A year reporting on the Great Return March

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Clashes along the Gaza border (Seth J. Frantzman)

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

For a year Hamas and other Palestinian groups in Gaza kept a major protest movement along the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel. Around 260 Palestinians were killed and thousands injured. I reported on the clashes from the beginning.

The photos and videos in this report are all mine and unless otherwise mentioned these reports appeared at The Jerusalem Post in some form.  

Let’s start at the end. Here is what I think they accomplished:

The ‘existing is resisting march is working’

March 30, 2019

In The Jerusalem Post

On the one year anniversary of the Great Return March the morning began with weather that had the consistency of soup. Dust clogged the air. It threatened to rain. However 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. Both Israel and Hamas, the main organizer of the protests, have altered their tactics a bit, but the overall strategy is the same. Hamas wants to keep the pressure up. They want to maintain relevancy after twelve years of largely failed rule in Gaza. They want concessions. They want attention. And they want martyrs. But not too many martyrs. This is the horrid calculus behind the squaring off along the fence. Israel’s strategy is also clear. No protesters or violent rioters must cross and the protests must not become a cover for attacks, such as laying IEDs or sniper fire, or worse.

So far both Israel and Hamas have been successful in their strategy. While Hamas boasted last year that these marches were “return,” and that Palestinians would be celebrating the conquest of Jerusalem, obviously they know this is not possible. Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, served 22 years in an Israeli prison. He is from Gaza, born in Khan Yunis in 1962. He knows exactly what he is up against. When he was younger in the 1980s Palestinians from Gaza would go to Israel and work and Israelis would go to Gaza. Before the border area was relaxed and much different than it is now. Sinwar was still in prison during the Disengagement, returning to Gaza in 2011 during a prisoner exchange. The Gaza he returned to was ringed with walls and fences and a sea blockade. Yet at that time Hamas had long range rockets and was building better ones, benefiting from smuggling via Sinai. Sinwar has watched as Israel met the rocket challenge and the tunnel challenge.

The protests are an innovation by Hamas. A realization of the concept of “existing is resisting” and samud or “steadfastness.” That Hamas was able to maintain the protesters for a year, every Friday and then on Tuesdays and also at night, was a major accomplishment. No other Palestinian movement has ever been able to accomplish something like that for a year, in terms of sustained and regularized mass protests. Yes, the First and Second Intifada were sustained. But the Gaza protests are something unique. They are often not seen that way in media, because Gaza has becomes less interesting amid the other crises of the region, and also because media coverage is a bit curtailed. It’s not the First Intifada or Second Intifada in that respect. The Gaza protesters are not a global cause celebre.

It’s hard to judge how important the protests are for ordinary Gazans. In terms of dead and wounded there have been thousands of wounded, many shot with live ammunition, and around 260 killed. Humanitarian medical NGOs that work in Gaza have described difficult treating the large numbers of people.

On the Israeli side the relative success of Hamas can be seen in the burned fields and the need to constantly close portions of the border area as tesions escalate. The success can also be seen in shifting Jerusalem’s attention to the Gaza issue every few weeks when Jerusalem has said it wants to concentrate on the Iranian threat in Syria. This is no small accomplishment. TO shift Israeli policy and yet Israel has been smart enough so far not to be dragged into a war. The number of rockets fired from Gaza 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. A ceasefire will result.

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 it can outsmart Hamas. Using the latest sensors, electro-optical imaging, drones, and a whole coterie of other gadgets Israel is able to use 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.

I went down on Saturday to see the clashes unfold.  In general the Gaza Strip area was cordoned off so that one could not drive along backroads and dirt tracks to go see the clashes. The IDF asks journalists to come to one location near Nahal Oz where one can see the conflict unfold.  In the south of the Gaza Strip near Kerem Shalom the fields were awash with dust. In the background flash bangs and shouting could be heard, along with ambulances on the Palestine side. A giant Palestinian flag fluttered. Military vehicles plied the border.

Further north near Kissufim and other areas, the same story unfolded. One could also see the significant military presence, the layers of military police, vehicles and cordons meant to keep civilians from getting close to the border. Iron Dome batters had also been deployed, and soldiers using Skylark drones positioned their winged metal birds in a field.

The relative quiet along the border is a testament to the IDF’s efforts. But the need to secure the border, and the constant alert in border communities is testament to what the Gazans have done. No one wants this situation to continue forever. For now, it appears it will.

A bit of memories from the 2014 war, written April 1, 2018

At the gates of Gaza

Memories from the 2014 war

On the second evening of Operation Protective Edge a group of Hamas naval commandos crossed from Gaza into Israel, landing on a beach near Kibbutz Zikim. I was driving to the border of the Gaza Strip that afternoon and passed next to the Kibbutz without knowing how serious a security incident was unfolding. Everything seemed calm. Police and soldiers eventually cordoned off the road towards the kibbutz. A truck pulling an armored personnel carrier sat at a gas station. Only later would we see the videos of the Hamas members in the dunes, being hunted down by a tank and drones.

The war in Gaza unfolded in front of our eyes from a small hillock in Sderot. The town that was once the target of Hamas Qassams and mortars became the place to go to watch the airstrikes in Gaza. Because Hamas had retooled their rocket arsenal to strike deep into Israel, Sderot was mostly passed over in the war. We sat on couches and smoked and looked over Beit Hanoun in Gaza. Hamas usually fired their rocket volleys towards dusk and I desperately wanted to photograph the rockets lifting off. The second night of war some shelling from Hamas lit trees on fire in Kibbutz Nir Am. We watched the fires and the IDF flares hanging in the air.

I spent almost everyday on the Gaza border, getting up early in Jerusalem and driving down usually, or taking a bus or hitching rides. We would usually drive into Sderot and ascend the hillock and see what was happening. Then we’d go over to kibbutz Mefalsim and Kfar Aza, around 1,000 meters from the Gaza border. From there one could see the IDF drones, the helicopters, flares, airstrikes. And we were supposed to be worried about snipers and mortars. During the drive back and forth there was frequently a “red alert” sound and it would be blared on the radio with a list of places threatened by the incoming rockets. There was also some bulletin about “what to do in your car if the rocket is over your area.” Supposedly we were supposed to pull off to the side of the road and seek shelter. But the whole process seemed ridiculous. It’s more dangerous to swerve off the road and jump out and take shelter, than to just keep driving. Nevertheless we could often see the Iron Dome puffs of smoke which resulted from interceptions.

By July 12, the IDF had deployed flocks of armored vehicles to the border of Gaza. In one melon field a tank regiment was parked and I thought I was a bit funny that the treads had churned up the ripened melons. All around Gaza armored vehicles flocked to staging areas, preparing for a ground incursion. I snapped my best photo of the war when we were driving toward Kisufum and a 65-ton Merkava tank was driving parallel to us in the sand next to the road, churning up a massive duststorm. I remember sticking my camera out the window and snapping away dozens of shots, hoping one would come out. One of them did, showing all the fierce, massive, strength of a tank bearing down on us.

Six days after the incursion finally began on July 17, I spent a day with IDF paratrooper reservists who had been given a day of relaxation at a pool in Netivot. Their guns were stacked in a square or leaning against a wall, and the men were playing and singing. It was one of those strange scenes in war where the everyday normalcy of life can take place with the reverberations of artillery in the background and the knowledge that tomorrow one may be searching Gaza for tunnels, but today will be normal.

For the most part the 2014 war seems too much forgotten today. 67 IDF soldiers were killed and hundreds wounded. Dozens of Israeli civilians were wounded and six killed. More than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, many of them civilians.

The ability to keep the war out of sight and out of mind took place even when the war was still going on. Covering the war became a routine. The success of Iron Dome to intersect rockets, even those fired at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, led to complacency. People sat in cafes and watched the interceptions. But the war continued. In the last week of July I made a final trip to the border. We spent a day with some armored corps soldiers. A group of volunteers had come down to give out food, popsicles and some religious guys from Chabad brought tefillin for the soldiers to wrap. We had to tramp into a dusty field to find the soldiers, caked in the tan dirt tossed up by the vehicles. We sat and joked with the men in their APC. I snapped some photos. Birds were flying over the field and I turned my lens away from Gaza. The birds had become more poignant a site than the tanks, the guns, and the machinery of war. Eventually we would all go home, the young men, the reservists, the volunteers, the journalists, the civilians who had come to watch. The fields would be plowed again. When you go to Sderot today the hillock where journalists and people gathered and sat on old couches have been bulldozed to make a new subdivision. The bunkers for people to hide from rocket fire are still there.

April 2, 2018

The Gaza ‘Great March of Return’ momentarily put Palestinians back on world stage

For several days the ‘Great March of Return’ succeeded in putting the Palestinian struggle back at the center stage of world concern. With fifteen killed and more than 1,000 wounded out of 17,000 protesters who sought to march on Israel’s Gaza border Friday, the activists made headlines around the world. But they paid a heavy price in death and wounded.

The full reverberations of the effort is no yet known and it is not clear if the activists, many of them connected to the Hamas movement, can sustain the momentum. They claim it was the start of six weeks of protests but images published on Palestinian Quds Network media Monday showed one of the large protest camps already being cleaned up near Khan Yunis.

A look at some of the global coverage gives an indication of how the march was reported. The Washington Post ran several story, one analysis piece claimed that “for Israel there’s little political cost to killing Palestinians.” The New York Times highlighted how the battle was waged on social media and that the violence was fading away. CNN’s coverage, with Ian Lee reporting from Gaza, also sought to highlight how this was like “so many battles of yesteryear.”

In the UK the Guardian also ran three stories about the protests, focusing on the 773 Palestinians allegedly shot with “live ammunition” and pondering if the march would lead to a wider conflict. The Telegraph focused on whether one of the protesters who was wounded was a “Hamas fighter or unarmed protester” and also looked at whether there would be inquiry into the deaths. In Germany Deutche Welle concentrated on UN calls for restraint while Russia Today in Moscow also highlighted the UN aspect.

It’s hard to gauge but it appears the overall coverage was not particularly critical of Israel. There was a sense of routine and almost boredom about it. This isn’t because other Middle Eastern stories eclipsed the Friday march and killings. The Egyptian presidential election was also greeted with a snooze internationally. Momentous events in Syria with rebels being evacuated from areas they held near Damascus after six years was greeted with a shrug. ISIS attacks in Iraq? Not of interest. In Kashmir twenty were killed in battles between the Indian security forces and extremists.

The Palestinian mass march was supposed to highlight several issues. The main idea is to draw attention to the “right of return” as Palestinians approach seventy years since the “Nakba,” the catastrophe that many see as the founding of Israel in 1948. Hamas also wants to use the march to remain relevant. However it cleverly sought to distance itself from overt participation so that the march would seem like a populist event. The Gaza Strip has real population pressures with almost 2 million residents living in a small area of land under a kind of blockade by Israel and Egypt. The Hamas movement was unsuccessful at galvanizing any kind of march in the West Bank, so it’s success was only in Gaza. The feeling in media coverage is that most people realize there will never be a “return” and that legitimizing this demand is not worthwhile. In this the march was not successful at really focusing any light on the problems in Gaza or what people demand.

The Palestinians also had difficulty pushing the narrative that the march was peaceful. Although activists said that they were against stone throwing, tire burning and other violence, Israel seems to have at least encouraged coverage to cast doubt on whether the protest was peaceful.

That the Gaza protests, so far, did not result in a larger conflagration is evidence of the continued divisions in Palestinian society; between Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, Israel and the Palestinian diaspora. As with clashes in the last year, such as the metal detectors in Jerusalem or the US embassy move, the Gaza march shows that although the Palestinian cause can gain attention it doesn’t appear to gain the traction it once did in the 1990s and early 2000s.

April 6, 2018

Palestinians killed during second Friday of mass protests and riots along Gaza border

IDF: Lower numbers participated than last week, we hold Hamas responsible for any act of aggression that comes from Gaza

Thousands of Palestinians gathered along the Gaza border on Friday for the second week of protests that they have called the “Great Return March.” Amid warnings from Israel and the US to stay at least 500 meters from the border, Palestinians brought masses of tires to burn to shield their movements from the IDF.

By ten in the morning fires and black smoke were already lit and billowing at two places in the northern Gaz Strip near the town of Beit Hanoun. Hundreds of Palestinians could be seen on a road leading to the border, and food trucks and camping equipment festooned the road. Most of the Palestinians appeared to be onlookers. At a berm constructed by the IDF along the border the army watched the burning tires and Palestinians.

Palestinian media reported that dozens of ambulances had deployed a “field hospital” near Bureij refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip. In Khan Yunis hundreds of men with tires were filmed. Shehab media’s twitter account claimed a Palestinian was wounded in Jabalia in the northern part of the Gaza Strip.

Closer to Gaza City the protesters achieved what they wanted around two in the afternoon when the winds shifted slightly and blew the smoke toward IDF positions. The army fired tear gas to keep some of the protesters back who had come closer to the fence. One young man could be seen on a mound of earth near the border waving a Palestinian flag before he was engulfed in the thick fumes. Another man threw a Molotov cocktail at the fence. Stun grenades and sniper fire could be heard. Israeli fire crews were deployed to try to spray water across the fence at the fires. A giant fan was also brought up to blow the smoke away, but neither were effective.

Palestinians on loud speakers chanted religious slogans and someone could be heard using a loudspeaker to give out gas masks and also sell food. The combination of the three symbolized the larger protest movement. Most of the thousands who came appeared to be onlookers, not interested in approaching the fence. In a major difference from last Friday, both the Palestinians and the IDF appeared to hold back. Last Friday 17 were killed.

Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan came to see the protests. “One thing people don’t appreciate if they haven’t seen it is that this is not a peaceful demonstration,” he said. Despite Hamas’s claims, he said that seeing the clashes close up revealed the reality. “This is a deliberate and specific intent by terrorist organizations to penetrate the state of Israel and kill civilians and the IDF has no option except to use lethal force to stop such a dangerous threat.”

Lt. Col Jonathan Conricus, the International Spokesman and head of social media of the IDF, emphasized that ten of the Palestinians killed last week were active Hamas members. Speaking to media assembled near Nahal Oz across from Gaza City, he said the demonstrations were not peaceful and their sole intention was to use the riots as cover to threaten Israeli communities along the border. “We hold Hamas responsible for any act of aggression that comes from Gaza,” he asserted. He also said that demonstrations were smaller than the week before.

According to a Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, 150 had been injured by mid-day. The spokesman said the number had climbed to 252 by mid-afternoon and 780 by nightfall. The Palestinian Red Crescent said that 446 had been injured, of which 218 had been hit by live fire. Seven Palestinians were reported killed according to Gaza-based sources.

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar said that the people of Gaza had shown that they were dedicated to the “right of return…inevitably we will return. With God’s will, it will be in the near future.” He also claimed that despite Israel’s “siege” of Gaza the local people had not turned against Hamas, and the turnout for the demonstrations was proof.

The protests continue to cause concern internationally. Jason Greenblatt, US President Donald Trump’s Special Representative for International Negotiations focusing on Israel and the Palestinians, urged Palestinian protesters to remain peaceful. The EU’s office in Israel called for “utmost restraint” on both sides and encouraged Israel to “respect right to peaceful protest.” The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has also urged on Thursday for “all parties to refrain from any act that could lead to further violence or place civilians, especially children, in harms way.

Overall the demonstrations on Friday were not only smaller than the week before but saw a major reduction in clashes with the IDF. It appears many of the protesters heeded calls to remain several hundred meters from the fence. The threat to burn thousands of tired to blacken the sky also did not materialize. Instead there were five localized protests and the smoke generally was not large enough to obscure protesters who sought to get to the fence.

April 7, 2018

Waiting for Godot next to Gaza

Despite boasts, Gaza protests appear to have failed to gain traction amid uncertainty and disunity among Palestinians

Three groups of people stayed up wondering what Friday’s Gaza protests would entail. Journalists, Palestinians in Gaza and the Israeli security forces. On the day of the protests everyone assumed their positions. Journalists deployed to a field near Nahal Oz, the IDF deployed at several locations opposite the protests, and the protesters came.

Friday was supposed to be the “day of the tires” when the sky would turn black from burning tires that had been collected. Supposedly the protesters and the hard core of activists among them had assembled masses of tires and mirrors to deflect the sight of snipers. The protesters would burn the tires and rush the fence and pour into Israel. Pro-Israel groups got the talking points ready: The toxic smoke would ruin the environment and the protesters were just a cover for Hamas infiltration. Whatever Hamas activists thought would happen, and whatever those who thought the protesters are all terrorists imagined, never transpired. The smoke from the tires was relatively small. From what I saw near Nahal Oz and Beit Hanoun, two of the five locations of the mass protests, most of the Palestinians who came just wanted to watch. Food trucks also came to sell snacks.

I spent Friday on the border of Gaza. Hundreds of journalists had come from all over the world and Israel to see what would happen. It felt a bit macabre to gather to see how violent the clashes would be. But even when the smoke billowed over the border and the chants went up on the other side, most of the crowd of around a thousand Palestinians held back.

On the Israeli side soldiers also showed restraint. The IDF brought fire trucks and giant fans to deal with the smoke. Compared to the first Friday of the protests, there appears to have been less use of live fire and less casualties among the Palestinians. The exception was the killing of a Palestinian journalist named Yaser Murtaja.

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar boasted that the march was successful and that he and his fellow Gazans would eventually pray in Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. He also tried to don the mantle of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s legacy by claiming to be “following in the path of the martyr Yasser Arafat.” Sinwar also claimed that the attendance at the protests show that Israel’s blockade of Gaza has not caused the people to turn on Hamas and they are still willing to attend protests against Israel

The comments from the Hamas leader who was considered a “hardliner” with  a long history of terrorist involvement, is a bit of a climb down from the days when Hamas carried out massive terrorist attacks and had many supporters in the West Bank. Where are the protests in the West Bank in solidarity with Gaza? Quietly the lack of protest among Arabs in Israel, among Palestinians in Jerusalem or the West Bank, or among Palestinians and their supporters in the diaspora, shows that the protest has not really achieved its aims so far. Is this just apathy? Is it because Israel has succeeded in dividing the Palestinians, or because the long time of separate Hamas rule in Gaza has had that affect? Different Palestinians I spoke to over the last week had different answers, but the general one seems to not just be apathy but a feeling that this protest will not succeed, and a general lack of connection between what happens in Gaza and elsewhere.

The last major popular campaigns among Palestinians to challenge Israel have mostly run the same course. The “metal detector” protests, which some predicted would be a “third intifada” didn’t create a mass movement, although Israel did remove the metal detectors outside the Temple Mount in July 2017. The protests opposing US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem were also supposed to ignite a new intifada. It didn’t. Over the years the same has been said again and again, “this could be the spark of the third intifada.”

There is a feeling that the world no longer notices Palestinians deaths in Gaza. When six Arabs were killed in protests in Israel in 1976 the event became “land day”, commemorated annually since. Twelve Arab citizens of Israel were killed in 2000 during the outbreak of the Second Intifada and the killings led to the Or Commission of inquiry. These protests in Gaza have resulted in around thirty deaths so far and it’s unclear if they will be as significant. So far they have not been sustained during the weekdays, only appearing on Friday, and already seeing less numbers of participants.

Israel appears to have checked Hamas at every move it makes. It made rockets, so Israel created the Iron Dome. It built tunnels, so Israel found a way to stop them. It trained “naval commandos” and Israel stopped them. It sent tens of thousands of people to the border, and they didn’t get through.

The protests in Gaza have not been helped by intra-Palestinian rivalry. On March 13 a bomb targeted the convoy of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and Palestinian Intelligence chief Majed Faraj during their Gaza. Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas blamed Hamas. Therefore other Palestinian factions have not sent supporters into the streets of the West Bank since it would hand Hamas a win. There are also other considerations for the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. They have to balance the interests of Jordan, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt in their equations. Trump is still expected to announce some kind of peace proposal, and uncertainty hangs over who will lead after Abbas. With so many questions, Hamas’s actions in Gaza don’t seem to provide the answer.

April 12, 2018

Israel accused of “fabricating” allegations about Gaza journalist
Yaser Murtaja received US AID grant, but conflicting reports claim he was a Hamas officer in its military wing and also a victim of Hamas in 2015

The General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists accused Israeli authorities of “fabricating lies to justify murder” in the case of a Palestinian journalist who was killed last Friday during protests in Gaza. Others have called into question Israel’s assertions on April 11 that Yaser Murtaja was a Hamas member.

Murtaja, a thirty year old photographer and cameraman, was killed near Khan Yunis during the second Friday of the Palestinian ‘Great Return March’ in Gaza. He was wearing a blue journalist-style flak jacket marked with the word “press.” Initially Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman indicated that Murtaja was flying a drone near the border. However Palestinians present claimed that journalists were targeted by IDF snipers during the clashes and that he did not use his drone that day. MK Zouheir Bahloul called for an investigation and the IDF said they were looking into the incident.

Murtaja was well known in Gaza and he was he co-founder of Ain Media. He had a drone and had posted video from it on March 30. In the past he worked with locals and international media, including Al-Jazeera. Norwegian Refugee Council secretary general Jan Egeland told The Guardian that Murtaja was a “civilian and a journalist.” The Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities to “hold to account anyone who shot journalists with live ammunition.” On April 10 unnamed Israeli security officials told Walla! That Murtaja was a Hamas activist and active in Hamas security apparatus’s work on a daily basis” to help the terrorist organization with intelligence gathering. Prime Minister’s Office spokesmen Ofir Gendelman and David Keyes both tweeted that Murtaja was not only on the Hamas payroll since 2011 but that he held the rank of “Captain” and had a “prior association with the military wing [Al-Qassam Brigades].”

The IFJ disputes this and alleges that “Israeli soldiers murdered a journalist,” and the “Defense Minister is more interested in spouting propaganda and engaging in a cover-up than in carrying out a thorough and transparent investigation.”

A new twist emerged Thursday when it was revealed that the US Agency for International Development provided a $11,700 grant to Ain Media in March. Reuters reported that the grant was for technical assistant and equipment and State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert indicated Murtaja had been “vetted” under State Department guidelines. However she didn’t provide the specifics of the case. An inquiry to UA AID was not answered by press time.

This raises two distinct questions. If Murtaja was a Hamas officer and using equipment to gather intelligence against Israel then that would indicate that major NGOs and the US had erred greatly in working with him. Ai Weiwei, the artist, also worked with Murtaja and wrote about him on Instagram after his death. Israel has sought in the past to spotlight NGOs accused of working with Hamas. A manager for World Vision was detained in 2016. Earlier this year Israel also indicted a member of a Turkish humanitarian aid group in Gaza, accusing him of financing Hamas’s military wing. However public inquiries about Murtaja’s work had not been raised before his death.

The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center says that Murtaja’s “double role as a media man and Hamas operative is part of a well-known phenomenon.” It claims that an examination of 17 people killed in the 2014 Gaza war in Gaza who were said to be journalists revealed that eight of them “belonged to Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”

However the IFJ claims that in 2015 Murtaja was actually the victim of Hamas. According to an AFP report, while filming near the border he was detained by Hamas security members and beaten to the extent he required hospitalization. The Israeli security sources speaking to Walla! contend that 2015 was the same year Murtaja was prevented from bringing a drone into Gaza, allegedly in connection with his work for Hamas. Could it be possible that he was both a victim of a Hamas beating in 2015 and on their payroll as a ranking officer?

The actual story may be more murky. Members of Murtaja’s extended family appear to have had associations with Hamas as revealed by photos of them posted online. Others familiar with the situation in Gaza have pointed out that many people in Gaza are linked to Hamas in some way because Hamas governs the strip and is active in many layers of society. One person who knew Murtaja dismissed claims he was a terrorist or in any way affiliated with Hamas’ military wing. The question still remains what happened on April 6 when he was killed. Even if he was linked to Hamas, was he killed because of that or mistakenly shot or shot due to a different reason, due to his proximity to the fence. The initial claim that he was flying a drone has not been confirmed, leaving many questions about what led to Murtaja’s death and why allegations he was a Hamas member only emerged days later.

April 13, 2018

Three weeks: How Gaza’s mass protests are failing to make an impact

Examination of numbers reported injured and types of injuries points to major reduction in violence and numbers participating in protests

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

The ‘Great Return March protests that Hamas and Gaza activists launched on March 30th saw their lowest turnout in three weeks and the smallest number of casualties in clashes with Israeli forces. Israeli authorities have been steadfast and on message about the protesters being a cover for violent action while Hamas and the local activists have attempted to keep up the momentum. The percent of those injured by live fire has declined by half, indicating a major reduction not only in the size of the protests but the level of violence along the border.

On the eve of the third Friday of mass protests in Gaza, the Hamas run Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza published a list of casualties from the past two weeks. With an infographic they said that 3,078 Palestinians had been injured, including 1,236 with live ammunition. They claimed 4 people had lost legs. Of those injured 445 were under 18 and 152 were women. 30 had been killed. They also said 30 paramedics had been injured and 14 journalists, including Yaser Murtaja who was shot on April 6.

This Friday the protests didn’t reach the levels they had in the past. Israel Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman tweeted that “from week to week there are fewer riots on our border with Gaza. Our resolve is well understood from the other side.” The IDF tweeted that 10,00 had participated in the “rioting” on the border. They also posted a photo showing a “terrorist wielding an item suspected of being an explosive device” while crouching next to journalists and a handicapped person. IDF spokesperson Jonathan Conricus also claimed that the public should take note that the demonstration is a Hamas attempt to terrorize Israel and is backed by Iran. At one point protesters claimed to have pulled down some barbed wire from a portion of the border fence and a photo showed Islamic Jihad leader Khaled al-Batsh was photographed helping the protesters take away the barbed wire to cheers from the crowd.

By nightfall reports indicated one Palestinian had been killed and 528 wounded. Gazan sources said 28-year-old Islam Sha’allah was killed in clashes in the eastern Gaza strip Friday afternoon. His funeral was held on Saturday. This was a major decline than the last two Fridays the protests have been held. On March 30th a total of 17 people were killed and 1,416 wounded, according to health officials in Gaza. On April 6 nine more were killed and 1,354 wounded. The numbers injured by live fire have also declined from a high of 53% of those injured on March 30 to a low of 23% of those injured on April 13. These numbers are based on calculations derived from the Palestinian health sources, and the numbers point to a major reduction in use of live fire by the IDF. For instance 1,416 were reported injured on March 30, 758 with live fire, while 223 were injured by live fire on April 13 out of 969 reported injured in total. There is no independent confirmation of these figures. The IDF itself has not released all the details of how it operates on the border but it has stressed that it will not allow any breach of the “security infrastructure” and that it will “fire in according with the rules of engagement.”

Israel’s use of sniper fire on the border has been criticized and international organizations from the UN to EU have expressed concern. B’tselem released  a statement on April 3 saying Israeli soldiers “must refuse to fire at unarmed protesters.” It seems that after the March 30 protests that some of the concerns and critiques were taken into account because Israel has sought to stress that it was seeking to defend the border fence with a minimal number of casualties. The IDF had also released information after the first Friday’s protests claiming that 10 of those killed were active Hamas members.

The number of protesters who gather each Friday has decreased. At their height they numbered 20,000 or more but they have decreased first to 17,000 and an estimated 10,000 on April 13. The attempt by the protesters to use mass burning of tires on April 6th also didn’t work as they planned.

There has been almost no mass protests in the West Bank to coincide with the Gaza clashes. There are several reasons for this, one of which has to do with political divisions between Gaza and the West Bank. There may also be less solidarity between the two areas, different economic concerns and also messages from authorities about the protests. Whatever the real reason for the lack of response it shows that Hamas and the Gaza activists have failed so far. They want to keep the pressure up until mid-May, but it’s unclear how the momentum will work. One problem they face is that they are only doing it on Fridays and this does not constitute a true mass civil disobedience campaign. Israel has also succeeded in showing that the protests have a violent element to them. Even in the case of the Murtaja, the killed cameraman, Israel has said he was an active Hamas member, leading to recriminations on both sides about his role.

The Gaza protests are also overshadowed by the chemical weapons attacks in Syria and other issues. That doesn’t mean there will not be investigations or condemnation of Israel for the actions in Gaza. But so far the level of condemnations or criticism has been relatively mooted compared to past conflicts. Within Israel as well there appears to be very little concern for Gaza and much more understanding for the need to defend the fence. Even a video that emerged on April 7 showing a sniper shooting a Palestinian, which allegedly took place months ago, did not turn into the “new Elor Azaria” case that some predicted it might.

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Area of the clashes

April 21, 2018

Four weeks, five controversies in Gaza clashes

Four weeks of clashes on the Gaza border with Israel have resulted in thousands of wounded Palestinians and dozens killed. Despite the decreasing numbers present at the weekly Friday rallies, the ‘Great March of Return’ has been sustained by the residents of Gaza. Amidst the clashes several important incidents involving stand out as symbolic of the conflict.

The use of live fire and snipers

Israel announced that it was deployed snipers to the Gaza border in the lead up to the first mass rallies on March 30. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman urged Palestinians via Twitter to stay away from the border. “Those who approach the fence today are putting themselves in danger.” The IDF continued with the messages through April 20th, warning in leaflets dropped over Gaza that Hamas was using the protests as a way to carry out terror attacks. “Avoid approaching the fence and damaging it,” the leaflets read.

Israel has used live fire against the protesters who approach the fence. According the Gaza health ministry more than 1,000 have been shot by live fire. B’tselem called on Israeli soldiers to refuse to fire on unarmed Palestinian protesters “The use of live ammunition against unarmed persons who pose no danger to anyone is unlawful,” the human rights NGO statement said on April 3. The United Nations human rights office urged Israel to refrain from using excessive force on April 6. On April 19 Jason Greenblatt, the White House’s Middle East envoy tweeted that Palestinians in Gaza have the right to protest their dire humanitarian circumstances.” The EU also called on the IDF to refrain from using lethal force against unarmed protestors. Although the number of Palestinians injured in live fire decreased over the four weeks of protests, Israel’s policy did not appear to change and Israel continued to insist that the protests were primarily cover for terrorist attacks. 

Yaser Murtaja 

On Friday, April 6 Yaser Murtaja was shot and killed near Khan Yunis. He was wearing a blue journalist-style flak jacket marked with the word “press.” Friends recalled a thirty-year old journalist who wanted to travel abroad and had worked with international media. Israel asserted that Murtaja was a terrorist. The Prime Minister’s Office spokesmen claimed that Murtaja held the rank of captain, had once been associated with the military wing of Hamas and was on its payroll since 2011. The International Federation of Journalists, which had documented a case where Murtaja was assaulted by Hamas members in 2015, accused Israel of “fabricating lies to justify murder.”

The sniper video

 A video of Israeli soldiers cheering as a Palestinian was shot by a sniper emerged on April 9. Although the video allegedly depicts a shooting that took place months before the major protests, it was seen as symbolic of what was taking place in Gaza. It was greeted with mixed reactions in Israel. Yes Atid leader Yair Lapid said he had full faith in the IDF to investigate the video. Education Minister Naftali Bennet criticized those who were outraged by the video. “TO sit in Tel Aviv and criticize combat soldiers is illegitimate, to judge them while they protect our borders is illegitimate.” The Palestinian shot on the video said he was not instigating violence when he was shot.

Although some commentators predicted the video would result in a prosecution of the soldiers similar to the Elor Azaria case, the army said it would investigate but did not indicate that any criminal activity had taken place.

Swastikas

On April 6 video showed that Palestinians had hosted a swastika flag along the border. The images and video spread rapidly on social media and many pro-Israel voices used it as an example of the real face of the protest. More images of a swastika on the border were released on April 20th, showing Palestinians flying a kite over the border with the Nazi symbol on it. Palestinians didn’t appear to respond to the images, while Israeli media sought to highlight the use of the Nazi-era symbol.

The 15 year old

On April 20 a fifteen year old Palestinian named Mohammed Ibrahim Ayoub was filmed being shot and killed during protests in Gaza.  UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nockolay Mladenov tweeted shock at the shooting. “It is outrageous to shoot at children! How does the killing of a child in Gaza today help peace?” The European Union also said that a full investigation should be called in the aftermath of the killing. Greenblatt noted that Israel was carrying out an investigation “so we will be able to understand what happened.”

The death of Ayoub came after two weeks in which the protests appeared to have decreased and in which Israel appeared to have emerged unscathed from calls by the Arab League for the International Criminal Court to probe shootings in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority had also accused Israel of a “shoot to kill” policy in Gaza.

April 26, 2018

Is Qatar pushing Hamas towards the “deal of the century”

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

A letter has been sent by the Qataris to Jason Greenblatt spelling out terms under which Hamas would agree to work within a Palestine Authority framework. It would ostensibly offer some kind of peace to Israel and PA under the parameters of the “deal of the century,” where the PA would return to control in Gaza in exchange for Hamas normalization in the West Bank. This would give Hamas new and unprecedented influence over the PA not seen since 2006.

At the same time this would put the Qataris back at the table as brokers of some kind of initiative and it would signal to the Trump administration that Doha’s influence over Gaza is genuine and can bring results. It also ties in to Qatar’s dispute with the UAE and Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s attempts to get into the good graces in Washington by playing a positive role in peace. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have their own interests in Gaza that range from issues involving former Gaza leader Mahmud Dahlan and concerns about Sinai security. Israel would also likely oppose any opening for Hamas in the West Bank and the US, which views Hamas as a terrorist organization, would not want Hamas expanding or being able to operate openly in the West Bank.

A second source says that the Americans have informed PA intelligence chief Majed Faraj that this letter does exist. That would indicate that the Americans or Qataris have passed on this letter to the PA.  Faraj and PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah were targeted in a bombing in March, an incident that the PA has blamed on Hamas.

Basically they are saying that Hamas is prepared to work with the Americans on the “deal of the century” in return for control of Gaza West Bank. The interesting thing is that Qatar is trying to bring Hamas in. Apparently the second source says the letter comes from Emir Tamim bin Hamid al-Thani.

President Trump met with Tamim in January and on April 10 and Greenblatt tweeted a readout of the second meeting. Qatar has been trying to encourage Trump through contracts that would support jobs in the US and claims that Qatar joins the US in concerns about Russia, Iran and also terrorism and extremism in the region. Greenblatt has supported Israel-Qatari partnership in the past. He tweeted in February that “Qatar partnering with Israel can bring real relief to the people of Gaza. Ending support for Hamas and focusing on humanitarian aid and reconstruction will end the suffering.” Greenblatt has been pushing stories related to Qatar-Israel cooperation on humanitarian issues in Gaza.

Gaza and Israel are in the midst of a crises over the last four weeks in which Hamas has encouraged tens of thousands to protest at the border of Gaza. Thousands have been wounded, many of them with live fire and more than thirty have been killed in four Fridays of clashes. Hamas is desperate for relevance in this situation and is seeking to use one of the last quills it has by mobilizing people. It has failed over the years using bombing campaigns, kidnappings, missiles, tunnels and other efforts against Israel.

The Palestinian National Council is scheduled to meet on April 30 amid controversy as some factions, such as Hamas, have called to boycott the event. The other factions have claimed that Mahmud Abbas and Fatah seek to dominate the meeting and that their members cannot travel to Ramallah for the meeting. The US is scheduled to open its embassy in Jerusalem on May 14.

The controversy of Qatar’s relationship with Hamas and its financial support for work in Gaza has been percolating for years. When Alan Dershowitz returned from Qatar in January he wrote about conversations he had there at The Hill.  The Qatari ambassador to Gaza Mohammad al Emadi “told me that the building projects sponsored by Qatar [in Gaza] were ‘coordinated’ with Israeli authorities.  Furthermore he wrote that “the Qataris claim that American officials had asked them to allow the Hamas leaders to live in Doha and that they have now left.”

Even Qatar’s work in Gaza has not all gone smoothly. In February Emadi was the center of controversy after some Gazans claimed their salaries had not been paid. Qatar has claimed its aid to Gaza spares Israel conflict.

The New Arab also reports that Saudi Arabia has backed Abbas and PA sanctions on Gaza. The PA wants Gaza returned to its control. The April 25 report claims that Egypt has not been able to persuade the PA to work with Hamas on national unity and that they cannot get Hamas and Fatah delegations to restore contacts. Qatar’s moves might be designed to mend this fracture or at the very list bring Hamas a little room to maneuver amidst its isolation.

Hamas said in mid-March that its marches on the Gaza border were in reaction to the US decision to move the embassy. However Salah al-Badawil, a Hamas political bureau member, claimed on March 20 that the movement was willing to “engage in dialogue” with the US. Hamas has also blamed failure in reconciliation on pressure from the US.

May 14, 2018

Historic Jerusalem embassy move amid violence in Gaza

“Today we keep our promise to the American people and extend to Israel the same right we extend to every other nation, the right to designate its capital city,” US Ambassador David Friedman announced at a ceremony in Jerusalem on Monday. As he was speaking massive protests in the Gaza Strip led to the deaths of over fifty Palestinians in clashes with the Israeli army. The clashes marred a major ceremony and celebrations in Jerusalem as the UN, UK and others condemned the high loss of life.

President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December. The ceremony moving the embassy to Jerusalem was timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel in 1948. Palestinians protested the move in December and Hamas in Gaza announced that it would hold a “Great March of Return” from late March until May 15. For many Palestinians May 15 is mourned as “Nakba Day,” which they view as the “catastrophe” of the creation of Israel. Throughout April and into May tens of thousands of Palestinians laid siege to the border fence around the Gaza Strip and thousands were injured by the IDF which used live fire and tear gas to disperse rioters. The clashes on May 14 were expected and the IDF dropped leaflets over Gaza on Sunday warning protesters not to approach the fence.

On Monday morning hundreds of guests celebrating the embassy move gathered at a breakfast hosted by the Orthodox Union at the stately Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem. Israel’s Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked called Trump the “Churchill of the 21st Century,” at the event, inferring that he had reversed decades of appeasement.

The new embassy building is located on the border between mostly Jewish West Jerusalem and Palestinian East Jerusalem in an area of the city that once formed the dividing line between Israel and Jordan before 1967. Two dozen US officials, diplomats and members of Congress attended, including Secretary of the Treasury Stephen Mnuchin, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Jason Greenblatt, Jon Jay Sullivan, Senator Lindsay Graham, Ted Cruz and a delegation led by Congressman Joe Wilson.

Over the course of an hour Ambassador Friedman, Kushner, Israel President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke. A message from Trump was played. “We extend a hand of friendship to Israel, the Palestinians and all their neighbors. May there be peace,” he said. Kushner also said he hoped that the future would be filled with peace.

At the time of the ceremony the death toll from protests in Gaza was rising. Protests had begun in the morning with burning tires at points along the Gaza Strip border with Israel. Thousands gathered and listened to speeches conveyed via loud speakers in Gaza City. According to local reports Hamas urged the protesters to breach the border fence. Near the Jabalya refugee camp thousands of Palestinians gathered and attempted to cut one of the fences between Gaza and Israel. Israel responded at the border with live fire and air raids struck at least one Hamas target in Gaza. Tank fire also hit a Hamas observation post according to a photo taken by Joe Dyke, the AFP correspondent in Gaza.

In Jerusalem hundreds of Palestinians and Jews gathered to protest the embassy move. The protesters tussled with police near the site of the new embassy. Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, a coalition of most Arab parties in the Israeli Knesset, condemned the violence. “Anyone who believes in justice must hold Israel to account for this brutal crime,” he tweeted. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also expressed concern over the “shocking killing” in Gaza.

By nightfall on Monday the clashes were mostly confined to Gaza. In East Jerusalem neighborhoods there was quiet and many residents appeared to go about their usual workday. Similarly the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank has been cautious about supporting the rallies in Gaza, fearing that protests might get out of hand. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced three days of mourning for those killed in Gaza and declared a general strike in the West Bank to begin Tuesday.

May 15, 2018

An inside look at how the Gaza protesters attempted to breach the border fence

Over eight weeks the protesters in Gaza have altered their strategy as Israel has warned them to refrain from approaching the border fence

Many questions remain about what led to the deaths of up to 58 Palestinians on Monday. One of the key issues surround how the protests are organized. Based on observation and discussions with sources close to the protests who witnessed them, the following presents a clearer picture of what has occurred.

Since the end of March there have been mass protests along the Gaza border. These protests have been well organized and planned to be part of an eight week “Great March of Return” from the Palestinian “Land Day” on March 30 to the “Nakba Day” on May 15. On May 14 the mass protests, which coincided with the US opening its embassy in Jerusalem and came a day before what was supposed to be last day of the protests, resulted in 58 killed and up to 2,700 wounded, according to Gaza-based Palestinian reports.

The protests have been organized around five locations next to Israel’s security fence. Over eight weeks they took place they also used different tactics and methods. For instance protesters began lighting massive fires with burning tires during the second Friday, in early April.  They began launching kites. They also tore down a section of barbed wire of one of the fences between Israel and Gaza on April 27. It was during that a protest that a reliable source provides some insight into the method that Hamas and the protesters have used.

The protesters have gathered on Fridays with tens of thousands participating. At the very back of the protest, hundreds of meters from the fence, are tents and field hospitals, prayer areas and families. This is where some of the Hamas officials will show up in the morning or early afternoon to rouse the people and encourage them in their protest. Speeches will be made and prayers offered. It is well organized. Buses bring people to the protests. There are people there selling food. There is even a macabre element of this, with protesters saying they’ll have a meal before they become “shahid” or a martyr at the front.

The masses of protesters who approach the actual fence are made up of generally young men and teenagers, including youth and children. There are very few women closest to the fence. The protesters know how the Israeli security forces have been operating. They expect to be shot or are cognizant that this is a distinct possibility. There are ambulance teams and medics, as well as numerous spontaneous volunteers, ready to take away the injured, many of them shot in the legs. As the young men burn tires, and others prepare Molotov cocktails, or slingshots, some prepare kites to fly. The goal of the protesters is to get to the fence and, with select groups of young men who have brought wire cutters, to cut through. Most of them don’t make it this far. But some of them do.

Gazans who attempt to reach the main security fence first have to deal with other obstacles. There is a barbed-wire fence in sections to deter protesters reaching the main fence. Israel has continuously warned since March that anyone approaching this kind of buffer zone would be shot. It was a section of barbed wire fence that was torn down and dragged away in late April. The Palestinians cheered as they brought it back to the protest camp. A sign of victory. According to reports it takes about thirty seconds running between the barbed-wire fence and the main security fence.

But what happened in late April was not just spontaneous and chaos of rioters at the fence. It also involved planning and coordination. Hamas members, unarmed but clearly directing some of the young men, are in the crowd. They watch for an area of burning tires and protesters where protesters have managed to get close to the fence or breach the first line of barbed wire. Some of these professional activists are on motorcycles and they may come and go or drive along the line of protests or observe them from a high point. When they sense that a breach can be made they gather together groups of young men, men who have prepared beforehand for the assault. Like some kind of First World War charge of death the young men then rush as a group towards the fence. During the April 27 events up to 700 men were reported by the IDF spokesman Col. Jonathan Conricus to have assaulted the fence “in a way that we have not seen them assault it before,” according to a New York Times report. An earlier ‘Times’ report titled ‘300 Meters in Gaza: Snipers, Burning Tires and a Contested Fence,’ summarized well the planning and details of the protests and confirm later accounts.

Planning began ahead of the May 14 protests. Joe Dyke, the AFP correspondent in Gaza, wrote on May 10 that at a “briefing to foreign media, Gaza head of Hamas told journalists today he would support thousands of Palestinians breaking through border fence next week.” On Sunday the IDF dropped leaflets on Gaza warning protesters to stay away from the fence. On May 14 Dyke, in Gaza, tweeted: “literally as the US embassy inauguration is beginning, loud speakers east of Gaza City are calling on protesters to prepare to seek to breach the border fence.” By the end of the day 58 had been killed.

May 16, 2018

Greenblatt in Qatar to discuss Gaza and Trump’s peace plan

US envoy for Middle East negotiations Jason Greenblatt met with Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani on Wednesday to discuss the Trump administration’s upcoming peace plan. He tweeted that he also met with Qatar’s Gaza emissary to discuss the need for humanitarian support for Gaza.

The visit comes two days after the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem and in the wake of mass protests that led to the death of almost sixty Palestinians in Gaza. Greenblatt recently condemned Hamas rule in Gaza and argued that “Palestinians in Gaza need to be reunited  with their West Bank counterparts under a single, responsible Palestinian Authority leadership.”  He has now published those comments in Arabic as well, seeking a larger consensus in the region for a new push regarding Gaza.

The full details of the Trump peace plan have only been hinted at, but Gaza is obviously key. Hamas has not gained anything from eight weeks of mass protests, with more than 100 killed and thousands injured. The US message will now be that this shows just what a failure Hamas is. Qatar plays a key role here because it has spent hundreds of millions in aid to Gaza over the years and enjoyed amicable relations with Hamas. Qatar’s leverage in any agreement with the PA, Hamas and regional states is seen as key. Qatar also wants US help to resolve its breakdown in relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain. Bridging these regional discussions to get humanitarian aid to Gaza and work on a peace deal is the next step.

May 18, 2018

Eight weeks in Gaza: What did the ‘Great Return March’ accomplish?

Eight weeks. Up to 8,700 wounded and around 100 people killed. Those are the brutal numbers of the Great Return March that was launched by Hamas in Gaza on March 30 to coincide with Land Day. The protests were supposed to reach a peak on May 15 to coincide with Nakba Day, which Palestinians see as the catastrophic creation of Israel in 1948. What did Hamas think would happen and did it accomplish what it wanted?

Many questions remain about the weeks of violent riots in which thousands were shot with live ammunition. The fallout from the clashes will likely continue to be felt through criticism from the international community, ramifications in the region, and lessons learned both by Hamas and the Israeli authorities.

Israel’s goals and controversies 

The Israel Defense Forces have said from the beginning that the riots in Gaza were planned and executed by Hamas. In late February Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman warned Gazans not to approach the fence, that they were endangering their lives by doing so and being used by Hamas. Israel said it would respond aggressively and had learned its lessons from the use of civilians to mask infiltration attempts. On March 28 Army Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot warned the army would use live fire and announced 100 snipers were being deployed. After three weeks of riots the IDF spokesman Jonathan Conricus tweeted on April 27: “This is terror, just masked. The IDF will continue to defend our people and border.”

On Monday April 30, the High Court of Justice responded to a petition by human rights groups and held a hearing about Israel’s policy on the Gaza border. The IDF responded that it was treating the border with Gaza the same way it does Syria or Lebanon but that its methods were evolving in response to each Friday’s protests.

The details of any changes between March 30 and May 15 were not made public, but the number of casualties decreased on each Friday until may 14 when almost 60 Palestinians were killed. Data derived from the Hamas run health ministry in Gaza shows that the number hit with live fire also decreased from almost half of those injured on March 30 to a low of around six percent of those injured on May 4. This would appear to indicate a more conservative use of live fire.

Israel succeeded in preventing any massive breach of the security fence. It also had to respond to flaming kites and masses of tired used to screen the movements of the rioters. From a tactical point of view this seems to have been a complete success. From a deterrence point of view it’s less clear. Hamas sustained the protests and found a ready pool of mostly young men willing to get shot protesting or even for the chance to tough the fence. From a much larger strategic perspective it’s not entirely clear if Israel succeeded as well as it might have by keeping the number of casualties lower.

What did Hamas want? 

Hamas wanted to show that it was still relevant through these protests. After thirteen years in charge of Gaza it has nothing to show for it. It is more isolated than ever, having lost any friends it once had in Egypt in 2013, and having lost funding from Qatar. It has little sympathy or support. Israel has succeeded in also cutting off every threat Hamas uses. Israel stopped the Qassam threat and the rocket threat. The tunnels were discovered and innovated methods employed against them. Egypt also cut off the tunnels to Sinai. The blockade has harmed people’s lives in the strip but not succeeded in toppling Hamas.

To get around its political and terror-military problems Hamas sought reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority. It hoped to use this as a Trojan horse to re-enter the West Bank. But each time it has failed to create any kind of deal with Ramallah. Last year when a deal seemed it would finally grow fruit, the PA was not able to enter the Gaza Strip. Then an assassination attempt targeted PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and security chief Majid Faraj in March during their visit to Gaza.

Hamas decided that using mass protests might be a new and successful method. The problem is that, despite all the stories about “non-violent protests,” Hamas didn’t intend for non-violence. But it isn’t clear what it did intend for. It didn’t use the protests as a cover for sniper fire at the IDF or using improvised explosive devices. Once it got the 50,000 Palestinian protesters to five points along the fence it settled in for a rhythm. It didn’t innovate. Palestinians have a saying that “existing is resisting” and pay lip service to the concept of “samud” or steadfastness. This was all Hamas could muster. It bragged about breaking through and returning to Palestinian areas from before 1948. But this never happened. Also there was no solidarity in the West Bank.

Eventually Hamas also angered Egypt and was constantly afraid of Israeli retaliation. When it was targeted in airstrikes it appeared to flinch, worried that anymore escalation would result in real harm to its leadership. While it was willing to sacrifice 100 mostly young men and encourage thousands of others to take a bullet and ruin their lives for its plans, it had nothing to give them besides a few scraps after and talk of “martyrdom.” It’s only real success was on May 14 when it got some attention from the world about the suffering in Gaza. But even then it doesn’t seem to be able to convert that into more aid for the strip or a diplomatic opening it would like, via Qatari contacts, to the West Bank. There are rumors that Hamas has reached out via Qatar to US envoy Jason Greenblatt. But Greenblatt’s only response has been to write in regional publications that Hamas has ruined Gaza and that Gaza should be reunited with the PA.

The regional context

Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador on May 14 and humiliated him at the airport when he was leaving the next day. This was the only real major political ramifications of the deaths in Gaza. Israel’s live fire policies have also enraged critics throughout the West. The UN, and voices in the EU have criticized Israel’s policies. But it doesn’t seem they have gone further than that, so far. Inside Israel the human rights groups who urged soldiers not to fire on civilians and petitioned the courts got no relief. If the protests resume tomorrow, Israel will carry out the same policy.

The riots in Gaza do not appear to have harmed or strained relations with Egypt, Jordan or some of the Gulf states which Israel has garnered favor with in the last years. That doesn’t mean the policies in Gaza are helpful for Israel. In general Israel has an opportunity to work with these countries to confront Iran and Jerusalem could actually encourage them to help send messages to Gaza or propose a change that might aid Gazans.

What comes next 

Hamas has found that it can sustain mass protests. It can use this to gain some space for itself in Gaza after years of stagnation. But it has also shown the shortcomings of these protests. The high number of Hamas activists among the casualties shows that it cannot convince most average people to die for it. The greatest victory it could show in the last weeks was that a few activists brought back some coils of barbed wire. For thousands of wounded and 100 dead, that’s not much.

May 22, 2018

Gaza: A look back at how we got here

In 1998 US President Bill Clinton flew into Gaza International Airport with six helicopters. Palestinian and American flags fluttered. Yaser Arafat met Clinton and they enjoyed ceremonies, meetings, speeches, a meal of lamb and three kinds of fish, according to reports at the time. Palestinians said they felt Clinton’s visit was a recognition of their demands for statehood. Twenty years later the Gaza airport is a ruins, its runways and terminal whose opening Clinton had overseen, are bulldozed and destroyed.

It’s been twenty years since Gaza had high hopes of being something other than the Hamas-run isolated tragedy it has become. With the eight weeks of the ‘Great Return March’ from March to May the Palestinians in Gaza sought to put themselves back on the map of world attention. It’s still unclear if Hamas or the tens of thousands who turned out for the rallies, and the thousands who were wounded by live fire during the protests, succeeded in changing anything in Gaza. It’s worth pausing to consider how we got here.

The population of the Gaza Strip has increased from around 100,000 in 1947 to 500,000 in 1967 and 1.9 million today. According to UNRWA there are 1.3 million Palestinian refugees in Gaza. Under the Oslo Accords parts of Gaza were handed over to the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s. When the Second Intifada broke out Gaza become the scene of some of the most iconic battles, including the death Mohammed al-Durrah in crossfire in September 2000. The cost of battling in Gaza and realization that it was not worth the burden of administering it led to the Disengagement in August 2005 in which around 8,000 Israelis were forcibly withdrawn from 21 communities in Gaza. Those communities were bulldozed, save the synagogues and the greenhouses. Israel would continue to control the airspace and territorial waters as well as the entry points to the strip.

In a portent of things to come US donors stepped forward to spend $14 million to buy 850 acres of Israeli greenhouses in Gaza to give to the Palestinians. By September the greenhouses had been looted and all the investment wasted. Like the airport, bombed in January 2002 during battles of the Second Intifada, the greenhouses were one more lifeline for the strip that was torn up.

Initially Gaza had a border crossing with Rafah in Egypt, opened in November 2005 and monitored by the US and EU. A special European Union Border Assistance Mission at the Rafah Crossing Point (EUBAM) was set up. In January 2006 Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections, receiving widespread support in Gaza.

The Hamas electoral victory set in motion the isolation of Gaza. In April PA President Mahmud Abbas sought to bypass the Hamas-led Interior Ministry. On June 25, 2006 Hamas launched an attack on Israeli forces stationed along the Gaza Strip, killing two and kidnapping Gilad Shalit. This set in motion an Israeli military response, tempered because of the Lebanon war. Schalit wouldn’t be released until an October 2011 prisoner swap. In August 2006 a Fox News film crew was kidnapped in Gaza. It would be one of several kidnappings of foreigners, including BBC’s Alan Johnston in 2007 and the murder of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni.

In Gaza Hamas and Fatah fought an increasingly violent civil conflict. PA personnel were chased away from the Rafah border crossing in December 2006 and by June 2007 Hamas had seized control of the strip. Fatah members were murders and some thrown off rooftops.

In control of Gaza Hamas was able to perfect its Qassam and rocket program which it had already inaugurated years before. It graduated from mortar fire to using Qassams in October 2001, which could only go several kilometers, to increasingly larger rockets. From the moment Israel withdrew from Gaza the rocket fire increased, from 1,123 in 2006 to 2,427 in 2007 to 3,278 in 2008. Iron Dome would not be ready until 2011 and Israelis along the border, particularly in Sderot, bore the brunt of the assault. In response Israel launched Operation Cast Lead beginning with massive airstrikes on December 27 that killed 140 Hamas members. During the campaign around 1,000 civilians were killed, prompting the UN’s fact finding mission that led to the September 2009 Goldstone Report. Israel and Hamas were accused of war crimes. The 2009 war set in motion a series of conflicts with Gaza in 2012 and then 2014. In each Hamas employed new tactics. During the 2014 war an M-302 Hamas rocket reached Hadera, 100 km from Gaza. Although Hamas had added to its arsenal, smuggling equipment via Sinai, it now faced Israel’s Iron Dome which neutralized the threat

Hamas also dug tunnels into Israel, most of which were discovered before they could be used. By 2017 Israel was making major progress in finding the tunnels and the threat also seemed to have been neutralized. Hamas trained frogmen and naval commandos, but they also failed.

Internationally Hamas became increasingly isolated as well. When Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi was ejected from power in Egypt it lost him as a friend. It received support from activists abroad, particularly the Turkish IHH which launched the massive Gaza Flotilla in 2010 to break Israel’s sea blockade. When Israel raided the flotilla in May 2010 nine Turkish citizens were killed in clashes. By 2011 the Gaza flotilla phenomenon had wrapped up as some European crewed ships found themselves interdicted in Greek ports and elsewhere. Gaza still got hundreds in millions in aid from Gulf states, particularly Qatar which had a special representative to the strip named Mohammed Al Emadi. Hamas also received some support from Damascus and Tehran, but overall its international profile dimmed. Only Turkey appears to provide it much lip-service of support today.

Hamas and Fatah tried to commit themselves to various reconciliation agreements over the years. They signed one in 2011 in Cairo and another in 2012 and in 2014 they agreed to form a national reconciliation government and then signed another deal in October 2017. By this time Hamas clearly felt isolated. Having failed at all its attempts to fight Israel and having watched Egypt flood and destroy its smuggling tunnels from Sinai, it had no where else to go. The October agreement was supposed to foresee the return of the PA to the border crossings and then Gaza itself. In March however someone tried to assassinate Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and security chief Majid Faraj on a trip to Gaza, setting back the reconciliation.

Years of blockade and conflict have brought ruin to Gaza. UNRWA says that 80 percent of the population of Gaza are dependent on international assistance. Unemployment is at 41 percent. There is only enough electricity for 6-8 hours a day of use. Sewage, lack of water, and other basic infrastructure needs are a struggle. Gazans find it difficult if not impossible to travel abroad. The median age in Gaza is 18, which means half the people in the strip have spent most of their lives under siege and under Hamas rule. It is this sense of isolation that leads many to refer to Gaza as a giant prison. The question is whether the keys to that prison are held by Israel, Egypt or Hamas or a combination of the three. There doesn’t appear to be any path forward for Gaza. Reconciliation agreements never work, wars to result in change, Gazan protests don’t make an impact, and various initiatives over the years that imagined Gaza as becoming a “new Singapore” of development with an island off shore or lush greenhouses and an airport, have all been turned to ruin. How any of the stakeholders, whether Israel’s security forces and politicians, Egypt’s leaders, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas or Gazans, intend to get to a better future is unclear.

May 30, 2018

Reporter’s Notebook: A long night on the Gaza border

Throughout the night of May 29 the IDF stuck targets in Gaza as sirens warned residents of rocket fire

The traffic on roads heading south towards communities around Gaza thins beyond the city of Ashkelon. On Tuesday night, after a day of rocket and mortar fire directed at Israel, the Israeli public was waiting to see if some kind of ceasefire might come into affect or if the day was just the beginning of a new round of conflict.

I decided to drive down to the area around Gaza in case the conflict grew overnight. Just south of Ashkelon, driving with the windows open, the slow, chilling, wailing of the sirens began. It was several minutes before midnight and two Iron Dome missiles flew skyward, above highway 4 and intercepted a projectile fired from Gaza. There was a slight thud and momentary bright light framed by a power line. The sirens went on for another half a minute before stopping.

May 29 began the way it ended, with attacks on Israel. In the early morning hours of Tuesday Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) had fired almost thirty mortars at Israeli border communities. One landed next to a Kindergarten. As the day progressed dozens of more rockets were fired by both Hamas and PIJ. The IDF responded throughout the day, hitting military compounds, munitions storage and other targets.

There was little evidence of the crises unfolding south of Ashkelon. A full moon was rising. Convenience stores were open, there were no military checkpoints. I made my way past Yad Mordechai, a border community frequently under fire from Gaza, and then passed Sderot, a city targeted for two decades by mortars and Qassams from Gaza. There’s a lot of new construction in Sderot, the looming shells of new housing starts can be seen stretching out from the city. Right on the border with Gaza, next to Kibbutz Kfar Aza, there are armored shelters next to the bus stops and a small concrete wall was erected a decade ago to protect from sniper fire. The constant buzzing of drones could be heard over head.

I stopped at a gas station near  Kibbutz Alumim. The place was new and its lights bright, like an oasis in the night. While pumping gas loud thuds pierced the air. It felt like the percussion of outgoing artillery. One thud, two thuds, three thuds. So I thought to wait around and parked my car on the side of the road until police came and wondered if I was drunk and sleeping in the car. “You’re a danger to yourself parking here, pull off at a bus stop instead,” they suggested. When they’d left the loud soul-wrenching crescendo of thuds of what seemed like outgoing artillery began again. Birds in a nearby tree, spooked by the booms flew up in the air. A car alarm went off and then an aircraft flew over head.  The whole overture of war at night feels different because there are less sensory distractions; it purifies the sound and chisels it down.

Around the same time the Red Alert application on my phone said that rockets had been fired at Netivot and other communities in the Eshkol regional council. The IDF said it had struck 25 military targets in Gaza belonging to Hamas. “The target strikes included sheds of drones used for terror purposes, a rocket-manufacturing workshop advanced naval weaponry, military compounds, training facilities,” and other sites the IDF said.

I had to find a place to sleep to I drove back towards Yad Mordechai where there’s a parking lot and an armored shelter for cover. By the time I got there after 2 in the morning more sirens were sounding along the Gaza border in Nirim, Kerem Shalom and Kissufim. I thought I’d dozed off for a second when the wailing began. It felt like a dream and brought me back to a night in 2009 before Cast Lead when I’d been in Sderot crouching down and taking cover from incoming Qassams. In those days there was no Iron Dome and all we could do was hope for the best. Now in 2018 I got out of my car in warm night air and listened to the sirens with feelings of total safety from Israel’s defensive systems.

The last round of rockets was fired at 5:15am near the border community of Kissufim, the old crossing that people used to use before 2005 to get to the Jewish communities in Gaza such as Kfar Darom and Gush Katif. Now  that crossing was being grown over with plants from disuse. Today’s short conflict is the latest round in conflicts that stretch back decades. In twenty-four hours around 100 rockets were fired and the IDF said that it had struck 65 targets in total in Gaza. By morning rumors of a ceasefire were in the air again. They’d been discussed the night before. The various local radio stations were waking up the residents of Gaza border communities to do interviews about the trauma of taking kids of school after the mortar fire on May 29. Then music played and everything seemed to return to normal. I got in my car and started the drive back to Jerusalem.

June 4, 2018

Palestinian ‘Naksa Day’ protest preparations come amid heightened Gaza tensions

Palestinians geared up for “Naksa Day” on Monday. The day is commemorated as the “setback” when Israel took over the West Bank and Gaza as well as East Jerusalem during the Six Day War. Along with Nakba Day and Land Day it makes up one of the key Palestinian protests of the spring and summer every year. This year the events come after months of protests along the Gaza border in which more than one hundred Palestinians have been killed and thousands wounded in clashes.

Over the years Naksa Day has seen limited protests among Palestinians, but some of them have turned violent. In 2011 the Bashar al-Assad regime and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Yarmouk camp in Damascus encouraged thousands to march on the Golan border. In clashes with Israel security forces up to thirty of the protesters were killed and the UN’s human rights chief Navi Pillay reminded Israel that it had a “duty to ensure that its security personnel avoid the use of excessive force.”

To mark the day in 2016 Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah claimed Israel was perpetuating a “dangerous cycle of violence.” In 2017 the US based Palestinian Community Network wrote that “we focus on the 1967 territories today, but we always continue organizing for liberation and return, and freedom for all our people on all our land.”

In Gaza some activists have said that they will try to cross the border on June 5 to coincide with the day. However the protests in Gaza now follow a known pattern of mass protests that Hamas launched as part of the Great Return March. Arabic media, including numerous sites connected to the Iran regime and supportive of Hezbollah, have emphasized the importance of Naksa Day online, but many of them have also sought to highlight Israel’s preparations. TasnimNews.come notes that while Palestinians prepare for the day, “the Zionist army with its full strength is preparing to deal with possible conflicts.”  AlMayadeen.net even published a translated article from Yisrael HaYom, which appeared to warn Hamas about any escalation that could lead to an Israeli ground operation.

FarsNews reported that the Hamas committee responsible in Gaza for organizing protests would send “mass protesters” to the border again, referencing the marches on Nakba Day. Shehab News, which is generally sympathetic to Hamas, also reprinted reports from Israel’s Maariv  about the “anticipated standoff” on the border.

In Jerusalem Quds Media reported that local Palestinian groups had called on protesters to assemble at Damascus Gate on Tuesday. Commentator Monther Swaisy tweeted that the Naksa Day events will be a test to see if Hamas and Israel can calm the recent tensions that has seen rocket fire over the last weeks. He noted that “two important events may constitute a major shift in the evolution of the incidents; first the revival of the Palestinian commemoration of the Naksa, and Hamas seeking to bring tens of thousands to the border wall.”

The preparations for protests Tuesday come amid Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Avi Dichter’s comments Monday that Israel could send troops to Gaza to put an end to rocket fire. Hamas knows the risks of a new round of violence on Tuesday and it knows Israel has targeted its infrastructure over the last weeks. On the other hand it doesn’t want to climb down and be seen as doing nothing.

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June 20, 2018

Unconfirmed reports that the US is seeking financial support for a Gaza industrial area to be built in northern Sinai are likely a trial balloon to see if such a plan would be met with support in Egypt and the region and are also intended to add controversy to the US administration’s drive for an Israel-Palestinian deal. The reports speak of a power plant or solar energy project near El Arish. Iranian state media has accused Israel and the US of reviving a plan to give Gaza Egyptian territory in Sinai. Reasons to be suspicious of this plan are that the price tag is only $500 million, which is not enough for a major industrial area to support Gaza and that Egypt has sought to isolate Gaza, not provide infrastructure for it. The reconciliation deal between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority fell through last year and without it there can be no Gulf money flowing to support Gaza or other fanciful projects. Saudi Arabia, which has been keen to purchase US arms and is seeking closer relations with Washington, has not shown real interest in other schemes to support US policy in Syria, or Gaza. And Riyadh is busy investing in other projects in Egypt. Without full throated support by Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi no plans for infrastructure in Sinai related to Gaza will ever become reality. The fact that Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas’s aid condemned the US plan on June 19 adds evidence to it being unlikely.

July 9, 2018

New Gaza flotilla plans to set sail

A group of activists in Gaza are seeking to set sail Tuesday, July 9 to “break the siege” of Gaza, they claimed on Monday. The activists timed their sailing to take place after months of the ‘Great Return March’ failed to make much of an impact and led to numerous injuries as Hamas sought to break through the security fence around Gaza

At a press conference Monday the National Organizing Committee of the Great Return March claimed that a group of small boats with patients and wounded would seek to leave Gaza en route to Cyprus. According to The New Arab Salah Abdul Atti, an organizer, called on the UN to protect the group of boats. A similar attempt was made in late May and intercepted by the navy.

Bassam Maanasra, a spokesman for the National Committee for Breaking the Siege, told Anadolu, a Turkish news outlet, that “the flotilla will set out at 11am carrying sick and injured Palestinians who have been unable to travel abroad.” At the same time a “Freedom Flotilla Coalition” is seeking to sail another ship called the Al-Awda to Gaza that has travelled thousands of miles from Scandinavian ports and was near Corsica on July 8. In May 2010 a large Gaza Flotilla of six ships was intercepted and nine activists killed in clashes. In 2011 a new flotilla stalled after one of the ships mysteriously suffered mechanical problems in Greece. Since then the phenomenon of flotillas has been on hiatus. Israel maintains a maritime security cordon around Gaza in which fishermen are allowed to fish within 9 nautical miles of the coast. Outside of that vessels are intercepted. It is rare that Palestinians have sought to breach this “blockade” and sail out of Gaza.

July 29, 2018

How the Gaza crises connects Qatar, Egypt and Washington

Qatar emissary claims Doha is credible peace broker in recent interview, asserting that Hamas is prepared to reduce tensions

No one wants a war in Gaza. But preventing a flare up has been difficult, despite the involvement of numerous states in the region and voices in Washington. Mohammed al-Emadi, Qatar’s senior emissary to Gaza said that he had an understanding from Jerusalem and Gaza to reduce tensions just days before sniper fire killed a soldier on Friday.

Al-Emadi, in an interview with Al-Jazeera on July 17, said that “there is an understanding between Hamas and Israel not to commit to killing from each side.” He noted that in mid-July Israel had struck 60 targets in Gaza. This was in retaliation for rocket fire. “Hamas installations and locations [were struck], but no Hamas members were killed. It is clear that Hamas evacuated their installations and Israel waited until Hamas sites were empty,” he said.

The interview sheds light on the international and regional context behind the recent deadly tensions in Gaza that has led Israel to the brink of war. Over the last weeks numerous milestones, in terms of the largest number of rockets and airstrikes, have been crossed since the last war in 2014. Yet Qatar and Egypt, as well as Washington and the UN envoy Nicolay Mladanov, have scrambled to stop a conflict, the Qatari emissary claimed. He spoke of a five year ceasefire but warned that Israel “wants to change the dynamics with Hamas.”

Since March Hamas has been trying new techniques against Israel. It began with the ‘Great Return March’ which resulted in thousands of casualties on the Gazan side as tens of thousands of people attempted to reach the border fence and some violently assaulted it. This culminated on May 14 when dozens were killed in Gaza at the same time as the US was moving its embassy. Then Hamas launched the kite and balloon wave of fires that have harmed southern Israel. All of these actions illustrate that Hamas is weakened from years of political and military isolation. Its rockets are smaller than in the last war, starved of material after Egypt cut its tunnels to Sinai. Israel stymied its tunnel threat as well. Al-Emadi however thinks Gaza has a deterrent in its rocket arsenal, which he claims if “50 times more than what they had in 2014.”

The Qataris have been investing in Gaza heavily over the last decade and Qatar has sought a role as a mediator. However Egypt has been playing the main role in seeking to stop tensions between Israel and Hamas, and has brokered ceasefires over the last several months. Qatar has sought to quietly compete with Egypt in this regard. Al-Emadi says that “the trust between Hamas and Egypt is lost. On the other hand, the messages we were delivering between Hamas and Israelis are the right messages. Qatar is credible with both sides.”

Meanwhile Washington is seeking a “deal of the century” in the West Bank and Gaza. Various parts of that deal have been leaked to the media, including suggestions of transferring four east Jerusalem neighborhoods and fanciful ideas of Egypt hosting a port in Sinai. In mid-July the Trump administration sought to focus on Gaza again according to a report at The Washington Post. Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Special Representative for International Negotiations authored an oped with Jared Kushner and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on July 19 asserting that “help is at hand for Palestinians. It’s all up to Hamas.” He tweeted in Arabic that Gaza could live in peace with its neighbors and become a tourist destination, but Hamas was preventing it from moving forward.

Although it appears that Egypt, Qatar and Washington are all waiting for an answer from Hamas the reality is that they are all pressuring Hamas and the only answer Hamas has given is to keep up its terror campaign in different forms. It doesn’t appear to indicate that it is ready to settle for any of the suggestions put forward by the regional and international players.

August 19, 2018

The long arm of Qatar’s Gaza policy seeks place at Gaza table

Qatar has been seeking to play a relevant role in Israel’s Gaza policy amid the recent crises with Hamas that has unfolded over the last six months. However it has often been frustrated in its efforts, isolated by Washington’s own drive for a ‘deal of the century’ and its dispute with its Gulf neighbors. Now the recent ceasefire discussions may being Qatar back into the group of countries working to avoid another conflict between Jerusalem and Gaza.

Last week Channel 10 reported that Israel Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman met in Cyprus with Qatar’s Gaza envoy, Mohammed Al-Emadi in June. At the top of Qatar’s list of concerns was the humanitarian issue, which Qatar has taken a key interest in for a decade. Doha could provide up to $350 million as part of a new deal to keep the peace between Jerusalem and Gaza. It has already provided around $800 million since 2014. On Thursday another report noted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Egyptian intelligence chief major general Abbas Kamel. The complex discussions between Israel and Egypt, Hamas and Egypt, the US and Qatar, and, at least in the background between Israel and Qatar, are the backdrop to the current attempt to create a long-term ceasefire with Hamas.

In July Al-Emadi told Al-Jazeera that Qatar and Hamas were discussing a five or ten year ceasefire with Israel by passing messages to Hamas and the US. “The Egyptians are indeed involved,” he said. “However, the problem is the Egyptians are not trusted by Hamas. This is because the Egyptians have made many promises to Hamas to achieve reconciliation with Fatah, among other things, more than a year ago, but they did not deliver on their promises.” So the deeper story is that Al-Emadi has sought to portray Qatar as the “credible” partner for “both sides.” Who are both sides though? Hamas and Fatah? Hamas and Egypt, or Hamas and Israel, and maybe Hamas and the US.

In June of 2017 Israeli politicians and experts praised the decision by Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, to cut ties with Qatar. Riyadh blamed Qatar for supporting extremism in the region, pointing to Hamas and Hezbollah and Al-Jazeera hosting extremists on its Arabic station. The immediate affect of this action was that Qatar formed a closer bond with Turkey as Ankara sent troops to defend the emirate. Since the US announced the embassy move to Jerusalem in December 2017 the Palestinian Authority leadership has also grown closer to Turkey, with Mahmud Abbas recently saying Ramallah stood with Ankara in the face of US pressure.  Abbas also held talks in Jordan in the second week of August where he rejected the US peace plan and then flew to Qatar.

This creates a complicated mess, but with two blocks of partners discernable. Qatar, Turkey, the PA and Hamas all enjoy amicable relations. Israel, Egypt, the US administration enjoy amicable relations. So the discussion for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas take place in the shadow of Qatar’s desire to play a role in both camps.

What role is this? In his meetings in Doha in early August, Abbas reportedly praised the efforts of Qatar in reconstructing the Gaza Strip. But he pointed out that these efforts went “through the legitimate authority and the Palestinian government.” When the Egyptian intelligence chief came to Israel last week he didn’t meet with Abbas, who was apparently angry that the deal appeared to give legitimacy to the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip, as if Hamas was its own government. So Abbas wants humanitarian aid to flow via Ramallah and not empower Hamas as if Hamas is its own authority. Qatar, when it discusses Gaza, doesn’t always mentioned the Palestinian Authority though. ‘If we are helping Hamas, do you think the Israelis would allow us to go inside and come out,” El-Emadi said in February.

Even more bizarre in the recent discussions is claims by Al-Mayadeen that Hamas would get some kind of sea corridor to Cyprus, and Qatar would pay salaries in Gaza, bypassing Ramallah and Ramallah’s own sanctions on salaries in Gaza.

It appears Doha is willing to do whatever is necessary to play a role. Part of this is because Doha has been trying to show its relevance to Washington. Last year it sought to lobby influencers in DC through pro-Israel voices and lobbyists that it paid. That didn’t work. So it reached out to Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, who had been tapped by Trump to push for a peace deal. As recently as June 21, the day before the Qataris allegedly met Liberman in Cyprus, the Emir met the Kushner/Greenblatt team. Despite all the talk of the “deal of the century,” the real deal of the year at least, is Doha hoping it can finagle some kind of Gaza deal involving Egypt, Israel, Hamas and the US with Turkey and Ramallah left out in the cold. Surely Turkey, Qatar’s closest ally today, will be concerned about that.

October 6, 2018

28 weeks of clashes: Too many agendas in Gaza preventing quiet

The Gaza border was quiet on Friday afternoon until around three in the afternoon when the protesters and riots began to gather at several points on the Palestinian side. It was the 28th week of protests since Hamas began sending masses of activists to the border on March 30th. The massive protests are continuing amid rising tensions because too many regional states and leaders cannot agree on how to end the crises.

Hamas is still talking about the ‘Great March of Return’ it launched back in March and April. On October 5 another 376 wounded and three dead were added to the list of those harmed in the clashes along the border. The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said that 197 have been killed and more than 21,000 injured in the last six months. The last weeks have added to the macabre totals. 506 injured on October 3, seven killed on September 28 according to reports. The numbers killed and wounded are larger than any similar period during the First Intifada. Hamas claimed on October 6 that it had “foiled a ‘conspiracy’ against Gaza.”

Ostensibly the current conflict between Hamas and Israel is local. Yahya Sinwar told interviewer Francesca Borri recently that “there is a real opportunity for change. War is not our interest, but at the moment an explosion is inevitable.”  The larger story is that there are several inter-related conflicts that connect Gaza to the region. Osama Hamdan, Hamas’s foreign policy head, told Al-Jazeera that “our experience with the Israelis has gone from bad to worse.” He claimed that the Palestinian Authority under Mahmud Abbas had not achieved the desires of the Palestinians for a state. “Israel does not want peace with us, it wants capitulation.”

But the reality of the current Hamas narrative is a product of its current isolated position. In the past it felt that terrorism would defeat Israel It thought this in the 1990s and during the Second Intifada and read the Disengagement as a victory for its side. It launched thousands of missiles and imported expertise and designed longer range missiles which reached their peak in the 2014 war. It built tunnels and trained naval commandos. At each juncture it thought that it could somehow break the siege imposed on it.

But the last years have proven difficult. Isolated by the Trump administration, by regional powers, by Egypt’s border policies and the Palestinian Authority, it is running out of options. The mass protests were one option and it has sustained them beyond expectations. However the Associated Press reports that “Abbas has thwarted a series of internationally backed initiatives aimed at rehabilitating the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.” Trump’s Israel-Palestinian peace team of Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have focused on Gaza. They have indicated that help for Gaza could come, but it’s up to Hamas.

This means that Abbas, who is also isolated, has placed himself astride the ability to deal with Gaza. There is fear in Ramallah that if Israel, the US and Hamas in Gaza come to some sort of agreement that it will further the separation of Gaza and the West Bank and bring legitimacy, even a sense of victory, to Fatah’s rivals in Gaza. This Abbas-Hamas conflict has been playing out in Cairo amid the endless discussions about reconciliation and also to avoid escalation with Israel. In addition Hamas accused the PA of blocking fuel, purchased by Qatar, from being transferred to Gaza.

A related problem is the break in relations between the US and Ramallah amid the Trump administration’s decision to move the embassy and also to cut aid to the Palestinians. And one cannot ignore the Turkish and Saudi Arabian role in discussions about the Palestinians and Gaza. In the past Turkey has sought to play a role, including discussions with Hamas and seeking to aid Gaza. Saudi Arabia also once played a more key role in discussions but its close relations with the Trump administration and dispute with Qatar have changed calculations.

In this context of disputes, Israel-Hamas, the PA-Hamas, Qatar-Saudi Arabia, Turkey-Israel, Egypt-PA-Hamas, Gaza has become a conflict whose untangling appears difficult. In Jerusalem there have also been more calls for a tougher policy on Gaza, with threats to escalate the conflict if the protests continue. But neither Jerusalem, nor Ramallah or the other players seem to have a real idea of what comes next in Gaza as long as Hamas remains in power in the enclave.

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October 18, 2018

On the ground in Gaza, a community in limbo

Daily life in Gaza is lived in contrast to the reports of clashes and riots at the border. During the last round of airstrikes that came in response to rockets fired at Beersheba at Gush Dan, many people did not hear or see the explosions, according to a witness.

In conversations with an analyst who recently returned from Gaza, but who asked to remain anonymous due to the nature of his work, a picture of life in the urban areas of the strip can be gleaned. Stores are full of goods, there is even a new mall with the kinds of shops one would find anywhere else in the world. The shops are empty. This is because many people don’t have work or have low salaries and can’t afford the items for sale in Gaza.

In contrast to Gaza Strip being presented as on the verge of collapse, with sewage overflowing, no electricity and food shortages, actual life there is relatively normal. The source contrasted it with life in Jordan or other countries in the region and said it was similar. Gazans even know that that they are not facing the tragedies of Syria and Yemen, where war and famine have killed and displaced many people.

Gazans have lived under blockade for more than a decade under Hamas rule. It is a young population. More than half the residents are under age 18 which means most of their life has been spent in the narrow confines of the strip. If one of their parents or relatives was lucky enough to have had work in Israel or abroad, and if their grandparents even remembered stories about life in British Mandate Palestine, the current generation has no such memories. They blame Israel first for their suffering and then the world for not caring and lastly they say the Palestinian Authority has been isolating them. This comes after almost six months of clashes with Israeli forces on the border in which more than 200 have been killed and thousands injured.

Now Gaza faces not only the crises  of the clashes but also cuts to UNRWA. Anger has seethed at the foreign UNRWA employees. NGOs who help treat the wounded from the protests are seeing an avalanche of casualties that the local health system cannot cope with.  Yet there is a feeling that Hamas has not taken responsibility for governing, directing its discussion toward Israel and stories of “return.” Despite the portrayal that Hamas is an oppressive force with gunmen everywhere, the reality on the ground is that Hamas control is more behind the scenes and less in the face. There aren’t posters everywhere. Many people quietly refrain from supporting the protests at the security fence. Gaza is a conservative area and many women cover their hair but there are no “morality police” chasing around after women.

There were some of the things the source found surprising. During the recent tensions there was little sign of the violence on the streets. Instead there was trash that the municipality had neglected to pick up.

Many places lack regular electricity and rely on generators. There are horses pulling around carts in some places in lieu of cars to move junk. While the deprivation of blockade does not manifest itself in stores, it does manifest itself in these ways. There is an ample supply of food, such as fish, but people are concerned about sewage in the water. Men and women who studied for degrees in sciences or other fields find that there are no jobs and no way to leave the strip for work. Some who once did have jobs abroad have seen their permits or passports expire and had to return.

There is also a feeling that the world has abandoned Gaza. Where once Gaza might have dreamed of a functioning international airport in the 1990s and burgeoning greenhouses after the Israeli disengagement handed over farms to the locals, all of these ideas are no more. Instead there is some money flowing from Qatar, which helped reconstruct areas after the 2014 war and also has helped supply fuel. But these are limited connections to the outside world. There are few foreign faces. Those who want to learn English might watch shows online, for their local teachers lack basic skills.

Gaza feels like an area in limbo, it’s life interrupted for more than a decade. Although people pay lip service to ideas of “return” they appear to know that this isn’t feasible. Yet they need to believe in something, they say.

October 27, 2018

Iran’s dangerous game in Gaza

The rocket fire overnight from Gaza may have been directed from Tehran or Iranian forces in Syria, according to Israel’s assessment. An IDF statement said that Palestinian Islamic Jihad launched rockets “under the encouragement of the terror-exporting Iranian regime,” and IDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said the rocket fire was conduced with “clear guidance from Iran” and the Iranian regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds Force in Syria.

This is a serious allegation and means that what appeared to be several salvos of rocket fire have hands guiding them across the region. Iran’s policy in the Gaza strip has been developing over the last two decades. A paper from the Institute for National Security Studies by Sima Shine and Anna Catran last year, noted the close relations that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have with Iran. “For years this backing has taken primarily the form of military air.” That included actual weapons and know-how for things like improving the range of rockets. This is important because Iran has also been accused of building rocket factories in Syria and Lebanon and sending precision guided equipment to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is part of a wider Iranian strategy in which Iran’s tentacles reach toward Israel on three fronts, in the Golan, on the northern Lebanese border and in Gaza.

Iran has benefited from the chaos and instability of the last years in the region and built what is often characterized as a crescent of influence or corridor to the sea from Tehran that stretches through Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. Evidence for this is clear in each country. In Iraq the IRGC has been accused recently of transferring missiles to Shi’ite militias and Iran has fired ballistic missiles at Kurdish opposition groups in Iraq. It has also fired precision ballistic missiles at ISIS in Syria, close to where US forces were battling ISIS. It has dozens of bases and has sent thousands of fighters, both its own Iranian IRGC members, and those recruited abroad from Shi’ite communities.

In the last year Jerusalem has increasingly warned of Iran’s role in Syria and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Iran to leave Syria in June. The IDF said in September it had struck 200 sites in Syria, many of them connected to Iranian arms transfers. But in September a Russian Il-20 plane was downed by Syrian air defense during an Israeli raid on Iranian sites in Latakia and Russia transferred the S-300 system to Syria. Israel has now warned about the precision guidance transfer to Hezbollah. And on October 25 Israel HaYom included a story about Hezbollah “working on establishing military infrastructure,” near the Golan border.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is the last link in this puzzle. Over the years the smaller organization, which often fights alongside Hamas against Israel, has received millions from Iran, according to the INSS report. The PIJ also trained with the IRGC in Syria. They were provided details on how to use Iranian-made missiles. After a short crises in relations in 2015, the PIJ continued to be a close ally of Tehran after 2016. Iran has also sought to improve its relations with Hamas, resuming financial support in May 2017. Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is a key architect of this, the INSS paper argues.

The question is why Sinwar, who has been discussing a ceasefire, and PIJ decided to fire dozens of rockets overnight. Is it as simple as an order from the IRGC in Syria or from Tehran to heat up the southern border. It came after a day of riots along the fence, the 31st week of clashes with Israeli forces, and after five were reported killed in Gaza. Hamas is trying to wage a dangerous game of pressure to achieve a ceasefire and some reduction in Jerusalem’s blockade. According to a statement by Manelis “Islamic Jihad did not wait to get a green light from Hamas,” to fire.

Iran may be trying to sabotage the ceasefire agreement that Egypt was working on. This is Iran’s way of showing it can do what it wants. Oddly Islamic Jihad called a ceasefire after the IDF struck eight of its terror sites, claiming it had also spoken to Cairo about the need for renewed calm. But what was the point then of the salvo of rockets and then putting its hands up and saying “ok, now ceasefire”? It is similar to the May incident on the Golan when the IRGC fired 20 rockets at Israel, only to have them all intercepted and for Jerusalem to conduct a massive raid on Iranian sites, which was said in foreign reports to have impacted between half and all the Iranian sites in Syria. The difference is that the PIJ has indicated it wants a ceasefire, while the IRGC in Syria and Iran’s activities across the region continue.

November 11, 2018

Gaza waiting for an explosio

Calm was supposed to prevail in Gaza after Qatar agreed to help civil servants in the Hamas-controlled area. It came after thirty-three weeks of clashes and riots along the border of the Gaza Strip in which more than 200 Palestinians were killed and thousands wounded. It also came after months in which there was rocket fire ever few weeks and where tens of thousands of dunams in the Negev were burned by balloons launched from Gaza. On Sunday a serious and developing incident that was still happening at press time, comes after months of Israel and Hamas squaring off against eachother.

The situation has brought Israel and Hamas to the brink of conflict several times. In July Israel launched the largest air raids since 2014. Waves of rockets also were the largest in years. In October Islamic Jihad, at the behest of Iran, launched a barrage. Each time Israel was able to thwart the rockets, but it was always only a matter of time before something more serious happened. At each juncture Hamas and Islamic Jihad also sought to test Israel. In July a soldier was killed by sniper fire. The protesters in Gaza also sought to test the ring of security fences.

The crises in Gaza has been further complicated by the conflict between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has held up negotiations and both Qatar and Egypt have put pressure on the PA to try to break the impasse. Similarly Hamas boasts that it has won the day with Israel, getting the Qatari money. Hamas claimed it was getting help to “break the siege,” in a press release on Saturday. It also blamed the PA for the sanctions it has suffered because the PA has starved it of salaries.

In Israel the complexities also involve anger about the never ending conflict along the border. Communities have protested in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They want a solution. They want quiet. And it plays into Israeli politics where there is jockeying to see who is the most “tough” on Gaza. What comes out of all of the debates over the last months is that many people want to talk tough, but no one wants a real conflict. Hamas knows that and also doesn’t want a conflict. Even Iran, which supports Hamas and Islamic Jihad, doesn’t want to see its investment squandered by a real war.

But given all of this tension it is always a situation on a knife edge. One false move and a major conflict could develop. It remains to be seen whether the Qatar transfer will bring calm or whether it was the calm before the storm.

November 12, 2018

On the border of Gaza

The sirens in border communities along the Gaza Strip sounded throughout the evening after the sun set on Monday. Amid the rising tensions  with Hams, more than 200 rockets were fired into Israel. Kfar Aza, which sits on the Gaza border east of Gaza city. From a viewpoint near a gas station the whole of the northern Gaza Strip was lit up. Rockets fired from the border flew toward Sderot around 8:45 at night. We could hear the booms of interceptions in the distance, but there was no sirens where we were. It was one of several salvos fired over my head, some seting or sirens and others heading further inland.

I’d been in the same spot next to Kfar Aza in 2014 during Protective Edge. Then the fields were full of armored vehicles; bulldozers, Merkava tanks, and armored personnel carriers, all waiting to go into Gaza. They churned up the fields and left tread marks everywhere. Today those fields are full of small crops and newly planted trees.

Floodlights in Kfar Aza framed the hilltop I sat on. Traffic on the road behind made it seem like life was going on as normal. But the peace and quiet along the border, and seeming normalcy, was broken up by rocket fire. At one point an Iron Dome Tamir missile floated through the air, searching for its target, almost grasping in slow motion to find it. It found it somewhere over Nahal Oz, with a big flash and then, a second later, a boom. Sirens here on the border give residents only a dozen seconds to search for shelter and residents were sleeping in armored rooms. A Magan David Adom emergency vehicle parked at the gas station nearby, waiting in case of casualties. Car alarms sounded in the distance, set off by the interceptions of Hamas missiles.

From time to time the heavy explosions could be heard in Gaza, the kind that make you wince a bit from their strength and percussion, the evidence of Israeli retaliation. For six months the border communities have been waiting for an answer to the tensions along the border. Thirty-three weeks of clashes and riots along the border have led to more than 200 deaths in Gaza and thousands of casualties. On the Israeli side thousands of dunams have been burned by Hamas balloons. Each month Hamas chooses the time and the place to attempt to strike at Israel, with riots, or other threats. Residents have said again and again that they want quiet, and that the government must act. But on Monday, after a serious escalation the night before in Khan Yunis, there was expectation that the government might act.

The shocking element of conflict along the Gaza Strip is always how normal life is just hundreds of meters from where rockets are fired. Life goes on. People drive to work and put their children to bed. From time to time sirens force residents to seek shelter. People in cars cannot seek shelter and they have no way of usually knowing there are sirens around them, so they drive along the streets, unaware of threats.

After the moon set on Monday the cold set in. December is creeping up. A gathering of the curious packed together to look over into Gaza. Residents, local workers, emergency workers, photographers. The fraternity of onlookers who come to see if there will be a war. So we waited, in the cold, for the next rocket, the next siren, and news of whether this round of conflict would end with a ceasefire or would lead to escalation.

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November 13, 2018

This is how a war that no one wants begins

On Tuesday Israel radio commentators were convinced that Jerusalem was not doing enough to confront the unprecedented rocket fire from Gaza. The government doesn’t want war and it has been telegraphing that over the last six months, leaving its enemies in Gaza to choose how, when and where to strike. This was abundantly clear when a Kornet laser-guided anti-tank missile slammed into a bus near the Gaza border.

The attack on the bus presaged a massive barrage of around 400 rockets that began at dusk and continued until after midnight. A trickle continued into the morning. This is precisely the place that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want to be, faced with a decision of what to do with Gaza. For almost ten years under Netanyahu the Gaza crises as percolated, and it has largely been ignored. This is because Hamas is an irredentist terrorist organization, isolated by the international community and its rule over Gaza can be segmented from the Palestinian Authority control in the West Bank. As such a kind of “bad cop, very bad cop” policy developed in Israel, in which Mahmud Abbas and the PA is seen as the ossified inciter, whereas Hamas is seen as a gang of terrorists whose threats can be checked by Israel’s mastery of defense technology and total dominance on air, land and sea.

The conflict with Hamas is not one where Israel has sought to win by dealing Hamas a decisive blow, or overthrowing the extremists. Instead it is a conflict that has largely been fought pragmatically, seeking a kind of balance of terror. Firstly, this is accomplished by checking all Hamas threats, whether it is the missile threat or tunnels or sea commandos. But Hamas has tried other methods, such as 33 weeks of riots along the Gaza border. These clashes, usually on Fridays, have led to 200 deaths and thousands injured in Gaza. From Jerusalem’s point of view checking the riots has been a success, but it comes with a price. The price is one in which Hamas knows that Israel doesn’t have an answer to massive protests.  That is why there is no real ceasefire, and it is why at every opportunity Hamas had tried to push and provoke.

It’s hard to map out exactly what caused the recent escalation. Was it the clashes near Khan Yunis in which an Israeli officer was killed and a senior Hamas member was killed? Or was it the Qatari money being transferred to Gaza and Hamas thinking it hadn’t gotten enough from the deal? Was it something else?

If we look back at the last Gaza conflicts, whether it was the abduction of Gilad Shalit in 2006, the lead up to Cast-Lead in 2009, Pillar of Defense in 2012 or Protective Edge in 2014, Hamas desired a war. During Pillar of Defense, Hamas fired 100 rockets which triggered the conflict. But there was not one single day during that week-long operation that Hamas ever fired 400 rockets. That means that the rocket fire of November 12-13 was more serious than during Pillar of Defense. In Cast-Lead one count says Hamas fired 750 rockets into Israel, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that 571 rockets were fired from December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009. That means that the rocket fire on Tuesday night was almost as serious, in one night, as all the rockets fired during one of the worst conflicts in Gaza.

There are many factors that drove Hamas to war in the past. One was the strength of its rocket inventory. With support from Iran and trafficking across Sinai, Hamas was able to increase the range of its rockets in the past. In 2014 it fired at Hadera with M-302 rockets that have a range of 150km. This was a serious escalation at the time. Hamas was arrogant in its pronouncements in 2014, claiming that any attack on Gaza would “open the gates of hell.”

What is driving Hamas today? In March of this year Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah visited Gaza with his intelligence chief, Majed Faraj. They were supposed to visit a wastewater treatment plant. It was supposed to lead to some kind of reconciliation, one of many that Fatah, which runs the PA, has sought with Hamas. But instead someone tried to blow up Hamdallah’s convoy. Weeks later the Great March of Return protests began, culminating in the deaths of dozens the day that the US embassy was moved to Jerusalem. This has to be seen as connected, an attempt by Hamas to gain relevance and to resist rapprochement with the PA.

At the same time Hamas has been enticed by chances of a ceasefire brokered by Egypt, and of receiving financial incentives from Qatar. Egypt opposes Hamas because of its connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, but Egypt wants quiet in Gaza. Qatar has supported Hamas and seeks to help reconstruct Gaza. But both Egypt and Qatar are unhappy with Hamas intransigence.  At the same time both Egypt and Qatar are also unhappy that the PA has been sanctioning Gaza.

The PA role in isolating Gaza is often not acknowledged. However over the last six months the PA has sought to isolate Gaza, even more than Israel has at times. In May Ramallah cut salaries to Gazans. In July activists protested in Ramallah aganst the cuts. The PA doesn’t want a separate Israel-Hamas agreement because it will legitimize Hamas. At the same time the PA is angered by the US embassy move and has cut off discussions with the Americans. This leaves both the PA and Hamas in Gaza unmoored from traditional allies and channels of communication.

Amid the isolation of Gaza and the PA, Israel appears to have done well in the region. The visits to the Gulf states in October and early November by Netanyahu, and ministers Miri Regev, Israel Katz, Ayoub Kara, were a major breakthrough. At the same time Netanyahu has sought to focus attention on the Iranian threat in Syria. A war in Gaza is thus the least desirable outcome, to be dragged into another round of fighting that leads to an inevitable conclusion where Israel wins the battle, but the slow-burning conflict continues forever. There is no Gaza strategy, nor has there been since 2006, and especially not since the end of Cast-Lead in 2009.

The details of Gaza’s woes are well known. Whether it is lack of electricity, or sewage seeping into the ocean, or basic things like lack of jobs and a future for almost a million Gazans who are under 18, these facts will not change. Neither Israel, nor Egypt, Qatar, the US or Ramallah have a plan to alter Gaza’s current course. The blame can be put at the feet of Hamas, which could choose to surrender power. But it likely will not do that because it doesn’t really have the people of Gaza at heart, but rather a larger agenda.

With all of these factors known, no one wants a war. But a war may come precisely because it is the only thing that Hamas thinks it can provoke to get some international or even regional attention. A Kornet fired at a bus and 400 rockets fired at Israel were an intention to start that war.

November 13, 2018

Ceasefire shows how much Israel desires “quiet”

After more than 460 rockets were fired, the most ever fired by Hamas on a single day, Israel accepted a ceasefire on Tuesday. It is largely an empty ceasefire that joined many others over the last six months. It doesn’t answer the fundamental issues involving Gaza or address the demands of residents in southern Israel or of Gazans. It is another way for Israel to save face and not have to go into a serious war. It is another classic part of this deadly dance between Jerusalem and Gaza, between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Hamas leadership.

Much of the conflict with Hamas is known beforehand and almost choereographed, in the sense that the outcome is largely known beforehand. As long as Hamas does not kill more than one or two Israelis, it gets away with firing rockets, or trying to infiltrate or even firing a Kornet anti-tank missile at a bus. It says “we will increase the range of the rockets,” if Israel retaliates more harshly. Similarly Israel telegraphs its actions, warning residents to evacuate building. Therefore the long list of targets that Israel strikes may be important infrastructure but are not strategically important to Hamas or Israel.

The ceasefire will give Hamas strength for the next round as it contemplates its position. Hamas is very isolated and it has not achieved anything, despite the massive volume of rocket fire. But it has shown it can inflict damage. Questions remain about the Kornet missile and the number of buildings struck in Ashkelon. Questions also remain about the clash near Khan Yunis that appeared to have set this off, and also about what happened with the $15 million of Qatari funds. Now we may not know, since there has been another ceasefire, more tough talk from politicians, more photos of armored vehicles and security cabinet meetings, and more of the same. Someone wondered why Netanyahu is so “dovish.” He’s not dovish. He’s led several wars against Gaza. He is just extremely pragmatic and addicted to managing a conflict that seems to have no path to victory. He is cautious. Cautious can be good because it might save lives and suffering. It also preserves the status quo of a divided Palestinian entity, with one government in Ramallah and another in Gaza. That is what ceasefires means. It postpone problems. But can Gaza’s problems be postponed forever?

November 14, 2018 

What Israel Defense Minister’s resignation, and Netanyahu’s response, means for Israel

[Full article appeared at Defense News]

Israel Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned on Wednesday, November 14 throwing Israeli politics into chaos at a sensitive time for regional security. His resignation comes in the wake of a ceasefire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and after several high profile visits by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government ministers to Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The resignation has potential to accelerate plans for early elections, which comes at a time when new US sanctions on Iran and the conflict against Islamic State in Syria are of lasting importance in the region. It is not expected to affect US-Israel relations, but may postpone a large defense deal.

November 16, 2018

How Hamas brought Israel to the brink of elections chaos

Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned on November 14 in the wake of a ceasefire agreement with Hamas in Gaza. His resignation has now plunged Israeli politics in chaos as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must juggle what’s left of his fragile coalition government and is being pressured to appoint Naftali Bennet, head of the Jewish Home party, as the new Defense Minister. Hamas, which has been challenging Israel with six months of protests and rocket fire from Gaza, has now achieved what it sees as a victory. Despite its inability to penetrate Israel’s defenses around Gaza, it may bring down the government.

The latest round of violence, that resulted in Lieberman’s departure, began on Sunday, November 11 when an IDF special unit ran into trouble in Gaza during what has been characterized as a sensitive reconnaissance or surveillance operation. During an exchange of fire with Hamas near Khan Yunis a high ranking Israeli officer was killed and in subsequent air strikes seven Palestinians were also killed, including a senior Hamas commander. The next day tensions were palpable and Israel heightened security around the Gaza Strip. Armored personnel carriers were brought up to the border. At dusk Hamas fired a Kornet anti-tank missile at a bus carrying soldiers and unleashed a barrage of rockets. Over the next twenty-four hours more than 460 rockets were fired at Israel, killing one man in Ashkelon. Israel’s Iron Dome defense system intercepted most of the rockets that were headed for towns and cities near Gaza. Others landed in open areas. The IDF retaliated by striking 160 targets.

This kind of cycle of rocket fire and air strikes has become common over the last six months. It began with Hamas launching the Great March of Return in late March of this year, sending tens of thousands of protesters to the border fence. Hamas wants to achieve relevance after 12 years of governing Gaza with nothing to show for it. Hamas has been isolated in the last year not only by Israel’s blockade, but also because the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has sought to sanction civil servants in Gaza and cut their salaries. Opposed by Egypt, Hamas receives some financial support from Qatar and Iran, and verbal backing from Turkey, but it has failed to govern. It has also failed in its terror campaign against Israel as Jerusalem has found ways to stop Hamas tunnels, confront its “naval commandos” and thwart its rockets. In October Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired dozens of rockets at Israel and the IDF struck 80 targets in Gaza. In July, after Hamas fired 170 mortars and rockets into Israel, the air force also struck 40 sites in Gaza.

Netanyahu’s real concern is the Iranian threat and especially Iran’s role in Syria and Lebanon. He has called for Iran to leave Syria and Israel has waged a campaign against Iranian targets in Syria and against Iranian weapons transfers to Hezbollah. Since 2011 Israel has struck 300 targets in Syria, 200 in the last two years. Israel has also warned about Hezbollah’s growing network of rocket factories and facilities in Lebanon, especially as Iran’s ballistic missiles become more precise and Iran is alleged to have transferred that precision guidance to Hezbollah. In October Russia transferred the S-300 anti-aircraft system to Syria and has warned in late October against any “hot heads” in Israel testing the air defense. This means Israel has to work doubly hard to figure out how to continue to confront the Iranian threat in Syria. It also means working with the US administration. US envoy James Jeffrey said on November 14 it was the US goal to see Iranian forces leave Syria. Also Netanyahu recently visited Oman and Israeli ministers visited the United Arab Emirates in early November. This points to a breakthrough in Israeli relations with the Gulf and is part of the wider regional strategy to confront Iran.

Given the Iran-focused regional strategy, the last thing Netanyahu wants is a difficult ground war in Gaza. Netanyahu already presided over the 2014 war in Gaza and the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, which achieved little except setting back Hamas’s abilities. Those conflicts were largely the result of Hamas importing weapons and expertise via smuggling from Sinai, taking advantage of the chaos of the Arab Spring. Now Hamas is weaker and its conduit to Sinai is cut off. Netanyahu and his security establishment, according to numerous conversations I had, are prone to avoid another war. They want an Egyptian-backed ceasefire to hold while maintaining the status quo in Gaza. This enables Israel to focus on the region, instead of inflaming the region with a war in Gaza.

It was in this complex context that Lieberman resigned. A competent defense minister who helped manage Israel’s $19 billion defense budget and helped secure the $3.8 billion in annual US military aid that was signed in 2016, he shepherded through deliveries of the first F-35s and also contemplated new purchases by Israel of a squadron of F-15s and new helicopters.

But politically Lieberman found himself isolated at the defense ministry. Eran Lerman, vice-president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, and a former deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, describes Lieberman as isolated by the rest of Netanyahu’s security cabinet which supported the ceasefire. Those who supported the ceasefire included the Mossad, the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and the Chief of Staff of the army. In such a position Lieberman’s role as defense minister became less relevant and he chose to resign so as to appear more hardline on Gaza than Netanyahu. This will play well in upcoming elections, which will be held some time next year, because many Israelis in the south who have been affected by the rockets think that Jerusalem should deal Hamas a strong blow. That was clear on Wednesday and Thursday night as protesters burned tires near Sderot, one of the towns often targeted by Hamas. Protesters have also marched on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Domestic policy is now ruffling Netanyahu’s carefully crafted foreign policy and strategic equation. In this respect, Hamas’s claims of “victory” in the ceasefire are not just empty rhetoric. Hamas didn’t achieve a military victory. But toppling the defense minister is a kind of victory because it shows that Hamas can shake Jerusalem’s politics at the very top, after years of being unable to put a dent in the iron ring of security fences and missile defenses around Gaza.

Now Netanyahu will be faced with several complex choices. Naftali Bennet, the head of the Jewish Home party, says he wants the defense portfolio. But Bennet, like Lieberman, will want to be an independent defense minister. This would once again challenge Netanyahu to do more in Gaza. The Prime Minister could also take on the job of defense minister himself, something former Israeli prime ministers have done. But Netanyahu is already the foreign minister, how he would handle the three top jobs, concentrating so much power, is unclear.

If Israel’s Prime Minister is unable to sort out the current instability then the country will go to elections. Given Netanyahu’s interest in the current regional strategy, elections would be another distraction. This was exactly what he sought to avoid in Gaza, but now it may be presented in another form. After almost ten years in power, Netanyahu will have trouble winning another election. He wants to preserve his legacy and being forced to elections and potentially forced from office now would be humiliating. Lieberman has thrown Israel’s politics into momentary chaos at a crucial time in the region. Hamas thinks it has gained an advantage and it may try to press that advantage or seek to interfere if it thinks it can gain something amid the instability in Netanyahu’s coalition.

December 14, 2018

Fears of Friday escalation dimmed as Hamas fails to ignite West Bank

One killed in clashes with IDF in Jalazone as many protesters also vent anger at Palestinian Authority

Hamas failed to escalate tensions with Israel on Friday after a week of two drive-by shootings and widespread raids against Hamas activists in the West Bank. Clashes across the West Bank were relatively small, with hundreds participating and one Palestinian teen reported killed in Jalazone north of Ramallah. The IDF and Border police succeeded in dispersing rioters while Palestinian Security Forces also cracked down on pro-Hamas demonstrations.

On Thursday night the IDF launched an operation across the West Bank in response to the attack at Givat Asaf in which two soldiers were killed. According to a statement the IDF apprehended 40 suspects, 37 of them known as Hamas activists. According to Palestinian media Hamas activists were detained in Hebron, Ramallah, Azariya and other areas. Hamas pushed for widespread disturbances across the West Bank, using social media to encourage an “explosion” in the West Bank. On Friday morning a Palestinian assailant attacked an IDF soldier at a military post in Beit El.

Hamas held rallies in Gaza to celebrate the 31st anniversary of its founding on Friday. It hoped to use these rallies to escalate tensions in the West Bank. This would gain it influence in negotiations with Fatah, the leading party in the Palestinian Authority, where it is trying to get an agreement that would end Hamas isolation in Gaza. The attacks this week were supposed to showcase Hamas power. However across the West Bank it was unable to gain a purchase through demonstrations or rallies. In the morning there were protests reported in Nablus and Tulkarm in which Hamas flags were seen. Palestinian Security forces clamped down on the rallies in Nablus and on a Hamas demonstration in Hebron. Women supporters of Hamas played a major role in Hebron, clashing with Palestinian police. Local media expressed shock that the Palestinian police used batons against Palestinian male and female demonstrators.

By the afternoon, after prayers let out, demonstrators gathered north of Al-Bireh on the road that leads to the DCO checkpoint and Beit El. This is a frequent gathering point for demonstrations by Palestinian youth. The young men pushed dumpsters and tires into the road and ignited them. Near Jalazone, a village and refugee camp, more young men lit tired. IDF forces and Border police monitored the gatherings as they grew. Black smoke billowed skyward. Eventually the IDF used tear gas to disperse around 100 demonstrators who had gathered. In other areas of the West Bank, including near Nablus, around Tekoa and at Nabi Saleh, similar scenes took place.

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January 25, 2019

Tense day on Gaza border

Friday riots on the Gaza border came amid rising tensions between Israel and Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip. On Friday the fields along the border fence, where Israeli communities are within eyesight of Palestinian houses in Gaza, tensions ran high. Tanks, IDF patrols and security vehicles ensured that potential violence did not boil over. Near Kibbutz Nahal Oz and in the northern Gaza Strip smoke and tear gas could be seen in Gaza and hundreds of protesters.

Five points along the Gaza border, where Palestinian urban areas sprawl towards the border fence, have become flashpoints over almost ten months of protests that Hamas has called the Great Return March. Every Friday protesters gather and confront the IDF. On January 25 the protests began after Friday prayers and stretched into sunset. From the border tear gas fired near the crowds could be seen and distant rifle fire, fired into the air somewhere in Gaza City, could be heard.

Despite calls on the Palestinian side to increase protests and rumors that violence would increase, the protests mostly passed without major incidents on the Israeli side. This is due to the long experience of months confronting the same kind of riots every week and the frustration on the Gazan side at the ineffectiveness of the demonstrations. The IDF cordoned off some access to Gaza, telling journalists that part of the area was a closed military zone. In the distance security jeeps and a tank could be seen from Kibbutz Nahal Oz, whose fence is only a kilometer from the Palestinian enclave.

Several local residents watched the smoke and tear gas that billowed infrequently from near the Karni factories and crossing. Just before sunset Palestinian ambulances were heard frequently arriving and leaving the border area, their sirens blazing. The protesters chanted and waves Palestinian flags. However threats that the demonstrations Friday would be a major escalation after several days of tension did not materialize.

March 27, 2019

A night on the Gaza border, waiting for another war

The Gaza border is haunted by memories of former wars. In 2014 the fields around Kfar Aza were churned up by the D-9 bulldozers, Merkava tanks and aging M113 armored personnel carriers. On Tuesday night the area was quiet. The fields were troweled, ready for springtime. They did not want to be trampled by tank treads. But the fields, like the people of Gaza and the surrounding communities have no say. We are waiting for the next war that will be decided in Yahya Sinwar’s bunker, or in the Kirya in Tel Aviv.

Every round of violence along the Gaza border of the last year, since the Great Return March began in March 2018, has brought the same cycle of tit-for-tat exchanges. Hamas has tried to innovate with its mass human wave protests along the Gaza security fence. It has made balloons. It has tried sniper fire. Even using an anti-tank missile in November. And they still fire their long-range rockets, feigning “mistakes” after they struck Beersheba last October and Mishmeret this week.

I went down to the Gaza border as I’ve done so many times. The 58-minute drive from Jerusalem. Down route 3 to Ashkelon and then to Yad Mordechai. Sometimes I take the 232 over to Sderot, in case the road has been blocked near the border. Last night the drive down was interrupted several times by lumbering M109 Self-Propelled Howitzers nesting on flat-bed trucks, being taken south. This is called the long “tail” that follows armies into the war zone. The massive logistics operation involved in deploying an armored brigade, like the seventh armored which was deployed this week as tensions rose.

What is perhaps remarkable about Israel is how it has gotten so used to preparing for war that armored units and the men attending them can be rushed to the south without disrupting civilian life everywhere. People can drive along the border and intermix with an army that is being deployed. Often one wouldn’t know there was a conflict brewing if one didn’t know where to look and kept the radio off. Last night there were the familiar police blue-and-white lights flashing near the Black Arrow Memorial park near the border. This is where one can look into Jabalia and Gaza city during times of peace. During times of tension it gets closed. The process of shutting down sensitive areas around the Gaza Strip always follows similar patterns. Certain roads have checkpoints, sometimes concrete blocks are put down. Then they will be taken away when it is all over.

On Tuesday night I sat next to a gas station near Kfar Aza. I’ve been here before. There is a green oil drum. I’d eaten some crackers on that in November last year when 460 rockets were fired at Israel. It was near constant red alert sirens then. But last night it was quiet. A rocket fired at Ashkelon brought concern that a round of fighting might begin. Instead air strikes targeted the southern Gaza Strip. It was only in the early hours of the morning that another rocket was fired at Ashkelon, and quickly intercepted. By the time dawn began to break, it was clear that another day would pass before escalation might begin again.

War has a rhythm, especially the Gaza front. Hamas and its lesser terrorist partner Palestinian Islamic Jihad, tend to fire rockets at dusk and dawn. Sometimes throughout the night. But less frequently during the day. Why do they do this? It’s not clear. Before or after morning prayers at 4am? Do they think they can hide better at these hours? There’s no evidence that they can

The decision to deploy armored forces near the Gaza border this week conjurs up memories of the 2014 war. This illustrates how seriously Israel takes the escalation. But the last year has shown the reticence that Jerusalem has for a conflict with Gaza. Most of these calculations are well known. They appear to be well known in Gaza as well. Ilanit Chernick, my colleague who accompanied me down to the border last night, said it seemed like a game of cat and mouse. The cat and the mouse both know the rules, and they know the consequences.

Important considerations are at play on the border. Hamas has indicated that Iran is trying to stir the pot in Gaza. Egypt is also trying to simmer it down. No one wants a war. But Hamas also understands that Israel is having elections soon. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stressed that Israel views the situation in the north, particularly Iranian entrenchment in Syria, as the major challenge for Israel. Gaza’s threats are well known, they have been checked at each attempt over the last decades. Whether it is tunnels or long-range missiles, or balloons and protests. Gaza’s leaders understand they cannot achieve much against Israel. A recent Hamas propaganda film showed a giant Hamas fighter being pummeled by Israeli tanks and aircraft. It was symbolic of Hamas’s own understanding of its limitations. Gone are the videos of the heroic “frogmen” that were decimated in their 2014 attack on Zikim. Gone are the videos of snipers dressed like Tusken Raiders in Star Wars.

I slept in the car last night, briefly attempting to catch a few minutes nap on the cold concrete parking lot, sheltered from the lights by the rear of my Toyota. It reminded me of a different war, a different cold night. All wars seem to be the same in this respect. The waiting. The cigarettes. The coffee.  That moment at dawn when everything becomes so melancholy beautiful, only to be dragged back to the reality of conflict and struggle. For the residents of the Gaza Strip and for the Israeli communities that ring the enclave, this constant cycle is burdensome. The Israeli residents speak to the media about their children growing up in the shadow of constant alerts. Even though the area has developed, with new construction, parks and shopping areas in Sderot, the concern is always there that the next round will come.

At dawn on Wednesday we drove around to see some of the armored units deployed near the Gaza strip. The tanks bathing in the morning sun, resting amid fields still wet from the dew. The fog was being chased away and the men were getting up. A truck with portable toilets was humming. The long logistics tail had brought the bathrooms. An army marches on its stomach, but it also leaves behind excrement. And the excrement will become part of the soil, and give new life to plants, until the next round, when those plants will be churned up by tank treads.

March 28, 2019

Egypt’s key role in a year of Gaza ceasefires

Egypt has balanced Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in playing a responsible role, attempting to broker numerous truces and ceasefires

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

 

Egypt has scrambled over the past week to help prevent tensions from escalating between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It has now become proficient at temping down the near weekly escalations and shows how Cairo has played a key role over the last year.

 

Egyptian officials worked since March 25 to put in place a ceasefire they helped broker after a long-range rocket was fired at Israel and Jerusalem rushed an armored and infantry brigade to the border. The ceasefire went into affect in the evening but was subsequently broken in the last days. The recent effort was announced by Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum on March 26. Egyptian officials reportedly worked throughout March 27 and Thursday to discuss a series of issues, including the 12-year blocked of the Gaza Strip and Hamas ending the rocket fire. But Hamas wants to keep the momentum of its Great Return March.

The Great Return March, now in its year anniversary, has led to more than 260 deaths and thousands of injured in Gaza. It has also seen major escalation in rocket fire, including more than 460 rockets fired in November, and a long range rocket fired at Beersheba in October. The clashes were worst when the US moved its embassy in May. Israel has altered its tactics and so has Hamas. Balloons have become a mainstay and now night-time rioting and Tuesday rioting near the beach.

From Egypt’s point of view it is important the quiet be maintained in Gaza and the situation not spiral out of control. Egypt has a historic role in Gaza dating back to the 1948-1967 period when it controlled Gaza. But its current role there is more complex. Unlike Jordan, Egypt never became home to large numbers of Palestinians, nor did it grant them citizenship or become a protector of the holy sites in Jerusalem. Egyptians in Cairo and Gazans are not nearly as closely connected. Yet Egypt has an important role because Gaza adjoins the Sinai and because terror smuggling networks have operated in Sinai. In addition Hamas as a movement is rooted in and  related to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which the current Egyptian government loathes. Yet as mediators the Egyptians have played an impressive and unprecedented role. Egypt has played a key role for decades, particularly in helping end the 2012 and 2014 conflicts.
TO understand that role we need to recognize that Israel and Hamas have actually been engaged in a kind of war over the last year with so many rockets and high enough casualties that it can be compared to the First Intifada in terms of casualties and the 2009 war in terms of rocket fire. That is no small thing, and yet at every step Egypt has helped prevent a massive escalation that would have resulted in an Israeli ground operation and larger numbers of casualties. Gaza is still recovering from the 2014 war. Hamas wants to remain relevant after its 12 years in power and little to show for it.

Meanwhile the Palestinian Authority has cut salaries in Gaza and Qatar has stepped in to pay $15 million in cash payments a month. From Ramallah’s perspective the prospect of a separate Israel-Hamas deal is a disaster. At the same time the PA is isolated because the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem and cut funding to UNRWA, which has caused a crises in the PA and anger at the US. The US has gone further, trying to evict Palestinian representatives from Washington. Herein lies an opening, oddly, for Hamas. Israel loathes Hamas, which carried out large number of bus bombings in the 1990s and 2000s. But Israel benefited from a divided Palestinian Authority, and Israel wants quiet in Gaza, not another war. Israel has indicated as much through its focus on the Iranian threat. So Iran also tries to stoke tensions in Gaza, at least two times prodding its Islamic Jihad proxies in Gaza to fire at Israel last year and this year.

How does Hamas view the Egyptian mediation. Hamas has frequently thought to thank Egypt for its help, realizing Cairo is its own access point to the outside world. It hailed Egyptian efforts on December 5. Ismael Haniyeh thanks Egypt, along with Qatar, Iran and Kuwait, on December 16. Hamas officials also met Egyptian journalists in February, spoke of “bilateral relations” developing with Egypt on January 17, and hoped Egypt would open the Rafah crossing on January 14. Hamas also condemns terror attacks in Egypt to show its solidarity. Gazans are also treated at Egyptian hospitals, an issue Hamas recognized in November 2018 and February of this year.

Reading through a year of Hamas press releases one gets a sense of how Hamas views the Egyptian role. Here is what Hamas says. On November 15 Hamas leader SInwar met an Egyptian delegation, Egypt brokered a ceasefire on November 18 and on November 25 a Hamas delegation visited Cairo, meeting Egyptian intelligence officers on November 30, according to Hamas. In December relative quiet prevailed under an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire. Hamas met a senior Egyptian delegation on January 11. On February 4-5 Hamas met another Egyptian intelligence delegation. Egypt sent Hamas an invitation to talks on February 6 and Hamas senior members went to Cairo on February 26. Days later Egypt prepared for a new round of talks and Hamas met a delegation on March 8.Egypt had “doubled” its efforts, Hamas said.  On March 24 Egypt had succeeded in its efforts at mediation.

Overall Egypt is clearly a constant and key player in Gaza. The UN has been involved in these negotiations as well, but the consistent player is Egpyt. It has also worked for Palestinian reconciliation. Israel and Egypt are more mum on the outcome of the negotiations and details. Reports indicated last November that one included sticking point was relaxing the blockade of Gaza. Egypt has not been opposed to Qatar paying salaries in Gaza, indicating the PA has been the main opposition body. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah even refused to meet UN officials in October, claiming the UN was involved in reconciliation efforts between Hamas and Israel.

We know this because Ramallah has been deeply hostile to deals between Israel and Hamas and Egypt’s president has sought to persuade Mahmoud Abbas to accept a truce agreement, according to reports in November last year. Fatah had even warned Hamas in August 2018 not to reach a deal with Israel. The August discussions involved a potential five-year truce. Egypt tried again in October. The high point of the discussions was in August 2018. This came in the wake of rising tensions in July. Egypt had to work to salvage its ceasefire in September though. In November Abbas appeared increasingly isolated by January Egypt had invited Abbas for more meetings.

We know that push for an Israel-Hamas truce of some sort date back to at least May of last year, when both Egypt and Qatar were involved after the clashes that had left many dead and injured along the border due to Hamas encouraging violent protests. The deeper discussions date to a reconciliation agreement in October 2017 brokered by Egypt. This percolated on into February 2018 when it began to breakdown. An assassination attempt against Hamdallah and Majed Faraj in March in Gaza didn’t help. The PA removed its staff from Rafah in January 2019.

Egypt has played a responsible role, particularly as the PA has distanced itself from Hamas, Israel and the US, and been having its own internal discussions about how best to respond and manage its affairs. But after numerous ceasefires over the past year, the question is if something less than temporary will ever be achieved. For now most of the discussions are in the shadows, which preclude a long term and transparent understanding.

March 31, 2019

The ‘existing is resisting’ Gaza protest is working

Both Hamas and Israel have achieved their strategic goals in Gaza over the last year

On the one year anniversary of the Great Return March the morning began with weather that had the consistency of soup. Dust clogged the air. It threatened to rain. However 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. Both Israel and Hamas, the main organizer of the protests, have altered their tactics a bit, but the overall strategy is the same. Hamas wants to keep the pressure up. They want to maintain relevancy after twelve years of largely failed rule in Gaza. They want concessions. They want attention. And they want martyrs. But not too many martyrs. This is the horrid calculus behind the squaring off along the fence. Israel’s strategy is also clear. No protesters or violent rioters must cross and the protests must not become a cover for attacks, such as laying IEDs or sniper fire, or worse.

So far both Israel and Hamas have been successful in their strategy. While Hamas boasted last year that these marches were “return,” and that Palestinians would be celebrating the conquest of Jerusalem, obviously they know this is not possible. Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, served 22 years in an Israeli prison. He is from Gaza, born in Khan Yunis in 1962. He knows exactly what he is up against. When he was younger in the 1980s Palestinians from Gaza would go to Israel and work and Israelis would go to Gaza. Before the border area was relaxed and much different than it is now. Sinwar was still in prison during the Disengagement, returning to Gaza in 2011 during a prisoner exchange. The Gaza he returned to was ringed with walls and fences and a sea blockade. Yet at that time Hamas had long range rockets and was building better ones, benefiting from smuggling via Sinai. Sinwar has watched as Israel met the rocket challenge and the tunnel challenge.

The protests are an innovation by Hamas. A realization of the concept of “existing is resisting” and samud or “steadfastness.” That Hamas was able to maintain the protesters for a year, every Friday and then on Tuesdays and also at night, was a major accomplishment. No other Palestinian movement has ever been able to accomplish something like that for a year, in terms of sustained and regularized mass protests. Yes, the First and Second Intifada were sustained. But the Gaza protests are something unique. They are often not seen that way in media, because Gaza has becomes less interesting amid the other crises of the region, and also because media coverage is a bit curtailed. It’s not the First Intifada or Second Intifada in that respect. The Gaza protesters are not a global cause celebre.

It’s hard to judge how important the protests are for ordinary Gazans. In terms of dead and wounded there have been thousands of wounded, many shot with live ammunition, and around 260 killed. Humanitarian medical NGOs that work in Gaza have described difficult treating the large numbers of people.

On the Israeli side the relative success of Hamas can be seen in the burned fields and the need to constantly close portions of the border area as tesions escalate. The success can also be seen in shifting Jerusalem’s attention to the Gaza issue every few weeks when Jerusalem has said it wants to concentrate on the Iranian threat in Syria. This is no small accomplishment. TO shift Israeli policy and yet Israel has been smart enough so far not to be dragged into a war. The number of rockets fired from Gaza 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. A ceasefire will result.

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 it can outsmart Hamas. Using the latest sensors, electro-optical imaging, drones, and a whole coterie of other gadgets Israel is able to use 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.

I went down on Saturday to see the clashes unfold.  In general the Gaza Strip area was cordoned off so that one could not drive along backroads and dirt tracks to go see the clashes. The IDF asks journalists to come to one location near Nahal Oz where one can see the conflict unfold.  In the south of the Gaza Strip near Kerem Shalom the fields were awash with dust. In the background flash bangs and shouting could be heard, along with ambulances on the Palestine side. A giant Palestinian flag fluttered. Military vehicles plied the border.

Further north near Kissufim and other areas, the same story unfolded. One could also see the significant military presence, the layers of military police, vehicles and cordons meant to keep civilians from getting close to the border. Iron Dome batters had also been deployed, and soldiers using Skylark drones positioned their winged metal birds in a field.

The relative quiet along the border is a testament to the IDF’s efforts. But the need to secure the border, and the constant alert in border communities is testament to what the Gazans have done. No one wants this situation to continue forever. For now, it appears it will.

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