Upcoming protests will test Hamas' ability to calm Gaza

Hamas would have to end both the rocket fire and the border demonstrations to achieve a real truce with Israel.

al-monitor A female demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, April 27, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.

Jun 4, 2018

Two grave developments endangered the fragile Egyptian-mediated cease-fire reached on May 30 between Hamas and Israel following last week’s intense flare-up of hostilities. The first was the renewal of Palestinian protests along Gaza’s border fence with Israel on June 1 and the subsequent killing of volunteer paramedic Razan Najjar by Israeli soldiers the next day. In the second incident, several mortar shells were fired from Gaza toward Israeli border communities, probably by what Israel dubs “renegade” Palestinian factions that do not accept Hamas control. The shelling may have been retaliation for the killing of Najjar, whose funeral drew tens of thousands of mourners, a turnout only seen in the past for Hamas leaders killed by Israel.

Every such incident is a reminder that even if neither side wants to engage in a broad military clash, as long as Gaza is so unstable, there is no guarantee that understandings reached between the sides will hold.

The next event that will test the cease-fire is a June 5 protest against Israel’s victory over Arab armies in the 1967 war and its occupation of Gaza. Hamas had recently marked several key dates for mass demonstrations by the fence. The June 5 “Naksa Day" (Arabic for “setback”) is shaping up as another challenge to the Israel-Hamas understandings reached last week and to soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) tasked with preventing Palestinian protesters from breaching the border fence.

In addition to military preparations for the demonstration out of concern that it could deteriorate into the extensive violence that resulted in the deaths of over 100 Palestinians and wounding and maiming of thousands in clashes last month, Israel is also taking diplomatic steps to prevent events from spiraling out of control. Israel conveyed a message to Hamas indicating that June 5 would determine the prospects of easing the Gaza siege and reaching a long-term truce. This is the first time since it imposed its siege on Gaza following the Hamas takeover of the Strip in 2007 that Israel has openly discussed an arrangement with Hamas.

An Israeli defense official who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said Egypt had spelled out this message clearly in the talks with Hamas that resulted in the current cease-fire. Israel is now considering a significant easing of its curbs on Gaza within the framework of a plan formulated by the IDF in coordination with the civil administration. Any comprehensive, long-term agreement with Hamas would likely include an opening of the Gaza border crossings with Israel and construction of a seaport. And while the IDF is obviously not involved in weighing the diplomatic significance of such plans, the political echelons run every proposal by the top military brass for input on the security implications.

The messages conveyed through the Egyptians are of the carrot-and-stick variety: If Hamas signals willingness to restore calm in Gaza, Israel will seriously consider an arrangement.

A barrage of rockets and mortar shells was fired at Israel May 29. Once it stopped, a senior officer in the IDF’s Southern Command briefed reporters May 31 on some of the plans under consideration, saying, “Four years after Operation Protective Edge, we have to make decisions about what’s happening now in Gaza. We can let the situation continue with rocket attacks and escalation. The IDF is willing to enter Gaza and even run it if necessary the day after the war. But we can also decide that this is a good time for an arrangement in Gaza, and there are a number of opportunities.” The extent of Hamas' concessions will determine Israel’s, he said, but warned, “Hamas must stop building tunnels, stop the terror against us."

Reports have emerged in recent weeks of Hamas' proposals conveyed to Israel through Egypt and Qatar for a long-term truce in return for a major relaxation of the siege. Israel has yet to respond in detail, but it is giving them more serious consideration than it has to such proposals in the past. The IDF is not talking about a truce, instead using the term “regulation” that would entail clear rules for easing the crisis affecting Gaza’s 2 million Palestinian residents. A commitment by Hamas to accept Israel’s terms, as outlined by the senior IDF officer, could promote such an outcome.

The June 5 protest is a significant hurdle. Hamas is continuing its preparations for the event and does not seem inclined to give it up. If dozens of Palestinians are killed on June 5 in a mass attempt to breach the border fence, Israel will find itself once again facing harsh international condemnation as it did in recent weeks, likely precluding Israeli concessions and a long-term truce. To arrive at an arrangement with Hamas, the Israeli government will also have to prepare the domestic public and ensure political support by hammering the message that such a move will benefit Israel’s security. If Hamas opts for violent demonstrations against Israel, progress is unlikely.

The messages conveyed to Hamas through Egypt focused on a halt to Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel, but Israel also holds the organization responsible for the protests along the fence and their results. Whereas Hamas assumes that the understandings reached with Cairo apply only to ballistic attacks, Israel also regards the events along the fence as terror activity and demands they be stopped. Thus, Israel sees the upcoming protest as a test of Hamas' intentions regarding a significant truce.

The leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, is reportedly pleased with what he views as the achievements of the border violence that restored the festering conflict to the international agenda. Hamas appears intent on bringing a large number of protesters to the fence on June 5 to maintain the momentum of the past two months. Leaders of the movement seem convinced that Israel will be forced to lift its siege if the Palestinians keep upping the pressure on the fence.

Hamas leaders are likely convinced that the more they pressure Israel, the better the chances it will ease the blockade. They fail to understand that their actions risk prompting an opposite Israeli reaction. More bloodshed on the Israel-Gaza border would hurt Israel's willingness to offer carrots to Gaza residents. Instead, the Israeli leadership is likely to opt for the stick.

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