Tension is high across the Gaza border as the IDF closure of the Erez pedestrian crossing enters its 12th day amid almost two weeks of sporadic rioting along the security fence.
The IDF announced that the crossing, which approximately 18,000 Palestinian workers normally transit daily, would remain closed until the violence on the border stops. This decision was announced following a security assessment by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi.
The Erez crossing was initially shuttered on Rosh Hashanah, in preparation for the holiday. Last weekend, hundreds of Palestinians gathered at various locations along the fence to riot, in demonstrations reminiscent of the weekly violent protests along the Gaza fence three years ago known as the “Great March of Return.”
Over the past week, the violence severely escalated. Palestinians have burned tires and detonated explosive devices along the security barrier and tried to breach it, and even shot at troops on several occasions.
On Friday and Saturday, Gazans launched incendiary balloons into Israel, sparking a wildfire. On Monday, troops arrested two suspects attempting to infiltrate Israeli territory. Hours later a terrorist opened fire on troops along the border and was “neutralized,” the IDF said.
“These protests need to be firstly seen as a security threat and only after that as a political signal,” Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel, a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University in Herzliya, told JNS. “For the soldier on the line, the threat of being hit with an explosive or a bullet is the primary concern.”
In response to these attacks, the IDF carried out strikes against Hamas posts along the border on Friday, Saturday and Monday. The military has also continually employed crowd dispersal means, and occasionally live fire.
Though Hamas is not openly linked to the riots, experts agree that the terrorist group is actively instigating the violent protests.
“This sort of thing simply does not happen in Gaza if Hamas is not behind it,” Maj. Gen. Gershon Hacohen, a senior adviser at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University and a representative of the Israel Defense and Security Forum (IDSF), told JNS.
The re-emergence of the border riot phenomenon, after nearly three years of dormancy, comes as several destabilizing factors plague the Hamas terrorist group.
First and foremost, Hamas is in the midst of a political struggle as its two most central leaders, Yahya Sinwar and Saleh al-Arouri, battle for ideological and political control of the organization. According to Nuriel and Hacohen, Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, is seen as politically vulnerable after al-Arouri, its “military” commander in Judea and Samaria, has continuously challenged him for the leadership position over the past year.
“Sinwar needs to show that he is aggressive and not an Israeli puppet. Between the two, al-Arouri is seen as more aggressive and more committed, and Sinwar needs to change this view,” Nuriel said.
According to Hacohen, there is an added religious element to the political conflict within Hamas.
“Al-Arouri is trying to shift the whole [Sunni] organization over to [the Shia] Hezbollah and Iran, which completely breaks the Shia-Sunni conflict. Sinwar is trying to stay on the Sunni side but he needs to show that religiously, they are just as committed to the fight for Al-Aqsa as Hezbollah and Iran. Because of this, he needs to continue showing that he is just as aggressive,” Hacohen said.
Hacohen added that in addition to the specific Shia-Sunni conflict in Hamas, it is a general principle in Islam to be continuously engaged in jihad, and these recent protests are just a further expression of that principle. The doctrine, known as Muqawama in Arabic, is best translated as “perpetual conflict,” according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“One of the central goals of these protests is upholding the religious idea of constant friction with the enemy regardless of the practical military reality. According to this idea, a person who exemplifies the idea of perpetual jihad will then get the support of God and ultimately succeed,” Hacohen said. “In the Middle East, it is completely wrong to separate politics from religion.”
Recent economic pressure has further destabilized Hamas, adding to the pressure on the terrorist group to lash out against Israel.
Hamas’s recent perceived shift to the Shia axis has caused Qatar, a Sunni-majority country and one of Hamas’s largest financial supporters, to announce that it will be freezing its monthly $30 million aid packages to the Gaza Strip. According to multiple Palestinian sources, this move is a response to al-Arouri’s recent overtures to Syria.
As a result of this freeze, the humanitarian situation in Gaza is expected to drastically deteriorate, putting pressure on Hamas to channel Palestinian frustration outward toward Israel rather than inward toward its incompetent administration.
Lt. Col. (res.) Jonathan Conricus, a former IDF international spokesperson, told JNS, “We have seen this strategy before from Hamas, where when things begin to collapse internally they bring people out to protest so they can vent their anger at Israel rather than at Hamas. It is a very cynical strategy that takes very little care for human life.”
He added that another major factor influencing Hamas in these decisions is media visibility, which its leaders believe is “their best tool considering the ineffectiveness of their military strategy.”
Waning international patience
Conricus explained that the new narrative of the Abraham Accords and the growing apathy of Arab states toward the Palestinian project is putting pressure on Hamas to reclaim the cause’s central position in Middle Eastern geopolitics, and that this goal is most effectively served by media scandal.
“The Palestinians see that there is waning international patience for their violence and obstructionism, and they know that the international media is a very effective tool to return attention to them. The Gaza border riots are a very effective method of capturing the attention of the international media,” Conricus said.
With so many destabilizing factors converging on Hamas simultaneously, and all of this happening during the period of the Jewish High Holidays, a time known to be especially inflammatory for proponents of radical Islam, there is increasing concern about military escalation with Gaza.
However, experts agree that the ultimate goal of these riots is not large-scale military escalation with Israel. “Hamas does not want a war, they have had previous experience with this type of protest and they think that they can control it,” Nuriel told JNS.
Nevertheless, Hamas is aware of the possibility that these protests will lead to large-scale conflict and is willing to take that risk, Hacohen said.
“They don’t want things to escalate but they are prepared for that possibility and from their perspective if things go beyond their control then it is a sign from God that the gates of heaven are open and then they will go in looking to sacrifice their lives, so they are actively keeping things on the edge,” he said.
There are several active strategies for responding to the border crisis.
Nuriel emphasized the importance of using diplomatic tools to reduce the tension.
“Israel should work through the Americans to resolve the Qatari money problem and press the Egyptians to use the remaining influence that they have in Gaza to calm things down,” he said.
Both Nuriel and Hacohen highlighted the importance of continuously pressuring Hamas by denying it any significant security victories while inflicting economic pain by keeping the border crossings closed.
“This is one of our most powerful tools and if we can drill in the idea that a quiet border means economic stability, while also removing any hope of actually inflicting damage on Israel through these riots, then people will lose motivation quickly,” Hacohen said.
Conricus emphasized the importance of not losing sight of the larger public relations campaign that is being waged against Israel in these riots.
“One of the central goals of Hamas is to influence global opinion; if Israel operates under this working assumption and actively works to counter this goal it will disincentivize this sort of behavior,” he explained.
“Israel must show the world through evidence that these are riots and not peaceful protests and that Hamas is actively throwing people into danger for political goals. If that fact is exposed then the riots will lose a lot of their value for Hamas,” Conricus said.