At 5.30 p.m. May 14, when the number of Palestinian fatalities in the violent demonstrations along the Gaza-Israel border hit the 55 mark, Hamas ordered the protesters to move away from the fence and go home, for two reasons. The first was pressure to end the bloodshed brought to bear by the Gaza civil society organizations that had initiated the anti-Israel protests of recent weeks before Hamas hijacked them. By then, Gaza hospitals were near collapse, inundated with over 2,500 Palestinians wounded in the clashes with Israel, some 100 of them with life-threatening injuries. The second reason that the Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, called on the demonstrators to disperse was simpler: The mission had been accomplished. While Israelis and Americans were busy celebrating the inauguration of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) away the rest of the world was watching the violence in Gaza with concern, condemning Israel harshly for the mounting Palestinian casualty toll. By the following day, the number of dead had climbed to 60.
Until the number of deaths reached 50, not a single Hamas leader considered trying to stem the bloodshed. The order to disperse and the demonstrators’ speedy acquiescence proved that Hamas’ leadership was in control of events and had planned their course ahead of time. The civilian protesters were pawns in the sad game played out by Hamas along the border fence with Israel in a bid to save the organization, which has long been on the verge of collapse.
On May 12, two days prior to the planned events on the day of the embassy opening, Egypt made a final effort to forestall the violence. A Hamas delegation led by head of Hamas political bureau Ismail Haniyeh; his deputy, Khalil al-Hayya; and Hamas Politburo member Rouhi Mushtaha flew to Cairo aboard a plane that awaited them in the Sinai town of Rafah after they crossed over from the Gaza Strip. They met with the head of Egyptian intelligence, Abbas Kamel, who presented them with an Egyptian proposal designed to enable Hamas to let off steam and make its mark on the day of the US Embassy inauguration and on the next day’s Nakba events on May 15 commemorating the “catastrophe” of the Palestinian uprooting from Israel. The Egyptian proposal was intended to prevent a deadly clash with Israel that could escalate into a broad military clash.
An Israeli defense source told Al-Monitor that Egypt had conveyed several similar messages to the Hamas leadership in recent weeks. This time, the effort to prevent the mass protest was more serious. In return for restoring calm to the turbulent enclave, Egypt was willing to offer Hamas significant concessions and an easing of restrictions at the Rafah border crossing with Gaza. At the same time, it warned Haniyeh that it viewed Hamas as directly responsible for events. Hamas responded to the Egyptian offer less than 48 hours later with a clear message: Tens of thousands of Palestinians demonstrated near the fence with Israel, with many attempting to breach it, while Haniyeh and the two senior Hamas delegation members who had accompanied him to Cairo stood behind them.
When the signal was given to stop the protest, the number of casualties was the highest it had been in a single day since the 2014 Israel-Gaza war. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered his country’s ambassador back from Israel. So did South Africa. The UN Security Council met in an emergency session. The price in human life had been paid, and Hamas had achieved its goal.
The movement’s leaders can add another achievement to their scorecard: They showed the Palestinian Authority (PA), led by the rival Fatah movement, that Hamas is still able to control the Palestinian agenda and bring out tens of thousands into the streets. While the PA protested the American Embassy move mostly in rhetoric and through diplomatic channels, the Hamas reaction was more powerful, more influential and far more widely covered.
The battle for Palestinian public opinion is highly significant in Hamas' decision-making. Former and current leaders are motivated by a sense of deprivation and feelings of inferiority vis-a-vis the PA, making incessant attempts to prove they are the true leaders of the Palestinian people, their representatives and main spokespeople. The 1974 Arab League announcement at the Rabat Summit recognizing the PLO as the official representative of the Palestinian people still troubles the Hamas leadership deeply. More than 40 years later, this declaration still carries weight in the Hamas decision-making process.
“The Nakba Day and Jerusalem Embassy protest are simply dates that help them (Hamas) prove their way is effective,” a senior Fatah official in the West Bank told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “They will never admit that they have failed in running Gaza and controlling it.” The official said the attempt to justify its methods could lead Hamas into a broad military clash with Israel.
Israel, too, thinks Hamas is gearing up for war. “All the signs on the ground indicate they are preparing for a broad, frontal clash with Israel,” an Israeli defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. This assessment, he added, led Israel to convey a clear message to Hamas that if the violent protests continue, Israel would renew its killing campaign against leaders of the organization’s political wing.
No threat troubles the Hamas leadership more than the renewed targeting of its chiefs. That was the only effective solution to the suicide bombings initiated by Hamas during the second intifada more than a decade ago from 2000-2005. Haniyeh, Sinwar and the leaders of the Hamas military wing understand that the elimination of the political leadership, whose members are all in the small Gaza Strip territory, could be the final nail in the Hamas coffin. And then, the attempt to win over public opinion and the internecine Palestinian struggle against Fatah would be meaningless in any case.