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Hamas, Fatah battle over Palestinian public opinion

In one deadly protest at the outset of the demonstrations planned for the coming weeks, Hamas has succeeded in positioning itself as a victim.

Organizers of the “Great Return March” in the Gaza Strip had set themselves a goal of drawing at least 100,000 Palestinian protesters to the border with Israel on March 30. They even dubbed the event misleadingly "March of the Million" — not that anyone thought a million Gazans would show up, but the idea was to scare Israel and infuse the demonstration with a sense of history in the making. The masses marching from all corners of Gaza were also supposed to provide a powerful display of force proving to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the people of Gaza were with his rival Hamas.

Planning for the march began in December, when US President Donald Trump announced US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Hamas wanted to prove to the roughly 1.8 million Palestinians under its control that its protest against the United States and Israel is louder and more effective than Abbas’. Hamas' display of force was meant to build up to a massive turnout on May 15, Nakba Day, a day after the planned inauguration of the US Embassy in Jerusalem.

When it became apparent that the reconciliation process begun last year between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah movement was going nowhere, and Gaza’s salvation would not come from the Palestinian Authority (PA), Hamas accelerated its protest preparations. Hamas officials spoke about an unprecedented display of force; they organized buses to take protesters from all corners of the Gaza Strip to the fence with Israel, pitched tents for participants and provided water bottles and first aid. Organizers even made sure Wi-Fi would be available so participants could document the events on their smartphones and disseminate photos and clips on social media as a superb propaganda tool.

However, despite the advance preparations, the sermons in the mosques and the round-the-clock calls on Gaza’s media outlets, Hamas failed to achieve its 1 million — or even 100,000 — goal. The number of demonstrators who arrived at the three main points of friction with Israeli troops — in the north, center and south of the Gaza Strip — totaled an estimated 40,000.

Hamas failed, but nonetheless won the struggle for public opinion. At least 17 dead and dozens of injured (Gaza's Ministry of Health reported hundreds of injured but most were the result of tear gas inhalation) turned the march into an international event with extensive media coverage. Hamas was successful in focusing international attention once again on the continued Israeli siege of Gaza, resulting in an emergency session of the UN Security Council on March 31 and calls to lift the decadelong Israeli blockade. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres even called for a “transparent, independent” inquiry into the events in Gaza.

Hamas, which has long been trying unsuccessfully to mobilize Arab and international public opinion to events in the Gaza Strip, was accorded worldwide coverage of its version of events — a popular, nonviolent Palestinian protest that Israel turned into a bloodbath with its unbridled, indiscriminate live fire at participants.

Television channels around the world aired the photos and footage of dead and wounded Palestinians felled by Israeli bullets. The international spotlight was suddenly focused on Gaza and on the effects of the Israeli blockade on its embattled inhabitants.

With one deadly demonstration, and even before it had completed the protests planned for the coming weeks, Hamas has managed to sway opinion in its favor. No longer an organization devoting most of its resources to arming itself and digging tunnels at the expense of desperately needy residents, it had now become a victim. The leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, put it well in a speech he delivered in one of the border tents, shrugging off responsibility for the current state of affairs and directing a threat at Israel. “The unemployed who have no work in Gaza have found jobs on your border — burning your equipment and sniping at you from point-blank range,” he said.

Abbas, who is responsible for much of Gaza’s plight due to the sanctions he imposed on Hamas, also shrugged off his contribution to Israel’s nightmare scenario in which hordes of Gaza residents breach the border fence. Instead, he joined the camp of condemnations. “The marches prove that the Palestinian people will not lend a hand to any plan to bury the Palestinian issue. … and Jerusalem will remain Arab,” Abbas’ spokesman stated.

An Israeli security official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “All the recent events are the result of the struggle between Fatah and Hamas that could leave this front tense and bleeding for months.” The source said that when it became apparent the reconciliation plan between these two groups was not feasible, Fatah and Hamas reverted to their usual battle over the Palestinian leadership.

Israeli defense agencies are concerned that additional deaths along the border in the coming weeks could stir up Palestinian violence in the West Bank. “The area could go up in flames in a minute, and we will find ourselves facing an 'intifada of frustration,'” the official said. “Frustration” is not only the lot of the residents of Gaza and the West Bank, but also of the Hamas leadership and the PA, both of which have an interest in generating unrest. Hamas will exploit the border fence demonstrations as a new and more effective weapon in its bid to bring about an end to the Israeli siege and draw media attention to events in Gaza, while Abbas straggles behind in an effort to prove he is still influential and relevant.

It is now incumbent on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Israel’s other security agencies not to play into Hamas’ hands. The live fire directed March 30 at the border protesters was exactly the ammunition Hamas needs to shirk its direct responsibility for the dire plight of all Gaza’s inhabitants. Unfortunately, the victory achieved by Hamas in the first act of the "Great Return March" is not measured by the number of demonstrators it mobilized, but rather by the number of casualties inflicted by IDF fire.

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