The Israeli defense establishment is getting nervous as it prepares for the “Great March of Return” planned by Hamas along the border between Israel and Gaza for March 30. While making the necessary military preparations and stationing troops on the ground, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) has warned the people of Gaza — with special emphasis on local bus companies — not to cooperate with Hamas. Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai said that COGAT has warned some 20 bus companies operating in Gaza that if their buses bring protesters to the border, "you and your families will be held personally responsible."
The working assumption within the security establishment is that faced with an internal crisis, Hamas is exploiting the plight of Gaza residents to enter into conflict with Israel. Nevertheless, even with tensions in the south rising, softer voices are also emerging from Hamas.
On March 21, political bureau member Salah al-Bardawil said in an interview with Al-Quds TV that his movement is ready to engage in dialogue with the US administration. It was surprising, especially since Hamas has started encouraging the people of Gaza to engage the IDF in clashes now that US President Donald Trump has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The climax of these demonstrations is scheduled to take place along the border fence on the day the US Embassy is to be moved to Jerusalem this May. In the interview, Bardawil denied that there are any open channels of communication between Hamas and the US administration but noted that one could be opened for Hamas to lay out its national aspirations to the American government.
Other surprising statements came from senior Hamas official Ahmed Yousef, former political adviser to leader Ismail Haniyeh. Journalist Nir Gontarz called Yousef March 27, presented himself as an Israeli journalist and asked him about the planned march. Despite the Hamas charter and the comprehensive ban that the movement’s leadership has placed on communications with the Israeli media, Yousef responded to Gontarz with a conciliatory statement:
“This land of Palestine is the holy land for all the children of Abraham. … All of us — Muslims, Christians and Jews — can live together again in this blessed land that Allah chose for all the good people of Palestine,” he said. “This is my message to the Jewish community in Israel or the Jewish people in Israel.”
Over the past few days, an interview with Hamas political bureau member Mousa Abu Marzouk has also made the rounds in Gaza. He originally gave the interview to Al-Quds TV about a month after Operation Protective Edge in 2014. At the time, Hamas was trying to reach a long-term arrangement with Israel. Abu Marzouk said that there were no religious prohibitions against engaging Israel in dialogue. “We can communicate with words in the same way that we communicate with weapons,” said Abu Marzouk at the time. He added cautiously, “If the situation remains as it is under the existing circumstances … Hamas will be forced to take this path [of negotiations with Israel], because that is what people across the Gaza Strip want."
The re-release of the interview now by the various media outlets in Gaza may be intended to prepare the local population for the possibility of dialogue with Israel. After all, even Abu Marzouk, a founder of the movement’s political bureau, has given it a green light. Meanwhile, Hamas is still preparing for Friday’s demonstrations along the border fence, scheduled to continue until Nakba Day (the “Day of Disaster” marking Israel’s independence) in mid-May.
The two seemingly contradictory approaches are not really at odds, at least as far as Hamas is concerned. On one hand, Hamas wants to show that the current demonstrations are the will of the people, who have been suffering under the burden of the closure for over a decade. On the other hand, it is determined to have the closure lifted. These comments were intended to relay the message that while there is something to talk about, military force is still an option.
It is no coincidence that the military wing of Hamas decided that this week it would hold its largest military drill ever. Almost all of Gaza's residents have seen or at least heard these maneuvers, involving all of the Hamas armed forced as well as the militants of various other Palestinian factions. Rockets were fired into the Mediterranean and mortars and guns were fired in the air. Though the gunfire came from light arms, it was so intense that it set off Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system.
The Israeli security establishment estimates that Hamas now has some 30,000 troops serving in its various security forces, including the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades and the Nuhba units, trained to operate in Hamas' network of tunnels. These forces can’t really threaten Israel, but they can interfere with day-to-day life in the country. Hamas has few options left.
Has the Hamas leadership decided to propose a "hudna," or armistice, with Israel once again? While the goal has not been stated explicitly, Hamas has not yet backed down from its original proposal to reach a long-term agreement with Israel that would include the lifting of the closure on Gaza. Such a proposal was relayed to Israel by various sources after Operation Protective Edge, but Israel rejected the offer yet again.
The circulating conciliatory statements by Abu Marzouk, Bardawil and Yosef were no coincidence, not now. Similarly, the March of Return and the military maneuvers, which include the distribution of images depicting armed forces throughout Gaza and broadcasts by Izz ad-Din al-Qassam on Al-Aqsa and Al-Quds TV, have a single calculated purpose. They are intended to show Israel that Hamas has amassed enormous military strength, but that it is also open to the alternative of reaching a diplomatic arrangement. Considering Bardawil’s remarks, there is nothing to prevent the United States from being involved in the process too.