It has been a good week for Hamas. What it can’t win on the battlefield it wins in the media, but don’t blame the media.
Lt.-Col. Jonathan Conricus, a top IDF spokesman, declared Hamas the victor by “knockout” of the PR war after a series of deadly confrontations on the Gaza border. That’s because Israel failed to minimize the casualties, shot some demonstrators by mistake (orders were to shoot to kill armed fighters only) and restricted media access to the front lines, he said.
Israeli media have strongly criticized the IDF for its inept handling of the situation, delays in responding to requests for information and failing to learn from past mistakes. Israeli and foreign media were kept more than a mile away from the front lines.
At best, Israel’s failure to get its version out “quickly, accurately and responsibly” was a gift to Hamas, one IDF officer told The Jerusalem Post. At worse, Israel’s actions themselves gave Hamas an undeserved gift.
Hamas, however, provided superior access, notably for cameras, that were able to capture iconic pictures like the ones showing young men with slingshots.
It didn’t take any imagination to conjure up the images of David and Goliath, but this time with the roles reversed.
Another success for Hamas was the body count. The terrorist group wanted casualties, Conricus said. And it got them. By the weekend there were 62 deaths, most of them terrorists. Tens of thousands of civilians were used as human shields to try to break through the Israeli border fence. Their goal – and it continues as large demonstrations are expected this Friday during Ramadan – has been to infiltrate Israel to kill or kidnap Israeli soldiers and civilians and attack nearby villages and critical infrastructure.
Women and children were told it would be safe to rush the border fence to reclaim Palestine from the Zionists because Israeli soldiers won’t shoot them and, besides, the soldiers were fleeing their posts.
Hamas’s Salah Bardawil told Baadna TV in Gaza “there were 62 martyrs” in the “last round,” 50 from Hamas and Islamic Jihad and “12 were regular people.”
The 50 were armed fighters who shot at Israeli troops, tossed grenades and detonated explosives, Hamas said. They were the targets of Israeli sharpshooters.
The marksmen were told to aim at the feet of unarmed civilians attempting to breech the fence.
Another Hamas leader, Yahya Sinwar, told Al-Jazeera that instead of launching “thousands of missiles on Israeli cities” the group’s fighters “took off their military uniforms” and joined the marches.
The martyrs are valued propaganda assets, especially when shown on splitscreen television coverage alongside the celebration of the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem. The more bodies, the more coverage. That’s Hamas’s strategy.
The “March of Return” was planned long before the embassy move was announced. It was billed as a “nonviolent” protest but, as Bardawil, Sinwar and other Hamas leaders admitted, that was never the real intention.
It comes at a time of growing frustration for Hamas, which, instead of turning Gaza into a showcase for Palestinian self-government after the 2005 Israeli withdrawal, turned it into a launching pad for missiles, suicide bombers and terrorism. It squanders resources and international aid on trying to kill Israelis instead of helping Gazans.
Israel has developed countermeasures for missiles and infiltration tunnels, but the biggest threat for Hamas and the Palestinian national cause, secular and particularly Islamist, is growing international apathy, especially in Washington, Israel and the Arab states.
There was too much competition for the Gaza story to last very long.
Attention spans were challenged by a royal wedding, a Hawaiian volcano, Eurovision Song winner Netta Barzilai, another US school shooting, Trump tweets from the White House bedroom, the US embassy opening in Jerusalem, dumping the Iran nuclear agreement, North Korean threats to cancel the summit and more.
The situation in Gaza is abysmal. Former ambassador Dennis Ross pointed out in a New York Daily News column that the densely populated strip has ”only four hours of electricity a day, 96% of the water [is] undrinkable, sewage treatment plants [are] unable to run and [there is] 60% unemployment among Palestinians under 30.”
Israel’s blockade, shared by Egypt, is primarily a security measure in response to Hamas ongoing campaign to fulfill its pledge to destroy Israel and drive out the Jews it does not slaughter. But the way it carries it out often amounts to collective punishment of an impoverished civilian population – a policy guaranteed to damage Israel’s standing in the world, undermine support from American Jews and give Israel’s most steadfast enemies a boost.
Throughout the siege, including in these weeks of the March of Return, Israel has continued delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza despite Hamas turning away badly needed medical equipment from the IDF and demonstrators having twice torched the Kerem Shalom border crossing for delivering that aid.
Yossi Alpher, a former director of Israel’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, says there is abundant blame to go around for the situation in Gaza but he puts much of it on the Palestinians themselves, who are responsible for the situation in Gaza that led to these demonstrations, and on the Arab world.
“The Arab states have collectively and deliberately prolonged the Palestinian refugee plight well into the fourth generation,” he wrote in the Forward.
They “have practically given up on the Palestinians. Arab leaders blame the Palestinian leadership for rejecting legitimate Israeli peace offers in 2000 and 2008. They see PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas as a failed leader and Hamas as Islamist and extreme. The Saudis and their neighbors are so fed up with the Palestinians that they barely pay lip service to the dead in Gaza.”
The international media attention, albeit briefly, and focus on the body count of martyrs and “regular people” may be seen as signs of a successful week by Hamas leaders, but the people of Gaza can’t afford too many more of these victories from a leadership that gives them false promises, privation, corruption and dashed dreams.