The Situation to Date:
On Friday, March 30, Hamas launched its six-week-long “March of Return” campaign, which called on Gazans to gather near the border with Israel and to cross/march on the border. Organizers claim the march is intended to highlight the plight of Gaza, the broader Palestinian situation, and the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees.
In the first day of demonstrations, on Friday, March 30, an estimated 30,000 Gazans joined the March. While there were many who protested peacefully, there were large groups of protestors who approached the border fence intending to damage or break through the demarcation line. These violent groups came to the protest with Molotov cocktails, explosives and burning tires, and some carried guns.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), per their rules of engagement, reacted to this activity close to the border, utilizing tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire, killing sixteen and injuring between 700-1000, primarily by tear gas and other riot dispersing weapons. The IDF says that of those killed, at least 11 were identified (some by the IDF, some by Hamas and Islamic Jihad) as active members of Hamas and other terrorist groups and that, as set in their rules of engagement, the IDF fired only on those who were attempting to take action against the border fence or Israeli soldiers.
The second large demonstration, on Friday, April 6, drew a smaller crowd of approximately 20,000. Organizers had called in advance for participants to bring tires to burn along the Gaza border; Israeli officials said this was intended to provide enough smoke to provide cover for those seeking to breach it. Israel officials said that once again scores of protesters attempted to reach the border fence, some throwing explosives and rocks. Nine people were killed and Gazan sources cite 1000 injured.
Demonstrations on the following Fridays, while still violent, saw a further decrease in the number of protestors. Prior to the April 20 protests, which were labeled the “Women’s March of Gaza”, the IDF had dropped leaflets near the Gaza border warning Palestinians to keep away from the border fence with Israel. Despite the warning, Palestinian protestors burned tires and flew flaming kites, including some with swastika drawings, across the Israeli border in an effort to set Israeli fields ablaze. At least four Palestinians were killed, including a 15 year old boy. The IDF announced it was investigating the killing of the Palestinian teen.
Israeli officials have asserted throughout this crisis that the IDF’s actions are defensive in nature, and are being taken to protect Israel’s sovereignty from those seeking to breach it.
The IDF’s use of force and use of live ammunition has engendered criticism by the UN, EU and other international leaders, as well as human rights groups. There has also been condemnation of Hamas’ using civilians and children as a cover for the violent actions of their operatives. On April 19, the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution denouncing Hamas as a terrorist group which uses human shields and calls for Israel’s destruction, while calling for probes into Israel’s use of live ammunition against protestors and for Israel to exercise restraint.
In a statement on April 5, the UN envoy for the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, called on Israel to ensure that demonstrations be “allowed to proceed in a peaceful manner” and warned that “civilians, particularly children, must not be intentionally put in danger or targeted in any way.” The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, raised concerns about Israel’s actions and also called out Hamas’ “use of civilian presence for the purpose of shielding military activities.”
The IDF announced on April 8 that it would launch an investigation into its response to the march. The IDF launched investigations into the April 6 killing of a journalist during the protests, as well as into a video that appeared to show an Israeli sniper shooting a protester while others cheered him on. The video was later determined to be from a previous violent protest in December. The IDF defended the action of the sniper but reprimanded the soldier who filmed the incident and other soldiers who cheered the shooting.
What we can expect going forward?
The Hamas campaign is expected to continue over the next few weeks, with large events on every Friday and other significant dates, including expected opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem in May – with an expected culmination in a huge demonstration/march with a call to “March on Jerusalem” on May 15, the day after the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, commemorated by Palestinians as Nakba (catastrophe) Day. As Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, said after the first Friday demonstration: “Last Friday we stopped at the border. Next time we don’t know where the limit will be.”
What is Hamas’ goal with the March of Return?
Through the mobilization of the March of Return, Hamas is apparently aiming to affirm its relevancy as the leader of the Palestinians and to divert attention from the deep dissatisfaction among the people of Gaza with Hamas’ management of the Gaza Strip.
According to Israeli analysts, the march has two distinct strategies. The first, through the outwardly peaceful, civilian elements of the demonstration, is to raise international awareness of the plight of Gazans and Palestinians. The second, through the militants who are attempting to approach and attack the border line, is to set a precedent by crossing the border, as well as to provoke a strong Israeli response that will garner headlines and support for their efforts.
The people of Gaza, who since 2007 have been governed by Hamas, have long suffered from poverty, lack of social services, and the breakdown of infrastructure supplying electricity, water and managing sewage. This situation has grown worse with the combination of Hamas’ social and religious repression and mismanagement, Israel’s security blockade, the effective blockade by Egypt, and recent moves by the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority which, in an intensification of its rivalry with Hamas, has limited the flow of funds and payments to Gaza. There are strong indications that Gazans have grown fed up with Hamas’ leadership.
Hamas has been designated by both the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization. Hamas calls for the eradication of the State of Israel and is avowedly opposed to peace negotiations.
Hamas has a long record of diverting attention from domestic problems to the conflict with Israel. This was a driving force of the Israel-Hamas conflicts in 2008, 2012 and 2014. Hamas’ usual mode of attack – rocket fire and infiltration into Israel through tunnels – has been stymied by Israeli defensive measures.
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