for a continuation of the weekly demonstrations, with a particular focus on June 5 — Naksa Day, when Arabs mark the defeat in the 1967 Six Day War.

This response in Gaza to the worst single day of bloodshed since the 2014 war in the territory shows that despite the massive toll, Hamas is in no hurry to escalate the situation.

Hamas of 2018 has learned to use a vocabulary not dissimilar to that of the Palestinian Authority: “nonviolent resistance,” “popular struggle,” etc. And it is largely supportive of continuing the supposedly “nonviolent” marches as long as they are under control, apparently uninterested in being dragged into all-out war.

But on Monday afternoon, there came a point when Hamas almost lost control.

At a time when events were clearly headed toward escalation — with Israel intensifying its airstrikes and more and more Palestinians showing willingness to rush toward the fence and sacrifice their lives — it appeared that someone in Hamas’s leadership did some course correction, giving the order to stop the demonstrations, at least for the day, and to lower the intensity a bit.

Palestinians carry a demonstrator injured during clashes with Israeli forces near the border between the Gaza strip and Israel east of Gaza City on May 14, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / Thomas COEX)

It must be noted that Hamas’s ability to subsequently restrain not just the demonstrators but also Gaza’s other armed groups, none of which fired at Israel overnight, shows something of its impressive control over the Strip.

Palestinians sources in Gaza said Hamas had not decided on a complete halt to protests but was seeking to better control them.

A price Hamas can afford

At this juncture Hamas prefers a temporary freeze on its traditional “resistance” tactics such as rocket fire and armed attacks in favor of controlled rallies.

This is unsurprising, as it is clear that these popular demonstrations have netted Hamas quite a few achievements: They have come to the fore of Palestinians’ internal political discourse, while also refocusing the attention of the international community on Gaza. Meanwhile Israel is bearing the brunt of the blame for the deaths, with very little condemnation of Hamas (other than from Washington).

Hamas, it appears, currently believes open war may do it more harm than good. The group does not want to risk losing control of the territory or making targets of its leaders.

Meanwhile, the true price is being paid by Palestinian youths, who on Monday rushed in droves at the border.

Footage of the events raises the question: How is it that this mob did not fear for its life? How is it that so many were willing to die in a futile assault of the security fence?

A Palestinian man uses a slingshot during clashes with Israeli forces along the border with the Gaza strip east of Khan Younis on May 14, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

The only apparent explanation is a combination of the desire of young Gazans to be seen as heroes by their society and the feeling among many that they have nothing to lose.

This pairing between despair and a desire to stand out appears to be a strong motivator for the recruitment of protesters to the marches.

Diminishing returns

Still, it is difficult to see how Hamas’s new tactic of controlled rallies can last much longer.

Admittedly the number of protesters in Monday’s demonstration reached record highs, but this week had been billed in advance as the climactic culmination of the marches. The general trend on recent Fridays has been of a significant drop in participation.

A picture taken on May 14, 2018, from the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz across the border with the Gaza Strip shows Palestinian protestors gathering along the border fence with Israel (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)

Without actual results or a change in Gaza’s situation, and with a decline in motivation among the populace, it can be assumed that at some point Hamas will be tempted to revert to its basic warring instincts.

This could be demonstrated in a military escalation, through renewed rocket attacks; or by attempts to carry out attacks in the West Bank, which would lower the risk of open conflict in Gaza while winning points with the Palestinian public which now demands revenge.

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