For Hamas, Gaza marches have scored some undeniable wins

With ‘March of Return’ dominating the Palestinian agenda, gaining some global sympathy, and focusing residents’ rage outwardly, the terror group has reasons to be pleased

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.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (L) and Hamas's leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar wave during a rally marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Islamist terror movement, in Gaza City, on December 14, 2017. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (L) and Hamas's leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar wave during a rally marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Islamist terror movement, in Gaza City, on December 14, 2017. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry has said 9 Palestinians were killed and 491 injured — including some 30 seriously — in the second “March of Return” held in the Strip on Friday.

The number of casualties is lower than those in the first march last Friday, and is indicative of the lower number of participants who took part, with some 20,000 Gazans attending, compared to over 30,000 a week ago. There were far fewer families, and a far greater focus on young tire-burning enthusiasts.

So one could argue that general motivation in Gaza for the planned weekly marches is waning, and that in a few weeks it will likely dwindle down significantly.

However, from the perspective of Hamas, it must be acknowledged that the terror group has recorded a significant achievement in the field of internal Palestinian politics.

Firstly, it should be noted that Hamas’s motivation at the moment appears not to be to provoke an all-out war with Israel. Had it sought an excuse for such action, the death tolls in the two protests could have provided more than enough justification from Hamas’s perspective to start firing rockets into Israel.

However, Hamas has so far refrained from doing so, and has stuck to encouraging the Friday protests — which the group did not initiate, but has enthusiastically adopted.

Palestinian protestors burn tires during clashes with Israeli security forces during clashes on the Gaza-Israel border in the southern Gaza Strip on April 6, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

For the terror group, the protests are an ideal way to allow Gazans to let off steam and express their frustration and anger at their dire situation, while focusing the people’s fury at the border, Israel, the “occupation” — anything but Gaza’s Hamas rulers themselves.

At the same time, the protests have Hamas dominating the Palestinian political and media agenda, taking the lead in national discourse with no real competition from the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah. It is abundantly clear to all which is the dominant movement in Palestinian politics today.

And even with participation numbers lower, 20,000 youths engaging in nationalist protests two weeks in a row is still an achievement for the group, especially when considering the relative quiet across the West Bank.

So even without masterminding the marches, Hamas appears to be claiming the spoils.

At the protests one can see dancing, masks, and an almost festival-like atmosphere, imbuing the events with a kind of romantic streak, at least in the eyes of the Western media, thus creating international sympathy. The Israeli army’s repeatedly highlighted statements that Hamas is cynically using the Gaza masses — sending its terrorists to try to breach the border fence and target Israeli troops under cover of the smoke from burning tires, and sending children to the front lines — are proving less resonant, except with the US administration.

Friday again saw Hamas leaders garner a fair amount of media and public attention as they visited the main protest sites — though obviously not on the front lines — and later at the homes and mourning tents of the dead.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh visited at least four tents, even one adorned with the picture of late Fatah leader Yasser Arafat. These visits and photo ops with the families of the dead made the rounds of Palestinian media and social media networks. At the home of 16-year-old Hussein Mohammed Madi, Haniyeh went up to the body to pay his respects before the cameras.

Yahya Sinwar, leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, speaks during a protest east of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip on April 6, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

A few hours earlier, Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar came to a tent camp adjacent to one of the protest sites and gave a fiery speech in which he announced that plans to “starve” Gaza had failed.

Sinwar did not address his remarks to Israel. Israel is not the authority that pays for Gaza’s electricity, water, and food, a fact of which Sinwar is well aware. His remarks were directed at plans by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to cut off aid to the Strip following March’s failed assassination attempt on PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and General Intelligence Chief Majed Faraj, during their visit to Gaza.

The weekly protests and the growing number of casualties are preventing Abbas from carrying out such threats, and may have even led him to retreat from them — another clear win for Hamas.

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