NEAR THE BORDER WITH GAZA – As Israeli and American officials feted the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and superfans thronged to Tel Aviv for a performance by Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai, the Gaza Strip on Monday saw its bloodiest day since the 2014 war, by a wide margin.
Israel and its supporters describe the protests as a Hamas-led military campaign — reportedly funded by the Jewish state’s nemesis, Iran — designed to turn the border area into an active combat zone and allow terrorist operatives to break through the security fence, enter Israeli territory, and carry out attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians, potentially in the form of kidnappings and massacres.
Palestinians and their supporters say the protests are civilian uprisings by a population that is occupied, besieged and oppressed, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, which is rapidly heading toward a man-made and wholly preventable humanitarian crisis.
There is validity to both sides’s contentions. There is no absolute contradiction.
By all accounts, the series of “March of Return” protests — which begin on March 30 with Land Day and will end on May 15 with Nakba Day — were first planned by civilian groups, but were later coopted by Hamas, the Islamist terror group that explicitly calls for Israel’s destruction and rules Gaza with an iron fist and a cold heart.
Even Israeli military officials, while maintaining that the riots are Hamas’s latest tactic in its ongoing war with the Jewish state, acknowledge that at least some of the protests on the border are “authentic.” Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, who currently have access to three hours of electricity a day and no reliable sources of clean water, undoubtedly have what to protest against.
But proof of Hamas’s control over the protests was eminently visible on Monday evening. At around 6 p.m., Hamas officials called on protesters to go home and within minutes thousands of them did just that. (Some analysts speculate that Hamas feared the riots were getting out of control, or that Israel might target Hamas leaders.) This was markedly different from how previous weeks’ demonstrations ended, with participation slowly tapering off until nightfall.
According to Israeli military assessments, one of Hamas’s goals for Monday’s protests was a high death toll, to draw international attention to Gaza and international condemnation against Israel — and that objective was achieved.
Throughout the day, the Israeli army stood as an impenetrable steel wall along the border — unwavering, unyielding, and inflexible.
In the weeks and months before the riots, the army laid out its plans and on Monday implemented them to a T. “Determination” — in Hebrew, nechishut — was the word heard most frequently from Israeli officials in connection to the IDF’s strategy, not creativity.
As of Tuesday morning, the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said that 60 Palestinians — at least 24 of them from terrorist groups, according to the IDF — were killed in the clashes, including several who the army says were shot dead as they tried to shoot Israeli soldiers or place improvised explosive devices on the border. Hamas and Islamic Jihad acknowledged that 13 of the dead were members. Some 2,700 Gazans were reportedly injured, about half from gunshots. These figure could not be independently verified.
The Israel Defense Forces called the level of violence by some 40,000 rioters “unprecedented” compared to previous weeks, with repeated efforts breach the fence, shots fired at Israeli troops, and multiple attempts to plant improvised explosive devices along the border.
In addition to direct, armed attacks against IDF troops, many protesters also engaged in lower level violence, hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers on the other side, rolling burning tires at the fence, dragging away rolls of barbed wire that had been set up by the IDF as an additional barrier, and launching 17 kites laden with rudimentary explosives or containers of burning fuel into Israel, according to the military.
None of these tactics were new; what the army described as “unprecedented” was the intensity.
In response to these attacks, the army used tear gas and, in many cases, live fire. Since the start of the protests, the army has maintained that many of the less-lethal weapons it uses in West Bank protests — water cannons, foul smelling liquids, sponge-tipped bullets — are ineffective in the conditions along the Gaza border.
The IDF said its snipers did not waver from the rules of engagement that it has employed every week since the beginning of the protests on March, which permit the use of deadly force — directed primarily at the lower limbs — in the case of a threat to life or when the security fence is attacked or breached.
There were, however, reports from inside Gaza on Monday of people being shot while they were far from the fence, likely the result of shots missing their target or ricochets.
In addition, Israeli aircraft and tanks targeted 13 Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad positions inside the Gaza Strip.
For Hamas, the high death toll in Gaza, especially when it was juxtaposed with images from the embassy celebration and Netta Barzilai’s Tel Aviv concert, had its desired effect.
Condemnations and accusations of excessive force came from around the world on Monday night. Two countries, South Africa and Turkey, announced they were pulling their ambassadors from Israel, at least temporarily. The Israeli ambassador to Ireland received a formal dressing down.
The United States, however, said Hamas was responsible for the casualties and stressed Israel’s right to defend its borders.
Meanwhile, Israel declared itself the victor.
“Hamas failed in the mission it set for itself,” IDF Spokesperson Ronen Manelis stated on a Monday night TV news broadcast.
All attempts to breach the security fence were repelled. And the only Israeli casualty was a soldier who was lightly wounded by a rock.
Hamas failed in the mission it set for itself
But perhaps most importantly, with the exception of area farmers who worked constantly to monitor their fields and put out fires, sparked by incendiary kites from Gaza, life on the Israeli side of the Gaza border was able to continue unabated.
Schools were open; joggers and cyclists could be spotted along the highways.
The only visible signs of unrest were the fires.
The air in and around the Gaza Strip hung thick with smoke throughout the day. Inside the coastal enclave, inky black plumes emanated from massive piles of burning tires.
Across the border in Israel, vast swaths of farmland were set ablaze by the so-called “terror kites” from Gaza.
Nearly every yellow wheat field in the Gaza periphery is marred by black splotches of scorched earth.
When the final tally comes in, Monday’s protest will likely be found to be the largest in the past seven weeks, edging out the 41,000 from March 30. However, it was far smaller than Hamas, and the Israel Defense Forces, had anticipated. In the days leading up to the riots, upwards of 100,000 people were expected to participate.
Manelis also cited this lack of turnout as proof that Hamas had failed.
Hamas leaders made every effort to bring out as many people as possible — except for themselves. Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh and the head of Hamas in Gaza Yahya Sinwar were notably absent from Monday’s protests.
But schools in the Strip were closed. Fishermen were prohibited from working. Buses were chartered to bring people to the protests. The Gaza-ruling terrorist group even offered to pay people for attending — $100 per family, according to the IDF.
The terror group has also been ratcheting up tensions in the Strip in what Israel believes to be an attempt to make Gaza residents even more desperate and angry. The amount of electricity, which was always scant, was further reduced as Hamas shuttered the Strip’s power plant over a dispute with Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. Israeli military officials also believe that Hamas ordered rioters to destroy key parts of the Kerem Shalom Crossing into Gaza last Friday, including the Strip’s only fuel pipelines.
But those efforts ultimately appeared to be of little avail.
In the short term, both Israel and Hamas can claim success of sorts on the Gaza Strip’s bloodiest day in nearly four years.
The IDF defended the border, but at no small cost for its image, and Hamas attracted international attention for Gaza and international condemnation for Israel, at a terrible cost for the people it is supposed to be governing.
The longer term implications of Monday’s clashes are far less clear.
Israel will be asked to justify its use of live fire against what much of the world considers to be unarmed civilian protesters.
Hamas, meanwhile, will have to continue governing the restive Gaza Strip, which is rapidly spiraling into a full-blown humanitarian crisis, and hope that it can maintain its control over a population it is pushing to the brink.