Hamas’ ‘March of Return’ End Game In Gaza
While the terror group has no appetite for a full-blown military conflict with Israel, the longer the turmoil continues the higher the probability of such an eventuality
For the past two Fridays, tens of thousands of Palestinians have converged on the Gaza Strip border to participate in the Hamas-initiated “March of Return,” with both instalments descending into violent conflagrations between protesters and Israeli forces, resulting in the deaths of two dozen Palestinians.
According to the Israel Defense Forces, at least half of those killed belonged to terrorist organizations, a revelation that pours cold water on Hamas’ claim that the demonstrations are meant to be peaceful rather than geared towards harming Israeli troops, or, at the very least, provoking a response that generates an international backlash against Jerusalem.
Thus far, Israel has limited its exposure due in large part to the U.S.’ willingness to wield its veto power in the UN Security Council. But with additional protests planned between now and May 15, when the Palestinians will mark the Naqba—that is, the “catastrophe” of Israel’s creation in 1948—a multitude of dangerous scenarios could transpire.
In fact, the next ten days in particular will go a long way towards determining whether there will be an escalation, with this coming Friday acting as a barometer of Hamas’ ability to mobilize its citizenry over the long-term given that the terror group has little to show for its efforts to date; and especially next week when Israel celebrates its 70th Independence Day.
Gabi Ophir, previously the head of the IDF’s Home Front Command, views Hamas’ decision-making process primarily through the lens of the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian enclave. “One needs to recognize that the conditions are very, very difficult. The residents are economically deprived and the unemployment rate is high. They do not work in Israel, they do not have a port and there is no infrastructure. There is nothing—and Hamas has no solution for its citizens. Therefore, it needs to create provocations in order to gain international attention, even at the price of death and destruction.”
Ophir noted that Hamas has become frustrated given its lack of viable options in the wake of Israel’s development of defensive technologies to neutralize the traditional threats posed by rockets and subterranean attack tunnels. As such, the terror group resorted to the tried-and-tested method of “popular resistance” in order to stir up tensions, albeit the outcome has been less satisfactory from its perspective.
“Up until now the IDF has worked very smartly,” Ophir expounded, “and most of the fatalities have been Hamas operatives from its military wing. The IDF has good intelligence to specifically target those that need to be and sees when people use the crowd to get weapons close to the border. You will therefore see that the demonstrations will become fewer and farther between as long the IDF continues to act as it has.”
However, he qualified, this would not portend a resolution to the problems in Gaza, “for as long as there is no [comprehensive deal] that gives hope to the people, there will be no answer.”
Avi Melamed, Salisbury Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs at the Washington-based Eisenhower Institute, similarly believes that the “March of Return” is primarily motivated by internal Palestinian dynamics. “Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are experiencing some significant challenges and their maneuverability is quite restricted,” he contended to The Media Line. “At the same time, the reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas is not materializing, especially in the wake of the attempted assassination of [PA Prime Minister Rami] Hamdallah. This, coupled with discontent with the Trump administration, requires Hamas to act out in some manner and rallying around the issue of Jerusalem and the Palestinian right of return [of refugees to Israel] makes sense because there is a consensus in this regard.”
The protests nevertheless pose a dilemma for Hamas, which needs to balance its desire to wreak havoc against its present lack of appetite for a full-blown conflict with Israel, a distinct possibility given the inherent risks associated with sowing unrest in a combustible arena. In this respect, Melamed points to two recent occurrences that he believes indicates that Gaza’s rulers will choose to err on the side of caution; the first being an interview given by senior Hamas official Salah Bardawil in which he called for open dialogue with the United States, and the other an appeal by Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh to the Arab League to file war crimes claims against Israel at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, which reinforces the terror group’s apparent willingness to pursue diplomacy as opposed to fully committing to military engagement.
“Hamas’ main goal is to bring the Palestinian issue back to the table as over the past few years nobody has cared about what is going on in Gaza,” Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel, former director of Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau, explained to The Media Line. “Concurrently, Hamas is trying to earn an achievement that it can present to its citizens, so it is likely that it will continue on the same path.”
Indeed there are indications that Hamas will not let up until it attains a “victory,” the latest example being the detonation on Wednesday of an explosive device—reportedly planted during the previous mass demonstration—next to an IDF vehicle along the frontier. While the attack caused no injuries, the outcome could just as easily have been similar to that of an incident in mid-February when a bomb wounded four IDF soldiers, two severely, during a routine patrol near the border fence.
There are a number of other possibilities to take into account should the protests wane, including the prospect of Hamas activating cells in the West Bank in order to open up a second front against Israel. The Iranian wild card is also in play, as Tehran could conceivably apply pressure on its Gaza-based proxies to use any unrest along the border as cover to perpetrate an attack in retaliation for Jerusalem’s bombing on Monday of one of its military facilities in Syria.
“The Iranians want to respond through their proxies, not only those in Gaza [which includes Islamic Jihad] but also in Lebanon [with Hizbullah] and [Shiite fighters] in Syria,” Nuriel told The Media Line. “But if there is a reaction only on one front, Israel can deal with it. Tehran is therefore more likely to wait to create a bigger issue [along multiple borders].”
Nevertheless, he concluded, “the overall situation in Gaza has the potential to lead Israel into a miscalculation. While it is likely that things will go back to normal after Israel’s Independence Day, the possibility for a major event will remain.”
The bottom line, then, as always, is that one blunder—be it a slip of the finger or a Molotov cocktail landing in the wrong place at the wrong time—has the capacity to ignite a full-scale confrontation, a potentiality that increases in probability the longer the chaotic conditions persist.
Even if neither side wants it.