With the Great March of return having fizzled out after the bloodiest day in Israeli-Palestinian relations since 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, another high-casualty conflict or possibly even the breakout of war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza was avoided. Previous flash-points with potential for a serious outbreak of violence were the Temple Mount metal detector crisis of last summer, and the ongoing tense situation in Gaza exacerbated by Israel and the PA’s reduction of electricity to Gaza last summer.
The Great March of Return has appeared to have gained very little for the Palestinians of Gaza and Hamas. In total, 111 Palestinians were killed, and 8,700 others wounded. Nearly 80% of the dead were members or affiliates of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or other militant groups. With this march Hamas has continued its policy of burning all its bridges with the Palestinian Authority and critical Arab states (rejecting U.A.E. food donations for Ramadan, burning Saudi flags and photos of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.) It has also increased the stakes and risks of a more damaging Israeli response, now including directly targeting members of the Hamas leadership.
The protests did not have the blessings of the Arab states, of which Hamas was aware before they even began. Egypt immediately offered to keep the crucial Rafah crossing open in exchange for relatively tamed protests. It was also reported by Israel Hayom that Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and the PA had been holding “secret talks” to prevent the protests from occurring or spreading to the West Bank. This report was corroborated by the London-based Saudi news website Elaph.
The unrest and violence didn’t spread through the West Bank as Hamas had hoped, to the benefit of Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. A senior PA official said that during the weaker protests in the West Bank “security coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces remains professional.” Jordan had its own concerns that West Bank unrest or violence could spill into its own territory.
After the protests peaked on May 14th with a stunning 62 deaths in one day, the Arab states, channeled through Egypt, were livid at Hamas for its role in instigating violence and causing unnecessary deaths. Egyptian General Intelligence Service head Maj. Gen. Abbas Kamel was tasked with containing the explosive situation in Gaza, reportedly at the behest of Saudi Arabia. Kamel, apparently “furious” at Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh, summoned him to Cairo and scolded him for the group’s behavior in the protests. According to Israel Hayom Kamel showed Haniyeh photo evidence of Hamas officials paying civilians, including children, to place themselves in harm’s way near the border fence so that Hamas could conduct its terror operations from within a civilian crowd.
According to a senior Egyptian Intelligence official, after flying Haniyeh and two bodyguards in by helicopter, “Kamel then kept Haniyeh waiting outside his office. It was humiliating. When Haniyeh was finally called in, you could hear him [Kamel] yelling. Haniyeh didn’t dare answer back.”
“Haniyeh was told, in no uncertain terms, that the blood of the dead was on his and [Hamas military leader Yahya] Sinwar’s hands. They even showed him images of Hamas operatives paying teenagers to go die near the fence.” Kamel even threatened Haniyeh that the Israelis would renew their policy on targeted assassinations of top Hamas officials, to which the Arab states would only respond with a verbal condemnation.
However, Hamas did see some benefits from the march. They managed to get the Rafah Crossing opened during the month of Ramadan, a victory they can easily sell to their people. They also received worldwide media attention, renewed sympathy and chatter from the U.N. as Israel faces increased scrutiny from the world and a minor but repairable diplomatic falling out with Turkey. More importantly, Hamas has learned that the strategy of mass-protests with many civilian casualties may be a more effective way of leveraging demands from Israel and the Arab states than rocket attacks or direct violence against Israel. Hamas will likely implement this strategy again and hopes to replicate the events of May 14th on June 5th, the anniversary of the six-day war and Israel’s conquering of East Jerusalem, according to The Telegraph. “The protests will continue because they have not achieved their goals yet,” said hazen Qasam, a Hamas spokesman. “Our desire here is for June 5 to be as big as May 14.” The danger Israel faces with this is another possibility of Hamas’ message reaching the masses of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and violence breaking out in these areas.
Having learned its lesson, Hamas must now tread lightly, and the potential protests of June 5th must not result in the violence which was seen on May 14th. Hamas is now fully aware of the consequences if it fails to reign in the protests. Israel increased the stakes by destroying a terror tunnel while the protests persisted and made clear that it will increase the harshness of its response, particularly targeting Hamas leaders, should the violence continue. Egypt will close the Rafah crossing and help Israel strangle Gaza, and the PA will increase its punitive measures against Hamas and the already suffering people of Gaza. Internally, Hamas must also worry about not pushing the Gazan people too far, losing too many lives, and risk uncontrollable violence or instability that could lead to rival groups challenging their authority.
Despite worldwide condemnation, Israel knows that it is in a strategically advantageous position. Hamas is testing the limits of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, and pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable for these states and for its populace in Gaza. One step too far, and Hamas may find itself stuck between regional isolation and an insurrection from a public that has been pushed over the edge. With more demonstrations expected in the coming weeks, and the risk of escalation between Hamas and Israel, it is the duty of Egypt and Israel to do what is necessary to prevent total deterioration and destabilization of the territory.