Stuck in strategic stalemate, Hamas uses Gaza border protests to pressure Israel

Hamas’ “March of Return,” which defies its “peaceful” billing and is in fact quite violent, has placed the Palestinian issue back on the world stage. With the Jewish state standing firm, Hamas is failing.

By: Israel Kasnett/JNS

Israel has come under harsh criticism in recent weeks over its response to Palestinian mass protests on its border with Gaza. Called the “March of Return,” the protests are expected to last the next six weeks until after Israel’s upcoming 70th anniversary, a day that Palestinians refer to as the Naqba (“Catastrophe”), in mid-May. Faced with thousands of protesters—many peaceful and many violent—Israel has vowed to protect its border at all costs. So far, this has resulted in reportedly 27 Palestinian deaths.

Contrary to the belief of many in the international community that the protests are peaceful, they are anything but. The Palestinian protesters have thrown stones and Molotov cocktails, and have burned tires to create a smokescreen for the Israel Defense Forces. A number of terrorists have attempted to use such cover to break through the fence and infiltrate Israel.

And contrary to the pro-Palestinian, knee-jerk response by many human-rights groups and Western countries, many Muslims from a number of Middle Eastern nations have flooded the social-media pages of Israel’s Foreign Ministry with messages of support, lambasting the Hamas terror group for once again exploiting innocent civilians to further its cause against the Jewish state.

Kobi Michael, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, explained to JNS that “we are in a psychological war with Hamas, and we must understand the broader context of the issue. Hamas did not initiate the march. It was an initiative by social activists who are concerned with Hamas’s occupation of Gaza. Hamas realized they need to ride the wave.”

“Indeed,” continued Michael, “Hamas finds itself in a severe strategic stalemate, and this protest campaign is a win-win situation for the terror group. They have no compunctions sacrificing their own people, and they wish people would die during the demonstrations since this serves the narrative they want to sell to the world. They don’t have a problem sending people to be killed.”

The protests have served to place the Palestinian issue back on the world stage and have eased domestic pressure off Hamas by transferring blame for the Palestinians’ plight elsewhere.

Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told JNS that “although Hamas did not initiate the protests, it has seen these as a useful way to deflect popular anger over the social, economic and humanitarian conditions in the strip—away from itself, and onto Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

‘Psychological war of attrition’

Michael explained that the broader issue here is that Hamas is in “the worst strategic position since June 2007. They face a political and strategic stalemate on all fronts. The talks with the Palestinian Authority broke down. As long as a reconciliation process is absent, Egypt will not open the Rafah [border] crossing. The Iranians are backing Hamas from afar, but they cannot translate their support to anything tangible since Gaza is under an efficient blockade by Israel and Egypt.”

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This has become, according to Michael, a “psychological war of attrition” between Israel and Hamas.

“Hamas understands militarily they are at a dead end,” explained Michael. “Tunnels are not an option anymore, and Israel will soon complete the underground barrier. Rockets are not so efficient, thanks to anti-rocket Iron Dome batteries. Hamas doesn’t have the capacity they used to have. They know they are in a problematic situation. This is an outcome of an effective and efficient Israeli deterrence.”

Hamas prefers to delay the next violent cycle as long as possible to become better prepared, but cannot do anything in the meantime. Its leaders feel that they are backed by the international community and by the P.A., and so may be able to push Israel into a corner. They want to place psychological pressure on the IDF, Israel’s political echelon and on the Israeli public as well. Hamas has succeeded in overseeing violence against Israel without it escalating into full-scale war.”

However, according to Michael, “Israel is determined to prevent any success by Hamas. Israel will not remain only as a reactive or passive player. If protests continue and get worse, Israel will act not just on the border, but deep inside Gaza.”

“Unfortunately,” Michael summed up, “Israel pays the price for internal struggles in the Palestinian arena.”

‘A very effective job’

Col. Richard Kemp, a retired British Army officer who previously served as a commander in Afghanistan, has long been a strong advocate of Israel and the IDF. He and Lovatt agreed that the protests and Israel’s response to them cannot be compared exactly to past British involvement in Northern Ireland. But Kemp, who served there at the time, criticized those who have come down hard on Israel by accusing it of excessive force.

“I haven’t heard one person say how they would deal with the situation differently,” said Kemp. “It’s easier to criticize people who are faced with critical decisions. Any other country faced with this situation would have dealt with it the way the IDF did. I observed the same kind of activity [by the IDF] that we would have taken.”

Kemp emphasized the terrorist nature of Hamas and the current protests in Gaza. “They try to lure the IDF to kill their own people. It is more than rioting; it involves terrorist activities. It is an extremely serious situation.”

The officer defended the general approach taken by the Israeli military, emphasizing that he was not focusing on specific incidents that may have taken place.

“If the IDF didn’t stop Palestinians from surging en masse toward the border, what if many get through the fence? What do you do next? If that happened, maybe many more would have gotten killed.”

According to Kemp, by using force to prevent Palestinians from breaking into Israel and carrying out terror attacks, the IDF saved lives, both on the Israeli side and the Palestinian side.

“I think,” he said, “the IDF has done a very effective job.”