A Palestinian activist widely held to be the inspiration behind weekly protests and riots on the Israel-Gaza border fence in recent months, which have greatly increased tensions, has called for a “tactical withdrawal” since the practice has become “too costly.”
“We have lost the battle for public opinion,” Ahmed Abu Artema, a political activist and journalist who is now a spokesman for the so-called “March of Return,” said in a TV broadcast last week. A Facebook post he published earlier this year calling for peaceful protest ultimately mushroomed into large-scale, often violent, Friday demonstrations.
Since March 30, weekly clashes have taken place on the Gaza border. Israel accuses terror group Hamas, which rules Gaza, of using the demonstrations as cover for attacks and attempts to breach the security fence.
Abu Artema had originally called for the marches to be mass, peaceful protests seeking an end to the siege on Gaza and a return to what Palestinians call their ancestral homes in Israel. They have instead become hotbeds of violence.
The March of Return “has been an attempt to create a certain model,” the 33-year-old said on August 1, in remarks broadcast by Al Jazeera and translated Monday by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). “We tried to associate this form of struggle with images of life and beauty. This is the philosophy of peaceful struggle… [Israel] is trying to present us in an image of death and terrorism.”
But, he said, “unfortunately we have lost the battle for public opinion in the March of Return, when it became associated in people’s minds with blood and the loss of limbs,” he said. “This is very scary.”
At least 160 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire and thousands have been wounded since the protests began, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Hamas, a terror group that has vowed to destroy Israel, has acknowledged that dozens of those killed were its members.
One Israeli soldier was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper.
The March of Return protests have also seen Palestinians fly airborne incendiary devices toward Israeli territory nearly daily, sparking hundreds of fires in southern Israel and causing millions of shekels in estimated damages. Hundreds of rockets and mortars have been launched toward Israeli towns.
Domestic pressure on the military to halt the burning flying objects has intensified, leading to Israel carrying out warning airstrikes and increasing the possibility that violence could escalate.
Speaking at a symposium titled “The Palestinian Cause – Proposals on the Table” organized by Hamas, Abu Artema said, “The images of torn limbs, wounded people, blood and martyrs are very painful, and must drive us to reexamine all our tactics and to invent new ones.”
“This is not an attempt to water down the March of Return, but it is okay, from time to time, to engage in a tactical withdrawal, if you sense that your path has become too costly,” he suggested. “There is nothing wrong with a tactical withdrawal, which will preserve the original idea. We want to save the idea itself from death.”
Palestinians say the demonstrations are aimed at the return of refugees and their descendants to their former and ancestral homes in Israel, and to bring about the lifting of Israeli restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the coastal enclave.
Both Israel and Egypt have imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip, saying the restrictions are need to prevent terror groups importing weapons and equipment for their military campaigns. Goods arrive at Israeli ports and are then bought to Gaza on hundreds of trucks a day.
Adam Rasgon and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.