The March 30 Great March of Return to the Gaza border fence was nothing more than Act 1 of an unfolding drama, a dress rehearsal or possibly a pilot for what one can expect to see in the very near future. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are now preparing for April 17, Palestinian Prisoners Day, also the eve of Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, and for May 15, Nakba Day, also the day after the United States is expected to open its new embassy in Jerusalem. Further complicating matters, the latter event coincides with the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The Great March of Return was initiated and orchestrated by Hamas in an attempt to change the rules of the game, create a new balance of power and send a message to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people is far from over. Hamas is alive and kicking, and it is marching as well.
Hamas is in the process of losing its tunnels as a weapon. The IDF and Egypt have also successfully prevented the group from smuggling into Gaza rockets, missiles and other arms that could break the balance of power. Facing the most threatening dead end ever, Hamas found a way to reinvent itself: a popular, mass march by tens of thousands of people, all heading to the Israeli border at the Erez checkpoint, where they would trample the fence, break the Israeli siege and move on toward Jerusalem or at least to the southern town of Ashkelon. Images of IDF tanks and helicopters firing at civilians marching for their freedom would be Israel’s worst imaginable nightmare. That is why the IDF has decided not to let that happen.
The IDF prepared for 100,000 marchers on March 30. That Hamas only managed to rally 35,000, according to the official Israeli estimate, is seen as a failure by the movement, already in a daunting state of crisis. It was thought that women and children would be at the forefront of the demonstrations, shielding others who would attempt to break through the fence and hide explosive devices or otherwise attack IDF troops. As the event neared, official Israeli spokespeople, including Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot issued a stern warning to Hamas' leaders. The IDF stationed more than 100 snipers along the fence, with strict rules of engagement. The objectives were to conclude the event with a minimum number of casualties, make every effort to avoid shooting women and children and prevent any damage to the fence.
“Just imagine what could have happened,” one senior Israeli defense official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Picture the outcome if they would have burst through the fence, even at a single point, and begun marching into Israel. It would have ended in a bloodbath. We don’t have the privilege of allowing masses of Palestinians to march to Jerusalem, Ashkelon or any of the kibbutzim along the fence. We would have no choice but to employ enormous force, and that would have resulted in dozens, if not hundreds, of casualties. The images would have been a huge victory for the Palestinians. As far as we’re concerned, the fact that the recent event ended with 16 casualties, 12 of whom have already been identified as Hamas terrorists, but without any casualties among the women and children, is a very significant achievement on our part. It should not be taken for granted.”
The IDF believes that it was able to let the air out of Hamas' balloon and keep the group from claiming an achievement before they continue with the current strategy. “Next time,” Liberman said, “we have the capacity to respond more forcibly. We will not hesitate to use any means at our disposal.” His statement was meant to emphasize that when it comes to violations of Israel's sovereignty along the border fence, Israel has no plans to blink.
One senior military official told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, “Understand, this fence is a border in every sense of the term. No country in the world would allow terrorists to break through its borders. All anyone has to do is to listen to the leaders of Hamas. They did not call this event a demonstration against the occupation but a March of Return. They announced that they would be marching to Jerusalem. They declare again and again that they do not recognize Israel’s right to exist. That is why they leave us no choice but to block them by force, no matter what the cost.”
The cost is the essential issue that makes Israel’s achievement on Friday problematic. The far left was critical of what transpired, while the leaders of the center-left Zionist Camp expressed their support for the IDF and the measures taken by the government. That aside, the security establishment is well aware that the high number of casualties helps Hamas keep its fires burning. It may even be fanning the flames. Israel has a clear interest in minimizing the number of casualties, since this would help lower the flames and restore calm. While the IDF considers that it contained the number of fatalities to 16, that is still a high number. It is more than either side has suffered in a day, with the exception of when actually fighting.
On April 1, the IDF began to speed up its construction and engineering projects involving Gaza. Obstacles and additional barriers are being installed to delay and even prevent Palestinians from quickly breaking through the fence into Israeli territory. Work continues at a fast pace and with vast sums to complete the underground barrier to deny Palestinians the ability to tunnel into Israel.
Eizenkot, in Passover interviews, estimated that the underground barrier would be completed this year. With the identification and destruction of any existing tunnels, apparently in the single digits, Hamas will no longer have a significant strategic weapon to use against Israel. Given this, Israel realizes that the only weapon Hamas has left is mass marches.
The working assumption in Israel is that going forward, Hamas activists will not be satisfied with trying to plant explosive devices along the border fence or otherwise ignite the area. “It is possible that the next time, they will try to shoot at IDF troops,” a senior Israeli military figure told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity. “They will try to incite the area and cause us to make a mistake, which would send tens of thousands of people to the fence.”
The IDF will try not to make that mistake. A 7-year-old girl brought to the fence on March 30 was returned to her parents by the IDF. The question is whether the next time, Israel will avoid making any major mistakes and creating a new Mohammed al-Dura, the Palestinian boy killed while huddling from gunfire with his father at the Kisufim checkpoint at the start of the last intifada, in 2000. A mistake of that magnitude would reshuffle the deck, putting Hamas back on center stage and the Palestinian issue back on the international agenda. Could that happen? Anything is possible.