The Gaza Strip after the March of Return
Since the 42nd commemoration of the Palestinian Land Day that began on Saturday March 30th, Palestinians from the Gaza Strip launched a 46-day long campaign to mainly demand the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israeli controlled areas. The campaign was also meant to protest the transfer of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Nakbeh. As such, with the nearly seven-week long campaign ending on Tuesday May 15th, nearly 12000 people were injured and at least 110 more were killed in the protests that ensued at the separation fence between the coastal strip and Israeli controlled areas.
Calls for protests were initially made by independent activists but were soon after supported by Palestinian political factions. Nevertheless, these border protests took place at five separate locations in the Gaza Strip as tents were set at these points for the purpose of the campaign: East Rafah; East of Khan Yunis (Khuza’a); East of Bureij refugee camp; East of Gaza City; East of Jabalia. The violence witnessed during these border protests in the Gaza Strip have been the deadliest since the war of 2014 (‘Operation Protective Edge’), especially on Fridays after prayer hours but nothing compared to the events of Tuesday May 14th.
However, in preparations for these protests, Israeli Security Forces (ISF) deployed some 100 sharpshooters, tanks and police units at the border with Gaza in order to impose a ‘no-go zone’ in the area with the aim of stopping infiltration attempts and damages to the separation fence. In anticipation for the US Embassy transfer, the anniversary of the Nakba and the start of Ramadan, ISF sent additional personnel to reinforce the border to allegedly defend the border against Hamas militants who are said to use the protests as a cover to carry out attacks. In this sense, a senior member of Hamas, claimed that 50% of all casualties were members of the organization but remains to be verified.
Moreover, despite warning against the use of violence, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled on May 24th that ISF’s conduct during border protests were legal. As the Palestinian Authority demanded a full investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC), it might be more difficult to prosecute Israel for violations of International law due to the high esteem for Israel’s Supreme Court. Nevertheless, the UN’s Human Rights Council voted in favour of sending an independent team to investigate casualties during the ‘March of Return’. This probe will be conducted despite the United States using their veto against a similar proposal at the UN Security Council.
Protests are still ongoing at the separation fence between the Gaza Strip and Israeli controlled areas, and will likely continue till June 5th when Nakseh Day (Six-Days war of 1967) will be commemorated. Accordingly, ISF are still present at the border due to high tensions created by the month of Ramadan, no matter the severity of expected protests. Indeed, several thousands of people are still gathering at the border fence to demonstrate and reports of both injuries and casualties. All the while, ISF continue to blame Hamas for the incidents at the border and to justify their responses to them.
However, Hamas finds itself under pressure since the protests failed to accomplish something, such as improving the living conditions of Gazans. The humanitarian crisis is worsening and so long that Hamas continues governing the coastal strip, much needed aid will continue to be restricted and the blockade will be maintained, which will lead to destabilization. Moreover, both Fateh and Hamas have failed to reach a reconciliation agreement that would have eased restrictions, such as on electricity, but would have also led to the PA taking control over Gaza. All these prospects do not paint a positive image for the Gaza strip nor for Hamas.
Regardless of the fact that Hamas did not initiate the border protests of the ‘March of Return, the organization was quick to adopt these non-violent demonstrations. On the one hand, this allowed it to center the world’s attention back to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and away from its failures to properly administer the Gaza strip. On the second hand, for a short while, by adopting non-violence as a new tool in its arsenal, Hamas deflected scrutiny over its history of armed resistance. However, on the last point, the group was surely not only attempting to garner support for itself but also evade confrontations with Israel.
At the same time that the Israeli government is facing international condemnation for its actions, no significant measure was taken against it as of yet to hold it accountable. Opening an inquiry, filing a motion to the ICC, recalling ambassadors and passing resolutions are not changing Israel’s policies nor the situation for Gazans. Recently, Israel has announced that it will build some 4000 new housing units in settlements at the West Bank and some reports indicated that the US is planning to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. By doing so, tensions are rising to a point of igniting a new conflict, not only with Palestinians but with neighboring countries and regional powers.
In this sense, on Tuesday May 29th, Palestinian militant groups fire some 60 mortar shells towards several locations within Israeli controlled areas. ISF’s missile defense system, the ‘Iron Dome’, allegedly intercepted most of the projectiles but at least 28 mortars hit several areas and caused some 5 injuries, including 3 ISF personnel. In response, Israel launched more than 70 strikes on nearly 35 militant targets within the vicinity of the Gaza Strip, during which a tunnel system was allegedly destroyed and, although unconfirmed, killed 4 militants. However, the Israelis denied having reached a cease-fire agreement with Hamas despite stating that it will respect the deal brokered by Egypt so long as there are no renewed attacks by Gaza-based militants.
Followingly, the incident was condemned Internationally by the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN) who stated that this latest round of attacks was harmful for peace efforts in the region. As such, the United States’ (US) representative at the UN Security Council (UNSC), Nikki Haley, called for an emergency meeting to be held on Wednesday May 30th. The spokesperson for the EU’s European External Action Service called for a de-escalation of the situation that may lead to a dangerous outcome. Moreover, it is said that Egyptian officials brokered a ceasefire deal in an attempt to de-escalate the situation, which Israel will respect so long as no new attacks are launched.
This incident presents a dangerous scenario for the region. However, Hamas wasn’t behind the mortar shelling despite its military wing claiming responsibility for it and during the ‘March of Return’ the organization looked as if it adopted more peaceful protests as a new tool to garner international attention. In fact, Hamas, and other groups, are also severely weakened by fighting three wars with ISF, and lack public support for a renewed wave of confrontations due to the dire economic and living conditions existing in the blockade. These groups have limited political and military options, therefore launching limited mortar attacks might have been an effort to demand change in the Gaza Strip following the presented failures of the border protests to do so.