Analysis: Clashes at the Gaza border leave sixteen Palestinians dead

Sixteen Palestinians – eleven of whom were known members of terror organisations – died during clashes on the border between Gaza and Israel on Friday.

The clashes took place in the context of a series of protests at the Gaza border, calling for the fulfilment of the Palestinian ‘right of return’. Friday’s events were the beginning of a series of protests over the next six weeks entitled the “March of Return” which is due to conclude in mid-May on “Nakba Day”, when Palestinians traditionally mourn the establishment of the state of Israel.

Tensions surrounding this year’s events are especially high, given that Israelis will this year celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state. Additionally, May is also expected to see the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem following Donald Trump’s decision last December to recognise the city as the capital of Israel.

The protests at six points along the border fence between Israel and Gaza were highly organised. Local committees were appointed in advance to mobilise mass support, with buses laid on to pick up demonstrators from outside mosques throughout the Strip and a media centre established on the Palestinian side of the Erez crossing.

In all, some 30,000 people are estimated to have participated; one of the largest public demonstrations in Gaza or the West Bank in the last decade.

The marches were orchestrated by a committee of twenty grassroots organisers, who pledged a non-violent protest. One organiser said “We want to send a message that we want to live in peace — with the Israelis. We’re against stone throwing or even burning tires.”

In large parts, it was. Most of the participants, reported Israeli media, stayed several hundred feet away from the security fence, with people dancing and families taking part in barbeques. As Haaretz reported, “The large majority of the nearly 30,000 Palestinian protesters was groups of families who remained around 500 meters from the fence, around the tents that had been pitched on high ground, out of harm’s way.”

However, the protests had an extra, more menacing element to them: the presence of terrorist groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Khaled al-Batash, a senior PIJ figure, was, for instance, chairman of “the supreme national authority of the return march”. Last Monday, the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council held an ad hoc meeting entitled “Yes to the right to return … No to Trump’s decision” in a tent close to the border as part of a drive to promote and legitimise the planned demonstrations.

This added to the “complex nature of the protest – part legitimate, part nefarious”, argued one Israeli commentator.

It was the presence of these terror groups that led to the outbreak of violence at the border itself. A substantial minority of protestors, mostly younger men, came far closer to the security fence, where they lit fires and used slingshots to fire rocks at Israeli troops on the other side. A smaller number came up to the fence itself from where they threw Molotov cocktails and burning tyres.

It was at this point, with the threat of a border breach, that Israeli rules of engagement allowed for live sniper fire to be used. Eleven of the sixteen men killed have since been identified as members of Hamas’ military wing or Islamic Jihad, with Hamas celebrating their ‘martyrdom’ on social media and releasing photos of those members of its military wing shot by the IDF dressed in combat fatigues. Their deaths at the border have brought international calls for restraint by Israel combined with accusations that Hamas cynically engineered a confrontation in order to provoke bloodshed.

The IDF has provided evidence of the security threat these men posed. Two of the dead men, for instance, were shown on newly released video footage carrying AK-47 assault rifles and hand grenades. They were shot after they opened fire on Israeli soldiers and attempted to breach the security fence in the northern Gaza Strip. The IDF also documented three attempts to place improvised explosive devices along the fence and five attempts to break through the fence with wire cutters. It noted Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh’s threat that “we will cut the fence and go to Jerusalem”.

Some of the language adopted by Hamas’ leader during speeches on Friday also appeared designed to incite violence. Yahya Sinwar, the terror group’s leader in Gaza, adopted a particularly blood-curdling tone when he addressed protesters at a rally close to the border. “The March of Return will continue … until we remove this transient border,” he declared, vowing that the people of Gaza will “eat the livers of those besieging” them.

Israel has also accused Hamas of deliberately attempting to put women and children in harm’s way. The IDF claimed, for instance, that a 7-year-old girl was sent towards the security fence during Friday’s protests. Israeli soldiers managed to meet the girl at the border and arrange for her to be returned to her parents.

While admitting that it was “possible there were some mistakes”, the IDF has stressed that its rules of engagement allow it to only use live fire against those who represent a direct threat to either Israeli soldiers or the security fence.

The IDF’s actions on Friday have not gone unchallenged in Israel. Hundreds of Israelis protested outside of the Likud party’s Tel Aviv headquarters. Giora Eiland, the former head of IDF Strategic Planning and of the National Security Council, also warned that the IDF may have played into Hamas’ hands.

“I think Hamas has found a formula that serves it from all directions. It’s tried below ground and above ground and on the ground. It knows terrorism won’t give it legitimacy. Now it has fashioned a situation in which the [Gaza] masses, instead of blaming it for poverty, channel all their anger against Israel. If we can’t find a way to stop deaths on the other side, it will get worse,” he told the Times of Israel in an interview.

Hamas’ conduct has also been criticized by Palestinians for violating the otherwise peaceful conduct of the protests. “Hamas has done damage to the Palestinian account that states that the demonstrators were peaceful and nonviolent,” suggested one journalist. Another Palestinian political analyst, Fahmi Sharab, said “We need to distance ourselves from military manifestations,” and that it was wrong for Hamas fighters to approach the security fence because many of them were on Israel’s list of wanted terrorists.  Tawfik Abu Khoussa, a senior Fatah operative, said Hamas actions has damaged the Palestinian nonviolent and popular campaign, and Gazans interviewed on Israeli radio said “We feel that Israel, Abbas and Hamas are all ganging together to screw over the people of Gaza.”

Israel’s border with Gaza was not always so militarised. Before the strip fell into the hands of Hamas, thousands of Palestinians crossed the border every day to work in kibbutzim in the Israeli south. However after the terror group seized control of the strip in a violent coup in 2007, Hamas has sought to use border crossings – either on land or by tunnel – to kidnap or kill Israeli civilians. One such tunnel uncovered in 2013 led to a Kibbutz kindergarten. Israel’s fear of these terrorist infiltrations led to the closure of the border.

It is a threat that is ever present. Prior to last Friday’s demonstration, there were a series of attempts by Palestinians to breach the security fence. There were four such incidents during the course of last week. On one of those occasions, three armed Gazans broke through the border fence and managed to get 20km inside Israel before they were apprehended.

Hamas has frequently been found to act in a way designed to maximise Palestinian civilian casualties, knowing that this will bring international condemnation of Israel. It has, for instance, stored rockets beneath or inside schools and mosques, dug terror tunnels into Israel from beneath homes and civilian buildings, and fired mortars from residential areas. In June 2017, the Red Crescent revealed that, during the 2014 Gaza war, Hamas deliberately fired rockets from a position in front of a field hospital. The subsequent Israeli response prevented the Red Crescent from distributing vital humanitarian aid. As the Muslim charity’s secretary-general, Mohamed Ateeq Al-Falahi, put it: “What hurts is that the betrayal came from our own people … This shows [Hamas’] wicked intentions and how they sacrificed us. They always claim the enemy targets humanitarian envoys, but the betrayal came from them.”

Further violence in the weeks to come will do nothing to advance the cause of peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. That, however, has never been Hamas’ goal. Sinwar’s reference to the “transient border” between Israel and Gaza, and his warning that “our people can’t give up one inch of the land of Palestine” serves as a reminder of the terror group’s ongoing rejectionist approach towards any form of peace process. Sinwar reiterated that point on Sunday, when he returned again to the Gaza border for a rally and declared: “We are here to remind that there is no peace with the enemy and any attempt or plan will not compel us to make peace with them.”

It is important, too, not to lose sight of the goal of the March of Return. The “right to return” is a perennial Palestinian demand in negotiations and sank the 2000 effort by Bill Clinton to conclude a deal between the two sides. The Palestinians assert this right not only for Palestinians who left or were forced out of Israel in 1948 — a figure estimated in the low tens of thousands — but also for their descendants, who number in the millions. The right to return is, moreover, asserted not simply for the West Bank and Gaza but Israeli territory within the 1967 lines.

Recognising that such a demand would effectively end the Jewish character of the state of Israel, Israel’s position has generally been that Palestinian refugees and their descendants would become citizens of a Palestinian state at the culmination of the peace process, just as Jews who fled or were forced out of Middle Eastern countries after 1948 by hostile governments became citizens of Israel.