Summing up Hamas’s ‘March of Return’ campaign

The score sheet is heavily set against Hamas.

 boy holds a Palestinian flag as he stands amidst smoke during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City May 14, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMED SALEM)
boy holds a Palestinian flag as he stands amidst smoke during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City May 14, 2018
It’s now time for the hundreds in Hamas whose job is to create and spread violence, and the hundreds of Israelis in the political and security establishment whose business is to avoid or quell it, to engage in a reckoning of how well the initiating side did to produce and spread the violence, and the Israeli side in quelling it – at least until the next campaign, which will likely begin after a temporary lull during the fast month of Ramadan.
The score sheet is heavily set against Hamas.
Failure to ignite the Arab residents of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority is the most important shortcoming of a campaign costly in blood and treasure. Hamas is well aware that the Palestinian problem gains its salience ironically in the names and places found in Jewish and Christian scriptures – Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron, not in Gaza, Khan Yunis and Rafah.
To the despair of Hamas, the six weeks between the beginning of the campaign at the end of March, and May 15, or Nakba Day, were a relatively quiet period in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The evidence for the passivity of a population Hamas hoped to ignite is as varied as it is conclusive.
To begin with, there were no major terrorist attacks in either Israel or Judea and Samaria that ended lethally.
There were 15 murders in the four months preceding the campaign.
Looking at the scorecard of major attacks that ended in bodily harm or substantial material loss yields the same results – two per month on average for the first three months of the year before the campaign, as against one such attack in the six weeks of the campaign.
A major media site, Al-Quds, conveniently archives all news items related to “confrontations” (muwajahat in Arabic).
The count of the number of news items over time relating to these confrontations between Palestinian youth and the Israeli army presents the same picture: In the three weeks preceding the so-called March of Return there were 17 items on confrontations, down to eight in the first three weeks of the campaign, declining to five in the final 24 days.
The headline in Al-Quds on the second week into the campaign summarized this point completely: “Gaza is preparing for demonstrations this Friday,” meaning that Gaza is preparing, not Palestinians in the West Bank.
RATHER THAN recreating the unity between the residents of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as it existed in the first and second intifadas, when residents from both areas took part in the violence, the campaign of marches deepened the divide between the two populations that has existed since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in 2007. One sees that the divide is not only among the Palestinian political elite – the Hamas leadership and the Palestinian Authority – but on the popular level as well.
This divide is a major boon to Israel since the control of violence is much easier when it takes place on either the Gaza or the West Bank front individually rather than as in the past, which is to say simultaneously.
One of the major objectives of the weaker side to a conflict, as Hamas clearly is when compared to Israel, is to lead to political divisions on the stronger side. This is the famous lesson of the French-Algerian struggle in which the FLN and its army were militarily defeated but succeeded in bringing about deep divisions within the French public. Those divisions ended in complete political victory for the FLN.
The Palestinians did much the same in the first intifada, when the Israeli public was sharply divided between Left and Right, a split that facilitated the Oslo process, the creation of the PA and the move of the PLO leadership to the West Bank from Tunis and elsewhere in the Arab world.
A “march of return” aimed at the 1949 armistice line demanding the return of refugees to Ashkelon (Majdal), Beersheba and Jaffa clearly had the opposite effect on the Israeli public. Instead of dividing the Israeli public, Israeli hearts united behind the IDF’s tough policy of zero-tolerance for breaching the fence.
Hamas might also have antagonized its own hard core. It said the campaign cost the organization $10 million.
For the past four years, it has been paying its 50,000 employees only 40% of their salaries – roughly $500 dollars a month. This hard core will question the effectiveness of the campaign against the possibility of having distributed $200 to these employees and their hard-pressed families.
Fallout from the violence is also inevitable. If the number of dead and wounded is anywhere near true (the figures are probably exaggerated), not only will the vast majority of Gazans who did not get anywhere near the fence question such bloodshed in the face of the fact that it changed nothing – it’s the same fence and same reality as before the campaign – those who participated probably have second thoughts as well.
Where some change did occur, such as in the headlines of The Times, The Guardian and other British and European outlets criticizing Israel, most condemnations taken from the deep recesses of UN, various foreign ministries and the rantings of the Turkish president are a small consolation to a beleaguered Hamas, which the convening of Arab foreign ministers will not help.
FAILURE, WHICH the campaign clearly was, could be the beginning of welcome change.
Hamas might be wise enough to cut a deal with Gaza business leaders and the civil bureaucracy it administers in Gaza and, while continuing to police it, provided a refrain from fighting with Israel.
Gaza’s attributes, including an excellent workforce, access to the sea and its proximity to Europe can be tremendous assets once common sense prevails over fanaticism.
Maybe then, it could begin to tread the path toward a Singaporean vision and turn the woes of human density into considerable economic, cultural and ecological virtue.
The author is a Senior Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.