Middle East

Who's Winning the Gaza Clash? Both Hamas and Israel

The Palestinians' new "human swarm" technique isn't generating much global support.

Nonviolent protest.

Photographer: Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images

When the dust cleared along the border between Gaza and Israel over Passover weekend, 15 Palestinians were dead and hundreds wounded. Hamas, which organized and choreographed the confrontation, was pleased with what it regards as a first step. 

Oddly, most Israelis, too, were happy with the way the day turned out.

For decades, Hamas has tried and failed to defeat Israel through conventional military means. Lately its effort has been increasingly frustrated. Hamas rockets get shot down by the Iron Dome missile defense system. Attack tunnels are discovered and destroyed. Individual suicide bombers are killed or thwarted by sophisticated security measures.

The march unveiled a new tactic, mass swarming, designed to force Israeli troops at the border to commit mass killings or flee -- a win-win from the Hamas perspective.  It didn’t work that way on Friday.

But the IDF forces personally commanded by Chief of Staff General Gadi Eisenkot, used snipers to pick off individual leaders in  the putatively civilian crowd (at least five of the dead were later identified as Hamas soldiers).  There were no Israeli casualties. And Hamas did not fire rockets at border towns, as military intelligence had feared. 

Still, Hamas had succeeded in sending thousands of people into the field under the under the banner of “The March of Return” -- a return not to the “peace process,” which Hamas rejects out of hand, or to the pre-1967 boundaries, which it refuses to recognize, but to a moment in time, 1948, the year of the original and unpardonable sin, the creation of Israel. 

The great majority of Israelis are opposed both to the goal and the tactics of Hamas.  The Benjamin Netanyahu government got nearly wall-to-wall support from its center-left opposition. Avi Gabay, leader of the Zionist Union (aka Labor Party) praised the IDF for its restraint. Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid pronounced himself “proud.” 

Among the Jewish-led parties, only far-left Meretz objected. One of its Knesset members, Issawi Frej, demanded an investigation whose verdict he has already rendered: “A state whose soldiers shoot to kill in order to protect a fence is committing a moral crime.”  But Meretz voters are less than five percent of the electorate. The average Israeli knows the difference between “protecting a fence” and the nation’s borders.

So does the U.S., which blocked a Kuwaiti-sponsored draft resolution condemning Israel in the UN Security Council. There was little criticism from Democrats. One who stood out was Bernie Sanders, who tweeted: “It is the right of all people to protest for a better future without a violent response.”     

Hamas made no secret on Friday of what that "better future" would look like. Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas prime minister, assured marchers that they were embarking not on a protest but a campaign of liberation: “The March of Return affirms that our people cannot give up one inch of the land of Palestine.”

The Friday dry-run was just the start of the Hamas campaign.  It is scheduled to run Fridays for the next six weeks, culminating on May 15, Nakba Day, and the commemoration of Israel’s independence. By then, Hamas hopes to have lit a fuse.

One targeted flash point is the West Bank, where Hamas aims to replace Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his veteran PLO cronies. Hamas blames them for collaborating with the enemy and entertaining the heresy of a two-state deal. Its leaders hope that the March of Return (and the televised sacrifices of its young martyrs) will incite impressionable viewers sign on as recruits in a new and improved intifada.

Most of these potential recruits are too young to remember the ignominious and painful conclusion of the last intifada, from 2000 to 2005, after Israel’s harsh response in Gaza. (Current Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has promised things will get harsher if the crowds become bolder.) 

Hamas also hopes to enlist the nearly two million Palestinian Arabs who are Israeli citizens. The Joint List, the party that represents most Arab voters, has joined Meretz’s condemnation of Israeli trigger-happiness, but its normally vociferous leaders have been unusually muted. Their constituents are descendants of the Arabs who remained in Israel, and naturally they are sympathetic to the Right of Return for ex-residents, many of whom are blood relatives. On the other hand, having looked at the lives of these refugees, and compared them to their own, few want to risk the status quo for a hopeless cause. (Of course, if even a few Arab-Israelis can be converted, it could destabilize Israeli domestic life.)

Hamas really wants to engage Iran. Ties between the two are strong and growing. They share the dream of obliterating the Jewish State. Iran has armed its Lebanese proxies, Hezbollah, with a vast arsenal of missiles , and Hamas is hoping that its heroic march will lead to an Iranian green-light to open fire.

This would be a costly war for Israel, but not one it will lose. The IDF has made it clear to Hezbollah that a missile attack on Israeli cities would have dire consequences for the group, its leaders and its host country. The Iranians can also expect an Israeli response, most likely in Syria. And if such a regional war comes to pass, Hamas will be held responsible for turning the Right of Return from a talking point to a battle cry.

There is still time for Hamas leaders to dismantle their civilian swarm bombs and begin thinking about life in an independent state in Gaza. But if they choose to reset the calendar and re-fight the 70-year-old war that created the Palestinian refugees in the first place, they will find Israel is far more powerful, and no less resolute, than it was in 1948.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Zev Chafets at zchafets@gmail.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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