The great “March of Return” from Gaza to Jerusalem fizzled and failed, but there were many casualties just the same. Hamas had called for hundreds of thousands of Gazans to overwhelm the border that separates the tiny enclave from Israel, to march together all the way to Jerusalem and claim the city and the land of Israel for Palestine. 

But it didn’t happen. 

The night before the scheduled march, Israel dropped flyers across Gaza, warning the residents not to join the march and not to be “Hamas’ puppets”. In the end, fewer than fifty thousand people showed up, and what happened next was shocking. 

Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bet, released a statement revealing evidence that much of this new violence, carried out under the guise of mass demonstrations, has been funded by Iran in an effort to destroy the state of Israel. Shin Bet also revealed something they had learned from interrogations of captured terrorists, that Hamas has warned its own fighters to keep back from the security fence during the mass demonstrations, in order to avoid getting shot. At the same time, Hamas actively encouraged Palestinian children and teens to approach the border, to be the first line of defense. At least five of them died.

The statement read, “There is a prohibition for Hamas operatives to approach the border, from a fear that they will be killed or captured by IDF troops, unless the security fence falls and then they must enter, armed, into Israel under the cover of the masses and carry out terror attacks.” 

By the end of the day, at least 62 people were reported dead, and an estimated 2,700 people, including many civilians, were injured or wounded. Hamas later revealed that least 50 of those killed were members of Hamas. In other words, only twelve of the 62 people who were killed were civilians. In an interview on Arabic television, Hamas official Dr. Salah Al-Bardawil made it clear: “In the last round of confrontations, if 62 people were martyred, 50 of them were Hamas.”

Hamas also claimed that an 8-month-old Palestinian baby had died from inhaling tear gas launched by Israeli soldiers, and showed video clips of the grieving mother weeping over the infant in her arms. But an unnamed doctor in Gaza claimed that the baby had a pre-existing heart condition and he did not believe it was tear gas that killed her. 

The little girl’s father, Anwar Ghandour confirmed what the doctor had said: “I don’t work. No one works anymore. My wife and her sisters went to see the protest. My baby had a heart condition and soldiers fired tear gas into the women’s tent and my baby died. God is great.”

Regardless of the cause of her death, however, one might legitimately ask, what kind of parent brings an infant to a violent demonstration? 

Even with the lower-than-expected numbers of rioters, there were several attempts to crash through the border fence. One cell of eight young Hamas fighters tried to breach the fence in northern Gaza. They threw pipe bombs and grenades at the troops and the fence, but were driven back by the IDF who used anti-riot methods. All eight were shot and killed by Israeli soldiers. A later inspection showed they had been carrying a handgun, hand grenades, wire cutters, and crowbars.

A ‘Peaceful’ Demonstration   

Before the first demonstration on March 30, Hamas claimed that the so-called ‘March of Return’ was being organized by a civilian organization and that it would be a peaceful demonstration. But it rapidly became clear that the force majeure behind the “peaceful” march was Hamas itself. 

On the evening of March 14, following the violent failure of Hamas to breach the border fence, Khalil al-Hayya, a senior leader in Hamas, said, “We say clearly today to all the world that the peaceful march of our people lured the enemy into shedding more blood,” as though the high casualty count was something for which to be proud, and the full responsibility for the casualties rested with Israel. 

Strange that the ‘peaceful’ demonstrators came equipped with hand grenades, guns, knives, fire bombs, flaming kites, hundreds of burning tires, and rocket launchers. In one video, when an Israeli drone was seen dropping leaflets, a man in the crowd pulled an AK-47 from under his robe and fired a volley of shots into the air that brought it down. Who brings an AK-47 to a peaceful demonstration? 

In fact, Hamas’ own Facebook page gave a very graphic picture of how cynical and dishonest Hamas’ claims truly were. 

The Facebook page instructed protesters to “act in accordance with the demand to bring a knife or a gun and to hide it under their clothes and not use it except where there is need to capture soldiers or residents of Israel.” The posting gave the demonstrators the false impression that bulldozers would break through the border fence and that the Israeli soldiers would run. It promised that they would then be free to wreak havoc on the residents of the nearby towns, which in some cases were mere yards from the border. But the bulldozers did not break down the fences; little children were sent in their stead.

Hamas also released a Hebrew-language video aimed at the Israeli towns just across the border, clearly threatening violence against Israeli civilians. It warned:

“Don’t stay, the Palestinians are swarming unrestrained, and we recommend you leave without hesitation… Those who stay will bear the full consequences. You’ve been warned. We’ll break through the border and reach all the way to your communities, and we will not die alone.”

So much for a “peaceful demonstration”, it was warning of a mob out of control, thirsting for the blood of dead Jews.

Counting the Cost 

Hamas had announced earlier that the protests would not end after the Nakba demonstrations as planned, but would continue through the week and the weeks to come. Yet late in the day, Hamas did something that caught almost everyone by surprise. Hamas members went from camp to camp and told the people to go home. Instead of demonstrations on the following day, they said they would reserve that day for the funerals of those killed in the riots.

The previous zealousness with which Hamas pushed its citizens into the battleground seemed to be absent. It sounded more like an effort to recalculate the costs and possibly to rethink Hamas strategies for the future.

Assessing Hamas

A government that uses its own people as disposable assets to further its political agenda needs to be recognized and removed. Hamas has long been known for just such tactics. 

Rocket fired into Israel from inside Gaza City
(photo: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)

For example, in previous armed conflicts with Israel, knowing that Israel is reluctant to bomb civilian targets, Hamas has embedded its rocket launchers in heavily populated areas. 

There is ample evidence for this (see photo). Hamas has used civilian buildings such as homes, hospitals, mosques, and schools to store its weapons, delivered them in ambulances and other emergency vehicles, and has fired its rockets from the adjacent lots and backyards of private homes. In the summer of 2014, UNRWA announced that it had discovered weapons stored in its own UN schools. Hamas reluctantly admitted that it did use schools and hospitals in Gaza Strip to launch rocket attacks on Israel – but they claimed it was a ‘mistake’.  

As a result of this wanton approach, it has been Israel’s policy to warn civilians to leave their homes when their neighborhoods are about to be bombed. These warnings have come from leaflets dropped from drones, by robot telephone calls, and by text messages – all in Arabic, and not unlike the warning leaflets that they dropped the night before Monday’s  ‘March of Return’. 

However, Gazan civilians have reported that they have been forced by Hamas to remain in their homes, despite the warnings they have received. According to an article in the Washington Free Beacon by Adam Kredo in July 2014, “Hamas’ Interior Ministry has ordered residents of the Gaza Strip to remain in their houses if they are about to be bombed by the Israelis, a move that effectively turns citizens into human shields and is intentionally meant to boost the casualty rate, according to a copy of the order published by Hamas.” 

This year’s ‘March of Return’ is another of Hamas’ endless and deeply cynical ploys to use the people of Gaza to further its own agenda, to gain the attention of the international press, greater power in the Muslim world, and funding from its patrons, such as Iran.  But this time, Hamas’ leaders may have overreached and the outcome may be something other than they planned for.

Misbegotten Goals

The chances that Hamas will prevail against Israel are slim to none. The possibility that Israel would agree to allowing eight million Palestinians into Israel is likewise nil. But that does not make Hamas any the less dangerous. It does not matter that we think they cannot prevail. If they believe they can, they will do everything possible to make it happen. They have bred into the people of Gaza a burning hatred of Israel and the Jewish people that begins in the cradle, is nurtured in schools and at summer camps, and later in paramilitary training. (There is so much recorded testimony to this that it can hardly be argued otherwise. See below.)

Two young boys on official Palestinian television (courtesy MEMRI)

Bad Choices

The “March of Return’ is the largest effort Hamas has ever made to mobilize the people of Gaza against Israel. But it was a colossal failure, one that Hamas will no doubt try to spin as a victory, but which will be remembered otherwise. And it is not likely to end well, not for Hamas, not for the people of Gaza, and not for the Palestinians’ dream for a country of their own. 

Because they cannot have Israel. The State of Israel is firmly established as a vibrant member of the international community and it is here to stay. Moreover, it now has an ally in the United States that is firmer and more resolute in its support than ever before. This powerful partnership will make it even more unlikely for the Palestinians to achieve their dream of driving the Israelis into the sea and claiming their land. 

The burning hatred that the Palestinians have harbored for 70 years will bring them nothing. Hamas’ misappropriation of international humanitarian funds to use for the building of ‘terror tunnels’ against Israel instead of for the benefit of the people of Gaza, may well result in the resentment and fury of the people they have used so badly, once the Gazans wake up to the reality of their plight. 

The Middle East – Still a Land of Extreme Contrasts

Monday was a day of contrast. The tragedy that played out along the Gaza/Israel border was juxtaposed against the celebration in Jerusalem as the new U.S. Embassy was officially opened. When President Donald Trump declared America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he did more than simply recognize a fact that has been the reality for 70 years. He extended a strong hand to the tiny state, and changed the dynamics of the dangerous neighborhood in which it exists forever. 

The stark contrast between Israel’s vibrant society and Gaza’s bleak future presents a great challenge to the region. But this challenge will only be resolved when people of good will and open minds come together in a sincere effort to find a peaceful solution, one that can actually last. 

Israel is eager for peace, but peace will not come without a partner. Hamas has once again chosen the wrong path. There will be more meaningful days on the Palestinians’ calendar – such as June 5 or Naksa Day, when they mark the date of  their stunning defeat in the 1967 Six Day War. Every such day provides another opportunity for Hamas to mobilize the people of Gaza, to demonstrate, to attack, to kill. 

Hamas leaders have some hard choices ahead, but they will not be likely to make them. They will revert to what they know best – terrorism born of hatred and the need for revenge. Israel’s clear technological superiority over Hamas’ relatively primitive military systems puts the terrorist organization at a severe disadvantage. Their tunnels can be discovered and destroyed, their rockets can be shot out of the sky, yet the likelihood that Hamas will disavow its ideology in favor of some kind of real detente is unlikely. 

Israel, on the other hand, has no doubt learned much about what they can expect from Hamas’ new strategies as a result of the last few weeks’ demonstrations. Israel is generally good at applying the lessons learned and may well provide Hamas with some unsettling surprises in the next go-around.

The international community at large supports Hamas and faults Israel for the deaths and injuries on the border this week. This is to be expected – Israel usually bears the brunt of international criticism, and this week was no different. Hamas, on the other hand, has benefitted from the international attention and will certainly use it to further its goals. But Hamas has suffered severe losses as a direct result of its aggressive tactics. The loss in one day of 50 of its fighters is significant. 

In other words, the situation is complicated and is not likely to become less so in the near future. The best we can hope for is that the optimism that was felt in Jerusalem on Monday will continue, and the failure of the ‘March of Return’ will somehow provide a lesson to Hamas that will change its path in less hostile direction. Not likely, I suppose, but one can hope.

Ilana Freedman is a veteran intelligence analyst and advisor in intelligence-led counter-terrorism solutions. Trained in Israel, where she lived and worked for sixteen years, she returned to the U.S., and served as CEO of Gerard Group International in Massachusetts until 2009. Since then, Ilana has been an independent consultant, working with major corporations and government agencies on security issues. Her global network of specialists and field assets provides an ongoing resource of critical, real-time intelligence and domain expertise. Ilana is the author of many articles on the terrorist threat to America and the West, and four books on Islamic terrorism.