It’s make-or-break time for Hamas in Gaza

Numbers at border protests have thinned even as violence has increased; if the Strip’s rulers can’t bring out crowds on ‘Nakba Day,’ they may refocus on previous terror tactics

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.

Amid black smoke from burning tires, Palestinian protesters run from teargas fired by Israeli troops during a protest at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Friday, May 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Amid black smoke from burning tires, Palestinian protesters run from teargas fired by Israeli troops during a protest at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Friday, May 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

It’s shaping up to be a complicated week for the State of Israel.

Amid rising tensions with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, on Monday the focus will shift to Jerusalem with the American embassy’s move to the capital. In Gaza and the West Bank, meanwhile, mass protests are planned. US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the embassy on May 14 has led Palestinian factions to move up their usual Nakba Day rallies originally scheduled for the following day, and may energize the demonstrations.

For Hamas, May 14 is one of the most critical days of the year. If the number of participants in its own fence protests doesn’t hit 100,000, if not several hundreds of thousands, it would mark only partial success, if not failure, for its most significant public relations effort in recent memory.

The terror group gambled all its chips on this new type of fight with Israel: neither suicide bombers nor rockets, but a mass protest marching toward the fence in a bid to break through into Israel. This new tactic, which has seen increasingly violent riots on recent Fridays, has generated renewed interest in the world, in Israel and in Arab countries for what is transpiring in Gaza.

Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, center, chants slogans as he is surrounded by protesters during his visit to the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, April 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Those in Israel who rushed to declare the marches/riots a failure may not have noticed that it has  returned Gaza to the world stage. The fact is that Israel’s top defense and political echelons are debating once more how to ease the humanitarian situation in the Strip. And the Palestinian public, at least for now, has expressed widespread support for the border protests. Hamas has returned to a leadership role in the Palestinian arena, while the PLO and Fatah lag behind.

Yet Hamas’s enormous efforts to stoke public opinion and convince Gazans to join the marches on the border all lead up to Monday, and if the masses are missing, the march strategy will have fallen short.

This would obviously be a victory for Israel… except when one contemplates the alternative to the current tactic: a renewed Hamas focus on previous and ongoing methods — tunnels, bombers and so forth — in its unending bid to drive events in the Palestinian space.

Plans for Monday’s march include buses to transport protesters from the centers of Gaza’s major cities to five points along the Israel-Gaza border fence. The mass marches will approach the fence, but probably maintain a safe distance. The major concern is that hundreds of protesters, mostly youths, may rush the fence in a bid to break through.

That would present decision-makers in the Israeli government and the IDF with a prickly problem. If the numbers of Palestinian casualties are too high, that alone would give Hamas a kind of victory among Palestinians, and put enormous public pressure on the organization to launch retaliatory attacks against Israel. It’s a short distance from that sort of rage to another all-out war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Israeli soldiers deployed near Kibbutz Nir Oz close to the Gaza border where tire fire smoke billows from the Palestinian camp of Khuza’a near Khan Yunis, in the southern part of the Gaza Strip on April 6, 2018. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

That’s why many Arab governments are working hard to calm things down in Gaza. Egypt, for example, a participant in the Israeli security blockade against Hamas’s rule in Gaza, opened the Rafah border crossing in recent days to help lower the economic and psychological pressure on the population. Qatar, meanwhile, recently handed the Israeli government a proposal to agree to a long-term ceasefire in exchange for an end to the marches. (Officials in Jerusalem were unimpressed.)

The key question remains, and it concerns the day after: Once the US embassy has moved and Nakba Day protests draw to a close, what is Hamas’s next step? Barring dramatic developments, the rate of participation in the Gaza protests will presumably continue its steady decline. What alternative does the group have to the march strategy? Does it finally accept its failure to lead Gaza and transfer its powers there to the Palestinian Authority?

Experience suggests that when Hamas is boxed in, or is forced to admit failure, it returns to its familiar, natural instincts. That’s the bad news: If things go too well for Israel this week, Hamas may seek an escape from its failure, and a new round of fighting may be nigh.

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