Hamas ‘success’ on Friday presages more protests, more deaths, in more places

Leaders of the terror group are euphoric at having mobilized Gaza’s masses. Next stop, the West Bank

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.

Islamist Hamas terror movement leader Yahya Sinwar (C) shouts slogans as he takes part in a protest near the border with Israel east of Jabaliya in the northern Gaza Strip on March 30, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)
Islamist Hamas terror movement leader Yahya Sinwar (C) shouts slogans as he takes part in a protest near the border with Israel east of Jabaliya in the northern Gaza Strip on March 30, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

By the end of Friday’s border battles, Hamas could chalk up a victory: Tens of thousands of Gazans had joined its “March of Return,” making it one of the largest Palestinian public protests in the past decade, in Gaza or the West Bank.

Hamas had hoped that hundreds of thousands, even a million, might turn out. But as a colleague in Gaza said Friday night, “The real expectation had been that numbers would be far lower. And now everyone knows that the numbers will grow for Nakba Day” — on May 15, when Palestinians mark the “catastrophe” that befell them with Israel’s creation — for the anticipated culmination of this anti-Israel campaign.

The Hamas leadership, whose members made themselves prominent at several key locations on Friday, was plainly euphoric. Photo-ops like this don’t come everyday. From Ismail Haniyeh on down, they toured the hotspots, and none to greater effect than Yahya Sinwar — the undisputed Hamas leader in Gaza.

In Jabaliya, tens of thousands had gathered close to the border when Sinwar arrived. Sinwar doesn’t give many speeches and, in recent weeks, hadn’t even been seen much in public. But on Friday, he was outspoken, warning Israel that “The March of Return will continue… until we remove this transient border,” that it marked “a new phase in the Palestinian national struggle on the road to liberation.” And rather than go hungry, he declared, the people of the Gaza Strip will “eat the livers of those besieging” them.

Sinwar made plain that he had come to the event together with his wife and children, and was thus disproving the notion “that Hamas leaders hide in the tunnels while they send out the protesters.”

From Hamas’s point of view, indeed, it succeeded Friday where Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority has failed. Hamas, which flew the flag of armed resistance, of terrorism, pulled off one of the biggest public protest events seen in the territories since the start of the Second Intifada 18 years ago, and its leaders, unlikely those of the PA, stood together with the demonstrators, displaying a different kind of leadership from that of the Fatah chiefs of the West Bank.

Gunmen and Gazans at the funeral of Amero Samor, 27, in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Friday, March 30, 2018. Palestinians said he was a farmer killed when working his land; Israeli officials said he was engaged in suspicious activity at the border fence. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Hamas even managed to restore the Palestinian issue to the international agenda, which had for a long time become indifferent to what unfolds in Gaza and the West Bank.

The cost was 15 killed and hundreds injured, according to the Hamas-controlled health ministry. Those numbers are sure to rise over the coming weeks in the run-up to May 15. So, too, however, are the numbers participating in the protests.

Gazans who spoke to the various Hamas leaders at the border on Friday came away with the clear impression that the rulers of the Strip intend to devote still more resources to these protests over the coming weeks leading up to Nakba Day.

Despite the violence at the fence, and at least one case of gunfire directed at Israeli troops, these Gazans said, Hamas security forces made an effort to prevent gunmen from getting to the border on Friday. It is by no means certain that such efforts will be maintained in a month and a half’s time. The May 15 campaign, in other words, is likely to be both much bigger and much more violent.

The “success” of Friday’s demonstrations is also likely to spread to other areas — most notably to the West Bank in the run-up to Nakba Day. With the Americans set to open their embassy in Jerusalem, and Gazans holding a still bigger “March of Return,” there will be considerable motivation for protests in the West Bank.

Abbas declared Saturday to be a day of mourning in the wake of Friday’s fatalities. All the PA’s institutions, and all business, were ordered shut. But Abbas knows full well that this was a case of too little, too late. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank know exactly who is supplying the goods right now, and who’s trying to hitch a ride.

Abbas also initiated an emergency debate at the UN Security Council, where hypocrisy prevailed, needless to say. Civilians are being massacred in Syria by the day, and the international community insistently looks the other way. In this respect, nobody outscores Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Even as his forces are carrying out ethnic cleansing in the northern Syria Kurdish area of Afrin, Erdogan was demanding an investigation into IDF violence on the Gaza border.

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