The “Great Return March,” Interim Report
(Updated to April 9, 2018)
Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Published: 11/04/2018
Palestinians collect tires in the eastern Gaza Strip for burning at the “great return march.” (10,000 tires were reportedly collected) (Palinfo Twitter account, April 6, 2018).
After two months of preparations, on Friday, March 30, 2018, (Land Day), Palestinians in the Gaza Strip began the events of “great return march.” The events include mass demonstrations (on Fridays) accompanied by violent but controlled clashes near the fence. The events included demonstrations, violent clashes, vandalizing the fence, attempts to break through the fence and enter Israeli territory and attempts to carry out terrorist attacks. Such provocations are expected to continue in the coming weeks, at least until Nakba Day on May 15, 2018. On or about Nakba Day the events are expected to climax with a mass march towards Israeli territory and increased military provocations.
Hamas plays a central role in the “great return march.” During the preparations Hamas was careful to remain in the background and represent the march as the initiative of Gazan activists who were not affiliated with Hamas. However, in effect (although not openly) Hamas has taken control and become the main force driving the “great return march,” providing it with an organizational, logistic, political and media framework. During the events Hamas has made clear despite its strategic hardships, it is able to efficiently organize and mobilize the general public in the Gaza Strip, and that the Gazan public heeds Hamas and its obeys its instructions, even at the cost of lives.
So far, there is a pattern of mass demonstrations carried out on Fridays (close to 40,000 on March 30, 2018, and close to 20,000 on April 6, 2018). During the week a few hundred demonstrators have participated (although the number may rise to 1,000). The demonstrations are held at between five and eight focal points along the border. At the front lines are young men, among them operatives from Hamas and the other terrorist organizations, who use the demonstrators as human shields and instigate violent provocations against the IDF, such as attempts to infiltrate Israeli territory, activities of armed Palestinians at the border security fence, throwing hand grenades and Molotov cocktails at IDF soldiers, slinging stones and attempts to vandalize the fence. IDF forces, deployed along the fence, have not allowed the rioters to cross the border into Israeli territory or violate Israeli sovereignty, and have prevented damage to the fence and its security installations.
Palestinians vandalize the border security fence (Palinfo Twitter account, April 7, 2018).
Bag of Molotov cocktails seized by the IDF from a Palestinian near the border security fence (Facebook page of Shams News, April 3, 2018).
Total number of Palestinians injured so far: According to reports from the Palestinian ministry of health, 29 Palestinians have been killed. In addition, Israel is holding the bodies of two Palestinians. Another Palestinian died on April 10, bringing the total to 32 (updated to April 10, 2018). An initial examination of the identities of those killed revealed that 20 of them (just over 60%) belonged to the terrorist organizations. Most of them (13 of 19) were identified as Hamas operatives and the others as operatives of other terrorist organizations. Most of those killed (22) were killed on the first Friday, March 30, 2018, and rest (nine) on the second Friday, April 6, 2018. Two others were killed during the week. Most of them died during violent activities near the border security fence and some of them during attempts to carry out terrorist attacks (an analysis of the identities of the Gazans killed will be issued separately after the ITIC finishes its investigation).
The funeral held in Khan Yunis for Fares al-Raqab, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad operative (Paltoday, April 2, 2018).
Hamas and the other terrorist organizations participating in the march have so far made sure to contain the riots and channel them near the border. Both sides, Hamas and the IDF, have so far avoided taking steps to escalate that might turn the local clashes into an overall confrontation. For instance, Hamas has not launched rockets in response to the killing of dozens of Palestinians, and the IDF has not attacked targets deep inside the Gaza Strip in response to provocations along the border. Moreover, in response to the placing of two IEDs on the border security fence in the northern Gaza Strip and the shooting attack planned by a terrorist squad for March 30, 2018, the Israeli Air Force attacked Hamas and other terrorist targets without exceeding its usual response to those types of attacks. However, as the clashes and provocations from Hamas and the other terrorist organizations continue, especially when the events culminate on May 15, 2018, the chances increase that there might be a miscalculation that would lead to escalation (see below).
Interim balance of achievements and failures
The current situation on the ground has to be evaluated according to the goals which in ITIC assessment the organizers set for themselves, especially Hamas, which is the dominant factor:
- On the declarative level, the goal is to bring to the fore so-called Palestinian refugees’ “right of return” to Israel. That is done through displays, statements reported by the media and pictures of masses of refugees from the Gaza Strip streaming towards the border fence and trying to enter Israeli territory. That has been the main theme of the media message accompanying the “great return march” so far. However, the attempt to illustrate the so-called “right of return” by breaking through the fence is in direct contradiction of the (false) media message that the march would be peaceful and nonviolent (clearly contradicted by what has happened on the ground).
- On the practical level, for Hamas the march is meant to deflect attention from its strategic hardships and achieve a number of goals, among them the following: allowing the Gazans let off steam, especially the young Gazans, in response to the harsh conditions of their daily lives, and turn their frustrations towards a confrontation with Israel; to pose a practical challenge for Israel with continuous provocations along the border security fence, which Israel is not accustomed to (taking into account that there will be loss of lives); creating difficulties for Mahmoud Abbas in the hopes that the march will keep him from imposing additional sanctions on the Gaza Strip; exerting indirect pressure on the Arab states through the support of the Arab street for the Palestinian cause, especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with which Hamas has problematic relations; and gaining the sympathy of international public opinion, especially in Europe, as a response to what are considered the “hostile policies” of Donald Trump towards the Palestinians.
Given the above goals, especially regarding Hamas, in ITIC assessment the interim balance of achievements and failures has been mixed:
Achievements so far:
Hamas has successfully motivated tens of thousands of Gazans to let off steam which has been accumulating for a long time, the result of the worsening economic situation in the Gaza Strip. Hamas succeeded in creating a linkage between the deteriorating economic situation in the Gaza Strip and the escalation of the conflict with Israel (according to Yahya al-Sinwar, “Gaza will not starve…if it explodes it will explode in Israel’s face”). In addition, regarding governance and organization, Hamas has proved it can organize a broad civilian protest by recruiting, motivating and organizing tens of thousands of Palestinians (and has been sending a message to both Mahmoud Abbas and Israel that the population supports it). On the ground, the events have challenged the IDF, forcing it to deploy exceptional forces to face mass riots and provocations with the participation of operatives affiliated with Hamas and the other terrorist organizations.
In the realm of politics and the media:
The march was covered by the global media and received with sympathy mainly in Western Europe and the UN (to a great extent because of IDF gunfire, which was regarded as non-proportional, and caused the deaths of many Palestinians.) In addition, Hamas managed to contain the events to a limited arena near the fence, avoiding escalation with Israel and deterioration of the confrontation, even in view of the Palestinian killed and wounded.
Failures and problems so far:
The main goal of bringing the so-called “right of return” to the attention of the international community and of the Arab-Muslim world has not been achieved. The global and local media that support the Palestinians focused on the violence itself and what was perceived as Israel’s non-proportional response, and not on the goal of the “right of return” which the march is supposed to promote. Politically, the Palestinians (and the Arab states) failed in their efforts to wrest an operational resolution from the UN Security Council to investigate the events, largely because of American backing for Israel.
On the ground, so far Hamas and the demonstrators did not have the practical success they wanted to turn into a media win (such as breaking through the fence into Israeli territory, killing IDF soldiers or disrupting the daily lives of the civilians living in the communities near the Gaza Strip). In the internal Palestinian arena, in Judea and Samaria the events did not lead to large-scale solidarity demonstrations (Palestinian TV, which is controlled by the PA, barely covered the events). In the pan-Arab arena the events did not lead to outpourings of solidarity and support. The opposite was true, as Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi Arabian crown prince, turned a cold shoulder to the events in the Gaza Strip, stating, during a visit to the United States, that the Israelis had a right to a land of their own, a statement in direct contradiction to the “right of return” that seeks to change Israel demographically and destroy it as the national homeland of the Jews.
Forecast for the future
In ITIC assessment, Hamas and the organizers of the march will make an effort to preserve the tension between the Gaza Strip and Israel at least until May 15, 2018. They will try to motivate large crowds to move towards the border fence and prevent tensions within the Gaza Strip population from dissipating. The demonstrations will continue to focus on Fridays and days specially marked by the Palestinians, such as “prisoners’ day.” At the same time, violent provocations of the IDF will continue along the border, as will efforts to be creative to find new issues for media and propaganda activities, such as massive burnings of Israeli flags, displaying thousands of copies of the “key of return,” using loudspeakers to sound sirens, extensive use of fireworks, bussing in women, children and the elderly, and holding torchlight parades along the border.
In ITIC assessment, when the events peak (on or around May 15, Nakba Day, and May 14, when Trump is expected to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem) Hamas and the other terrorist organizations may try to carry out exceptional events. For instance, sending massive numbers of Gazans to the border and attempting to break through the fence (and publicize it as a sign of “victory.” Hamas may also increase its incitement and call on Palestinians in Judea and Samaria to join the events and riot and carry out terrorist attacks.
As a result, as the peak of the events of May 14 and 15 approach, the riots along the border security fence may escalate (even at the cost of an increase in the number of Palestinians killed, a cost Hamas is ready to pay). Hamas and the other terrorist organizations may also decide on an exceptional military-terrorist activity as proof they were victorious (such as firing rockets), although it may invite a serious Israeli response. In ITIC assessment, as long as Hamas has more failures than successes, its motivation may increase to carry out an activity that will have great media coverage and show “victory.”
The profile picture of the Twitter account of Hamas-affiliated Palinfo encourages breaking through the border security fence for the sake of al-Aqsa. The Arabic reads, “We return#I return (Palinfo Twitter account, April 8, 2018).
BACK TO TOP