Rayhan Ahmed Topader:
For more than six months, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have protested along the fence with Israel demanding their right to return to the homes and land their families were expelled from 70 years ago.The Great March of Return rallies culminated on May 15 to mark what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or Catastrophe a reference to the forced removal of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and villages to clear the way for Israel’s establishment in 1948. Since the protests began on March 30, Israeli forces have killed at least 210 Palestinians in the besieged coastal enclave and wounded more than 18,000 people, according to health officials in Gaza. Palestinians protest next to the border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip, as it is seen from its Israeli side March 30, 2019 Both Hamas and Israel have achieved their strategic goals in Gaza over the last year.The one-year anniversary of the March of Return protests began with weather that had the consistency of soup. Dust clogged the air, and it threatened to rain. Nevertheless, the tens of thousands of Palestinian protesters came anyway, driving up to five points along the Gaza security fence to protest and riot. Israel has become used to this over the last year. While both Israel and Hamas the main organizer of the protests have altered their tactics, Hamas’s overall strategy has remained the same: to keep the pressure up, looking to demonstrate its relevance after 12 years of failed rule in Gaza.
Hamas wants concessions. It wants attention. And it wants martyrs but not too many. This is the horrid calculus behind the squaring off along the fence. Israel’s strategy is also clear: to stop any protesters or rioters from crossing the border, and to prevent the protests from serving as a cover for laying IEDs or sniper fire, or worse. So far, both Israel and Hamas have been successful in their respective strategies While Hamas boasted last year that these marches would lead to the return, and that Palestinians would be celebrating the conquest of Jerusalem, obviously they know this is impossible. Yahya Sinwar, today the head of Hamas in Gaza having taken over from Ismail Haniyeh in February 2017, spent 22 years in Israeli prisons. Born in Khan Yunis in 1962, he knows exactly what he is up against. When he was a young man in the 1980s, Gazans regularly commuted to jobs in Israel while Israelis went to the coastal enclave to shop or for car repairs. Then the border area was relaxed, exactly the opposite of today. Sinwar was still in prison during Israel’s unilateral disengagement in 2005, and was repatriated to Gaza six years later as a result of the 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange. The Gaza he returned to was ringed with walls and fences, and blockaded on the Mediterranean by the Israeli Navy. By 2011, Hamas was equipped with long-range rockets and was building better ones, benefiting from smuggling via Sinai. Sinwar has watched as Israel developed technological responses to the challenge of rockets and attack tunnels.
The protests are a low-tech and asymmetric innovation by Hamas to the realization that their technology cannot defeat Israel. Instead, Hamas is promoting the concept of existing is resisting, and samud, or steadfastness. That Hamas has been able to sustain the mass protest for a year initially every Friday and then on Tuesdays and also at night is a singular accomplishment among Palestinian factions. Yes, the First and Second Intifadas were sustained. But the Gaza protests are unique though they are rarely portrayed as such in the media because Gaza has become less interesting amid the other crises of the region While the ongoing protests are not a global cause célèbre, it’s hard to gauge their importance for ordinary Gazans. Rare is the clan that hasn’t suffered a family member killed or wounded, many by live ammunition While some 260 dead may seem like a relatively small price for a year-long protest, humanitarian medical NGOs working in Gaza have described their difficulty treating the large numbers of the wounded. On the Israeli side, Hamas’s relative success can be seen in the burned fields and forests, and the need to constantly close portions of the border area as tensions escalate. The success can also be seen in shifting Jerusalem’s attention to the Gaza issue every few weeks when the Israeli government has said it wants to concentrate on the Iranian threat in Syria.
This is no small accomplishment. Yet Israel has been smart enough so far not to let herself be dragged into a fourth Gaza war. The number of rockets fired from Gaza recently would have resulted in a war years ago. Before 2009 or 2012 or 2014, the trickle of rockets, mortars and other aggression led to conflict. In 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outmaneuvered his political cohorts to prevent a conflict. Israel understands there are diminishing returns in fighting in Gaza. Israel gains nothing. Hamas potentially can gain propaganda points. And in the end, a ceasefire will likely result rather than regime change. That doesn’t mean that Israel is losing along the border. In fact, Israel has shown through its constantly evolving military defense technology just how she can outsmart Hamas. Using the latest sensors, electro-optical imaging, drones and an array of other gadgets, Israel uses its lethal precision weapons only as a last resort. Despite the complaints of human rights groups or the United Nations which might argue that Israel has used excessive force, or that sniper fire should never be used against violent riots it appears Jerusalem has successfully ridden the learning curve of this conflict. Unlike in the past, the cordon around the Gaza Strip prevented me and other journalists from driving along back roads and dirt tracks to get closer to the clashes.The IDF prefers that the media come to one lookout near Nahal Oz to watch the conflict unfold.
From the dusty fields in the south near Kerem Shalom, surrounded by military vehicles, I heard flash bangs and shouting, along with ambulance sirens screaming from the Palestinian side. A giant Palestinian flag fluttered. Further north near Kissufim, the same story unfolded. Here too I heard the IDF’s significant military presence, and the rings of Border Police vehicles and cordons meant to distance civilians from the border. Iron Dome batteries have also been deployed, and soldiers using Skylark drones were positioning their metal birds in a field. The relative quiet along the border is a testament to the IDF’s restraint. But the need to secure the border and the constant alert in border communities is testament to what the Gazans have done. Palestinians have been taking part in protests along the border since 30 March 2018 as part of a campaign dubbed “the Great March of Return.Palestinian health officials say thousands of protesters have been hit by live rounds. The Israeli government designates Hamas a terrorist group which it says has been seeking to use the protests as a cover to cross into its territory and carry out attacks. It deployed soldiers along the border fence, who it said were ordered to resort to live fire only when absolutely necessary and when there was an imminent threat.A commission of inquiry was set up by the UN Human Rights Council.
Thirty-five of the 189 Palestinian fatalities were children, three were clearly marked paramedics and two were clearly marked journalists, the commission found. The inquiry found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers had shot at children, medics and journalists , even though they were clearly recognisable as such.The BBC’s Paul Adams on the issues at the root of the conflict in Gaza.Four Israeli soldiers were injured at the demonstrations. One Israeli soldier was killed on a protest day but outside the protest sites, the commission said.Unless undertaken lawfully in self-defence, intentionally shooting a civilian not directly participating in hostilities is a war crime. Israel’s acting foreign minister said it rejected the findings outright.The Human Rights Council’s Theatre of the Absurd has once again produced a report that is hostile, mendacious and biased against Israel,” Israel Katz said .No-one can deny Israel the right to self-defence and the obligation to protect its citizens and its borders against violent attacks.
Writer and Columnist