Palestinian protesters during clashes with Israeli forces at the Gaza border on May 11, 2018. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90
Palestinian protesters during clashes with Israeli forces at the Gaza border on May 11, 2018. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90
feature

Analysis

On the fence: Scrutinizing the state of continued Gaza border riots

Hamas’s plan to force Israel to ease the Gaza blockade has failed, but ‎the deadly border riots have trained the international spotlight back ‎on the enclave while Israeli public diplomacy faltered • The next ‎security challenge is the holy month of Ramadan.‎

The tense events of the past week on the Israel-Gaza Strip border did ‎not go quite as planned, but overall, Israel can look back at them with ‎relative satisfaction. ‎

Hamas failed to meet almost all of the objectives it set for itself for the ‎volatile week that comprised the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem‎and the “Nakba Day” march, marking the “catastrophe” of ‎Palestinian ‎‎‎displacement during Israel’s 1948 War of ‎‎‎Independence. The masses ‎did not rush the Israeli border; no Israeli casualties were noted among ‎soldiers or civilians and none fell prey to the terrorist group’s ‎abduction plots; Palestinians across the West Bank did not stage mass ‎riots in solidarity with Gaza; the Arab world remained mostly ‎indifferent to the images from the border; Palestinian Authority ‎leader Mahmoud Abbas held his ground with respect to the stalled ‎Fatah-Hamas talks; and nothing was accomplished with regard to ‎resolving the dire issues plaguing the coastal enclave.‎

Hamas’s failure ran even deeper, because it repeatedly failed to draw ‎the masses into the fray on the border. On Monday, 40,000 ‎Palestinians arrived at the security fence to protest the relocation of ‎American embassy to Jerusalem, which is nothing to sneeze at and certainly a ‎challenge for the military, but still short of the 100,000 goal the ‎terrorist group was boasting it could deliver to the border. Hamas’s ‎plan to stage a million-man march the next day on May 15 (“Nakba Day”) ‎fizzled quickly as only a few thousand protesters showed up and ‎made sure to keep a reasonable distance from the border.‎

But the Israeli accomplishment is incomplete, not only because ‎Hamas has been left battered and bruised and therefore dangerous and ‎bloodthirsty. The Israel Defense Forces met its primary objective, namely to prevent a ‎mass breach of the border and terrorist attacks in the Gaza sector, but ‎it failed to meet its two secondary objectives: minimizing Palestinian ‎casualties and preventing Gaza from making headlines worldwide. ‎

The military says the issue of casualties was unavoidable, as the ‎demonstrations were violent, and terrorists used them to try to carry ‎out attacks. The fact that, by Hamas’s own admission, 50 of the 60 ‎Palestinians who were killed were its operatives, indicates that the ‎Israeli troops used their discretion and operated selectively, using ‎standard crowd control measures such as water cannons, tear gas and ‎rubber bullets before resorting to live fire. ‎

But even defense officials admit that the high number of casualties ‎was hard to swallow and certainly difficult to explain—an area in ‎which Israel repeatedly fails, even when on paper it has a clear-cut ‎case. ‎

It is unclear why Israeli public diplomacy fell asleep at the wheel. ‎Hamas made no secret of the nature and objectives of its “March of ‎Return” campaign and Israel had weeks of weekly riots to prepare an ‎organized campaign that would explain that no other country in the ‎world would tolerate such an attempt to breach its territory.‎

On the ground, as always, the system was reactive instead of ‎proactive and methodical, and found it difficult to present an ‎alternative to the international community’s natural instinct of ‎supporting the weaker party, certainly given the images coming out of ‎Gaza. As usual, only U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley came ‎to Israel’s defense, while our own leaders expressed their frustration ‎in the form of a diplomatic squabble with Turkish President Recep ‎Tayyip Erdogan. ‎

Until the next news cycle . . . ‎

It is doubtful that the global interest in Gaza will last very long. ‎Between Saturday’s royal wedding in London and the fast-paced ‎dynamics of the international news cycle, by next week public opinion ‎will be focused elsewhere. But Gaza will remain where it is, stuck in ‎Israel’s throat, with no solution in sight. ‎

The concern of a rapid escalation in the south saw senior political and ‎defense officials lock horns over how close Gaza really is to ‎imploding. The defense establishment has been warning about this ‎scenario for a long time, claiming that total chaos is merely “a few ‎months, maybe a year” away. The enclave’s dilapidated infrastructure ‎cannot hold out for much longer, its 2 million residents have been ‎pushed to the brink too many times and no one knows what will ‎happen when their rage boils over. ‎

Hamas, which is well-aware of the fact that it is running out of time, ‎had hoped the border riots would help it force gestures out of ‎someone—Israel, Abbas, the Arab world or the international ‎community—that could help it save the day, but that did not happen.‎

This has left Gaza’s rulers with five options: The first is that Abbas ‎drops one of his conditions for the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, ‎preferably the demand that Hamas disarms; the second is that Hamas ‎decides to compromise and disarm, ostensibly or otherwise; the third ‎is that Hamas and Israel reach some sort of long-term agreement that ‎would allow the rehabilitation of Gaza in exchange for a cessation of ‎terrorist activity; the forth is that the weekly border riots continue, and ‎the fifth is that Hamas, despite statements to the contrary, will ‎provoke a war with Israel to take the target off its own back. ‎

As things stand, Hamas is likely to opt for a prolonged riot campaign, ‎but in a more restraint manner. Egypt, and to some extent Qatar, ‎which shuttled between Israel and the terrorist group this week in an ‎effort to defuse tensions, was very clear in its demands of Hamas, ‎especially over concerns that the violence will eventually spread to its ‎shared border with Gaza. ‎

Cairo excoriated Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh over the senseless ‎deaths on the border, but it was also tough on Israel, demanding that ‎it reopen the Kerem Shalom goods crossing that was shuttered on ‎Sunday after Palestinian rioters again vandalized their side of it, ‎causing over $9 million in damages. ‎

Familiar dynamics, unpredictable results ‎

The real test, as always will be on the ground. Recent machine-gun ‎fire at the southern city of Sderot shows that Hamas may have ‎released some of its restraint. His total control over the manner in ‎which the border riots rage attests to its iron grip on Gaza and with it ‎to the fact that it is responsible for all that transpires there. That is ‎why the IDF carried out an unusually large strike on Hamas posts in ‎the enclave in the early hours of Thursday morning, signaling that ‎Israel will not tolerate sporadic terrorist fire, even if it means a ‎security escalation in the south.‎

It is likely that Hamas got the message. The simmering domestic ‎unrest in Gaza has Hamas concerned for its political survival and ‎recent Israeli threats are cause for Hamas leaders to fear for their ‎lives. ‎

But deterrence naturally erodes over time, and there is no shortage of ‎triggers that could spark a conflagration on the ground at almost any ‎moment. ‎

The holy Muslim month of Ramadan is volatile by nature and the ‎fiery sermons expected in the mosques this Friday over the high ‎number of casualties earlier this week will only fuel the flames. ‎

This all but guarantees security forces will remain on high alert in the ‎Gaza sector and in Judea and Samaria, which may have remained ‎calm this week, but where the constant friction between Israelis and ‎Palestinians, along with the proximity to Israeli cities, creates a ‎constant potential for terrorist attacks.‎

No Ramadan in the past nine years has been terrorism-free in Judea ‎and Samaria, and it takes a special kind of optimism to believe this ‎year will be any different. Palestinians in the West Bank are not eager ‎to riot—this year’s “Nakba Day” in the West Bank was the calmest in ‎years—but all it would take is a few frustrated youths with a knife, a ‎car or a gun to ignite the area. This will pose a challenge for the IDF, ‎as it will try to provide Israel with full security in a complex reality in ‎all sectors‏.‏

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