More on the Gaza “March of Return”

Apr 13, 2018

More on the Gaza "March of Return"
Palestinian men wave their national flags as smoke billows from tyres burned by Gazans at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest

Update from AIJAC

Update 04/18 #02

This Update follows up on the previous one in analysing the ongoing violence along the borders of Gaza – orchestrated under the rubric of the so-called “Great March of Return” – which began on March 30, had a second major flare-up last Friday, and is expected to continue until mid-May.

We lead with a good piece from Amos Harel of Haaretz, who looks at the events of last Friday –  where a major feature of the demonstrations was the mass burning of tyres to attempt to provide a smokescreen against Israeli military forces – as well as the bigger picture with respect to the overall “March of Return” campaign. He notes that the mass tyre burning turned out to be little more than a gimmick, whose primary effect was to cause environmental damage on both sides of the border. He also explores what led Hamas to take charge of these protests, and what Israel security forces are trying to prevent. Finally, he also analyses the significant absence of any rocket fire from Gaza or any answering protests in the West Bank, and explains why the failure of these things to occur is significant. For this solid introduction to what’s going on and where things currently stand, CLICK HERE. More on the failure of the tyre-burning “gimmick” is here. 

Next up is Israeli academic expert Dr. Hillel Frisch, who expands on the significance of the lack of any major violence in the West Bank. He argues that Hamas will ultimately view anything less than sustained West Bank violence as the latest defeat in a long string of defeats. He reviews the history of past Palestinian violence and says this reflects a larger picture over recent years of the division of the Palestinian political community into two bitter rivals, with little evidence of even much interest in the Gaza protests in the West Bank. For the rest of Frisch’s analysis, CLICK HERE. More on the situation in the West Bank comes from veteran Palestinian Affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh. 

Finally, Israel’s Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre offers a comprehensive report on the protests. This not only discusses the tactics used in the protests and the violence it includes, but also discusses the 32 Palestinian fatalities to date – 20 of whom have been identified by Israel as operatives of Hamas or other terrorist organisations. More importantly, it has a good accounting of what has been accomplished by the protests for Hamas and what has not, and some predictions about what will happen over coming weeks. For this more detailed backgrounder and analysis, CLICK HERE. Plus, here is a later report on the Meir Amit centre’s findings with respect to Palestinian casualties – it has now assembled evidence that 26 of the 32 Palestinians killed were affiliated with terrorist organisations.

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Hamas hijacked the Gaza protests, which are set to continue for weeks

The organization finds itself stuck between Israel and Egypt, with PA financial aid cut off and Iran not supplying the assistance the Palestinians had expected

Amos Harel 

Haaretz, Apr. 8, 2018

Israeli soldiers are seen next to the border fence on the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza border as Palestinians protest, April 6, 2018. AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

The burning of tires at Friday’s protest at the Gaza border turned out to be a gimmick, an attempt to give a special character to the second weekend of protests that are meant to continue until mid-May.

The pillar of smoke over Beit Hanun could be easily seen from the Ashkelon area and farther south; smoke also rose from the Karni crossing opposite Kibbutz Nahal Oz. But this probably didn’t really impede the army’s sharpshooters at points where protests were taking place along the Gaza border.

This Friday too ended with many wounded Palestinians, and if the number was at all limited it was because both sides tweaked their modus operandi. The smoke from the burning tires certainly caused a great deal of damage to the environment on both sides of the border. But without a western wind, the people of the Gaza Strip choked on the fire set by their own people.

Fewer Palestinians took part in the protests compared to the previous Friday. There was also less shooting. Even with binoculars it was hard to see from Nahal Oz’s fields, a short distance from the fence, what was happening at the fence. A few thousand Palestinians were congregating at a safe distance a few hundred meters from the fence. Behind them were ambulances and motorcyclists, apparently Hamas men, directing traffic.

From time to time a few people appeared to be moving toward the fence. Israeli army sharpshooters were stationed in trenches and on embankments on the Israeli side, and through the thick smoke a single sharpshooter could be heard firing. The clash was focused around the abandoned compound of the Karni crossing, which Israel closed after a series of attacks related to the 2005 Gaza pullout.

Over more than two hours, soldiers fired three or four bullets and tear gas canisters, while water from a fire truck was sprayed to put out the tire fires. During the evening, according to reports from Gaza, there was one fatality and dozens of people were hurt, some by rubber-coated steel bullets and others by tear gas. A total of nine people were killed and hundreds injured throughout the Strip. According to the Israel Defense Forces, the clashes worsened after 5 P.M. when small groups of young men tried to break through the fence at a number of points.

The IDF General Staff describes the protest at as a popular initiative that the Hamas leadership latched onto for its own purposes and now sets the tone. The Hamas leaders’ calculation is simple: A few months ago, economic distress in Gaza was so severe that Yahya Sinwar decided to take an extreme and unexpected step, agreeing to hand over civilian responsibilities to the Palestinian Authority.

But reconciliation talks failed after the PA rejected Hamas’ attempt to rule the Strip using the “Hezbollah model” in which Hamas would retain military power. Now the organization finds itself stuck between Israel and Egypt, with PA financial aid cut off and Iran not supplying the assistance the Palestinians had expected.

The protests provided a shred of a chance of a way out. The protests and the many civilian casualties from the sharpshooters put the Palestinian issue back on the international agenda to some extent. If this continues, Israel might feel the pressure despite the sweeping support of the United States.

But the army rejects the idea that the protests are only a civilian operation. Thousands of Hamas operatives were ordered to appear at the border with their families. Under cover of the thousands of people, Hamas fielded small groups of men to try to breach and let hundreds of Palestinians into Israel.

This is the context in which sharpshooters were permitted to shoot people described as organizers of attacks. The army says that Friday as well, operatives came close to the fence to lay explosives. According to the army, a mass breach toward Israeli communities near the fence would lead to many more casualties on both sides that could escalate to another conflict like the 2014 Gaza war.

The IDF prevented such a breach and thwarted real damage to the fence these two past weekends. But the army concedes that the number of Palestinians killed (29 since the beginning of the protests, many of them civilians) is high and there might be implications for Israel, both diplomatically and in terms of Hamas’ desire to keep up the momentum in the coming weekends, at least until Nakba Day in mid-May.

This situation highlights Israel’s failure to develop riot-control methods that would also be effective at some distance. There have also been coordination failure between the various security services. The IDF didn’t ask for police assistance, saying it could manage. At the end of the second week, the police weren’t quick to help and asked to be informed if Palestinians breached the fence.

Two things haven’t happened. Despite the many Palestinians wounded, no rockets have been fired at the Negev, which also shows that Hamas doesn’t want this and is apparently the decision-maker on this). And for now, the casualties haven’t dragged the West Bank into protests. For now the West Bank and Gaza are acting as two separate entities in this crisis. The PA has likely lost any remaining sympathy for the troubles in the Strip after the attempted assassination of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah on a visit to Gaza last month.

In addition to the international attention Hamas has drawn, it is also tying down Israeli forces on the Gaza border and might eventually disrupt the IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot’s training program as well. The General Staff believes Hamas has found an effective means of action, so it wants to make this more costly for Hamas to prevent a war of attrition in the form of protests and incidents along the fence.

Neither side wants an all-out clash, which for Gaza would be especially destructive. But at the moment, civilian distress in Gaza is the most dominant element and without a solution on the horizon, it seems the weekly clashes will continue for a while.

Article 2

The Test of the March of Return: Violence in the West Bank

By Prof. Hillel Frisch

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 790, April 9, 2018

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The real test of Hamas’s March of Return campaign in Gaza lies in its ability to mobilize mass violence in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, and other parts of the West Bank. So far, most of the Arab inhabitants of those areas are content to watch the events on their screens rather than in the streets.

Palestinian men wave their national flags as smoke billows from tires burned by Gazans at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest, east of Gaza City in the Gaza Strip, on April 6, 2018. But Hamas’ hopes for sustained violence in the West Bank have not materialised. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

Hamas’s March of Return campaign in Gaza will count as a success for its organizers only insofar as it mobilizes mass violence in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, and elsewhere in the West Bank. This is why Israeli Arab members of Knesset Ahmad Tibi and Hanan Zouabi, among many others, urge the inhabitants of those areas to violently protest Israeli forces in solidarity with their brethren in Gaza. They encourage them to risk their own lives while they continue to draw substantial salaries from the Israeli treasury and enjoy parliamentary immunity. Sending others to the trenches is, after all, a long-established historical tradition.

Anything less than sustained mass violence in these areas will amount to one more defeat for Hamas in its string of defeats. They include its inability to solve Gaza’s social and economic problems; its inability to cope with the loss of potential strategic partner Muhammad Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood member and ousted Egyptian president, and its inability to handle his replacement by incumbent President al-Sisi, who shares an enmity to the organization fully supported by financial powerhouses such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The stakes of failure are high. Both Hamas and its nemesis, the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, which is free-riding on the campaign to condemn Israel, recognize that ever since the takeover of Gaza by Hamas nearly 12 years ago, the Palestinians in the territories no longer cooperate against Israel.

Up to that point, inhabitants of the West Bank joined forces with the citizens of Gaza in a four-year intifada that began in December 1987. The suicide bombings of the 1990s emanated from both areas.

In the wave of violence that erupted in September 2000, erroneously dubbed the second intifada, the Palestinian factions in the West Bank and the PA security forces engaged in mass terrorism, including deadly suicide attacks. In Gaza, the violence developed into a guerrilla campaign against Israeli forces as well as terrorist attacks against Israeli settlers.

The common denominator was the timing of the violence. Both areas burned simultaneously.

This is no longer the case.

Since 2007, when Hamas and Islamic Jihad fought against Israel, the inhabitants and political forces in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, and Nablus have been relatively quiet bystanders. So too have been other organizations that one might have expected to join the fray, such as Hezbollah.

During the three major Israel-Hamas confrontations in 2008-9, 2012, and 2014 (the longest military engagement in Israeli history barring the War of Independence in 1948), the West Bank was quiet, for the most part.

The opposite also applied. In the major wave of knifings and other forms of terrorism that took place in Jerusalem, Hebron, and major Israeli cities in winter 2015-16, almost all the attacks were committed by inhabitants of Jerusalem and the West Bank. Gaza, under Hamas’ iron hand, was noticeably quiet.

For Israel, of course, this is a major strategic success for which it is only partially responsible. The major reason for this bifurcated mode of action stems from the division of the Palestinian political community into two bitter rivals.

Alas for both Hamas and the PA, the present campaign has done little to change the situation. As Gaza partially flares up (the numbers for Hamas are disappointing in themselves), the Arab inhabitants of Jerusalem and the West Bank are largely staying out of it.

The best proof is readership of the al-Quds internet site, by far the most influential and widely followed Palestinian media site. Not only have reports on confrontations in the West Bank been scarce, but readers are not showing much interest. The most widely read confrontation in the past two weeks merited fewer than 900 views. In contrast, a rumor that Egyptian singer and actress Shireen Abd al-Wahhab might be marrying her suitor registered over 3,000 views.

This suggests that most of the Arab inhabitants of Jerusalem and the West Bank are content to watch the events on their screens rather than go out into the streets to take on Israeli troops.

Prof. Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.


Article 3

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.”[1] 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.)[2] 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.[3]

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).



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