Reveling in its success in winning the attention of the international community with the latest mass border protests, Hamas claims to be embracing new, nonviolent tactics for breaking the Israeli security blockade on the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian terror group that rules Gaza says it considers the weekly “March of Return” rallies — in which protesters have burned tires, hurled firebombs and rocks at Israeli troops, flown flaming kites over the border and attempted to sabotage the security fence — a pivot toward nonviolence. Israel says Hamas uses the marches — which the terror group’s leaders have publicly declared are intended to erase the border ad liberate Palestine — as cover for terrorist attacks.
The large-scale protests are the only card the group has left, three high-ranking Hamas officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal strategy.
They said Hamas was ruling out other options — either disarming or fighting another cross-border war with Israel. The last one, in 2014, devastated Gaza, a coastal territory with 2 million people squeezed into 140 square miles (365 square kilometers).
Bassem Naim, another senior Hamas official, believes the new method has refocused world attention on Gaza’s misery. The territory suffers from grueling power cuts and a two-thirds unemployment rate among young men.
“The momentum of the marches is going strong and will continue,” he said. “People can no longer endure the siege and will not stop until the siege is stopped.” Israel and Egypt have maintained a security blockade on Gaza since Hamas seized control of the Strip in 2007 in a bloody coup against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel says it is vital to prevent Hamas, which openly seeks to destroy the Jewish state, from importing weaponry.
Hamas has fought three rounds of conflict against Israel since taking over the Strip, firing thousands of rockets across the border, and digging attack tunnels under the border.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has lately sought to telegraph an embrace of nonviolence, and recently spoke against the backdrop of posters of icons such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.
The senior Hamas officials said the movement has learned from mistakes, such as confronting Israel’s powerful military with rocket fire. Although Hamas remains avowedly committed to destroying Israel, the unnamed officials said Hamas was offering Israel an open-ended truce in exchange for lifting the blockade.
Hamas says it wants to keep its weapons for defensive purposes — a claim belied by the group’s ongoing tunnel program and rocket use. Hamas has been building tunnels from Gaza into Israel in recent years, for attacks; Israel has been systematically locating and destroying them, most recently earlier this month.
Hamas “is changing its tactics, but it’s not changing its nature and strategies,” said Palestinian analyst Abdel Majed Sweilem.
The group has recently supported workshops for activists in a tent camp near the Gaza border with Israel on the concept of nonviolent protest. At the workshops, lecturer Issam Hammad, who identified himself as an independent, said he educated participants on which actions are and are not allowed: throwing stones and holding rallies is permitted, throwing firebombs is a “maybe” and using knives a definite “no,” he said.
Hammad offers a definition of “nonviolence” disputed by Israel.
The Israeli military has said Hamas is using the protests as cover to damage the fence and prepare to infiltrate and carry out attacks. There is considerable concern among Israelis of a mass breach in which Gazans stream across with terrorists mixed in, wreaking havoc.
The border protests were the idea of grassroots activists several months ago, but the project, envisioned as “nonviolent,” was quickly embraced by Hamas. The terror group has led the organization of the weekly rallies, but has kept its armed men out of sight.
Each Friday since March 30, thousands of people have gathered in five tent camps near the border, while smaller groups throw stones, burn tires and send kites with firebombs over the border. Between 35 and 40 Palestinians have been killed and more than 1,500 wounded by Israeli soldiers firing across the border, according to Hamas-run health ministry figures. Rights groups say open-fire regulations are unlawful because they permit troops to use potentially lethal force against “unarmed” protesters.
Hamas acknowledged that five of its terrorists were among the fatalities after the first Friday demonstration, but has since refrained for acknowledging whether its men are among the dead. Israel has identified other fatalities as members of terrorist groups.
The Israeli army says it mainly uses less-lethal means, as well as pinpoint fire against chief instigators. It says its sharpshooters target only those taking explicit violent action against Israeli troops by attacking IDF soldiers with stones and Molotov cocktails, actively trying to damage the security fence, or attempting to place improvised explosive devices along the security fence, which could later be used in attacks against Israeli patrols.
Palestinian videos have emerged that purport to show soldiers shooting protesters who did not pose a threat. The army has accused Hamas of fabricating video footage or releasing only partial clips.
Nonetheless, the European Union urged Israel to stop using deadly force against unarmed protesters, and a senior UN envoy to the region called Israel’s deadly shooting of a 14-year-old Gaza boy last week “outrageous.”
Organizers say that in addition to compelling an end to the blockade, the marches are meant to press for the “right of return” of refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes in the 1948 war over Israel’s creation, and march organizers see May 15, the anniversary of Israel’s founding and of what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe, as a key target day.
According to the United Nations, some 1.3 million of Gaza’s 1.9 million residents are refugees or their descendants.
At previous peace talks, the Palestinians have always demanded, along with sovereignty in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Old City, a “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees who left or were forced out of Israel when it was established. The Palestinians demand this right not only for those of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are still alive — a figure estimated in the low tens of thousands — but also for their descendants, who number in the millions.
No Israeli government would ever be likely to accept this demand, since it would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish-majority state. Israel’s position is that Palestinian refugees and their descendants would become citizens of a Palestinian state at the culmination of the peace process, just as Jews who fled or were forced out of Middle Eastern countries by hostile governments became citizens of Israel.
Some Hamas leaders have called for a mass border breach, while others are vague. Haniyeh told protesters that “we will return to Palestine,” without giving specifics.
Either way, Hamas faces a tough decision ahead of May 15. If it stops short of a mass breach, momentum may falter. But Israel has warned that a mass breach could lead to many casualties. If huge crowds break through the fence, Israel could have a stronger case for using lethal force.
Hamas leaders would face renewed accusations of cynically exploiting Gaza civilians — especially if senior leaders stay back while desperate young men rush into danger. A high casualty toll also risks triggering another war.