On Monday, the death toll in demonstrations near the fence in Gaza was the highest number of casualties to date. Israeli forces shot and killed 57 Palestinians and injured more than 2,700. Israel has suffered no serious casualties in these altercations and the lopsided death toll has fueled criticism that Israel was being disproportionate in its response.
There may be a problem with lack of discipline and trigger-happy Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldiers, but the violence of the response is not a reflection of an Israeli interest.
An Israeli military spokesman recently admitted, in a leaked conversation, to a crowd of American Jews that the number of Palestinian casualties in demonstrations near the fence in Gaza had done “a disservice” to Israeli standing abroad.
He voiced concern that the Palestinians have won the public diplomacy battle “by a knockout”.
Israel is clearly putting its interest in preventing incursions into its sovereign territory ahead of the need to preserve Palestinian life but indiscriminate shooting only harms its overall strategy. The status quo favors Israel and escalation does not. Its economy is booming, relations with the US are blossoming. It even won the Eurovision song competition! It has a clear interest in deflating the body count and preventing escalation.
High toll is a ‘Gazan phenomenon’
The high level of violence near the Gaza border cannot be explained through the presence of Israeli troops. To put the demonstrations into context, it is useful to note that organized protests against the embassy move have taken place throughout Israel proper and the West Bank as well. Some have been violent. At the Qalandiya crossing, north of Jerusalem, stones were thrown at Israeli soldiers and they responded with live bullets, tear gas and rubber-coated pellets. However, there were no casualties in these clashes. The significant death toll is so far a Gazan phenomenon.
Some explain the demonstrations as the product of desperation on the part of the residents of Gaza. Indeed, demonstrators chanted “death is better than humiliation” as they stormed the border. They have a surfeit of reasons to experience a sense of despair. According to reports, at least 95% of the water in Gaza is undrinkable and 48% of the population is unemployed.
The despair of individuals, however, is not a potent political tool in and of itself. In order to be effective, the demonstrations must be supported and directed from above. In other words, Hamas is weaponizing desperation. They do not hide this fact. Hamas leader Salah al-Bardawil claimed that 50 of the 62 Palestinian rioters killed this week during clashes with the IDF on the Israel-Gaza Strip border were members of the Islamist group.
The humanitarian situation in Gaza is catastrophic and is contributing to the ongoing protests. Other analysts blame the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem for the recent escalation, but that is of equal or greater concern to Palestinians elsewhere. The violence in Gaza cannot be analyzed in isolation from the political interests of Hamas. In the internal Palestinian leadership struggle, the Islamic movement has fallen on hard times. Hamas has proven impotent on two interconnected levels. It has failed to prevent a humanitarian crisis developing in the Gaza Strip.
This is significant since historically, the Islamic movement gained its power by providing social services. One of the secrets of the early success of Hamas was their ability to provide better education or healthcare than the Palestinian Authority. The governance failure of Hamas has completely eliminated this advantage.
Hamas unable to accept full handover
On a second level, it has been unable to successfully reconcile with Fatah. Taking advantage of the weakness of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Fatah recently raised its demands in the context of an inter-Palestinian deal. President Abbas demanded a full handover of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority; terms Hamas cannot accept. In an effort to squeeze the government in Gaza, they have cut the budgets and wages allocated to the already beleaguered Strip, increasing its difficulties.
As a result of these dynamics, Hamas’ bargaining position in reconciliation talks had weakened. In talks brokered by Egypt, Hamas evinced a willingness to join the PLO, recognize all of the agreements that the PLO has signed with the international community and hold elections. The leadership in Gaza was also considering dismantling the military wing of Hamas: the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades and uniting with the PA police force.
The demonstrations have restored some of Hamas’ power. While their political situation remains bad, they have restored their position as the vanguard of the struggle against Israeli occupation. In particular, the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has provided them with an opportunity to appear to be at the forefront of the resistance.
This is not to say that Hamas has an interest in another major confrontation with Israel. It is in their interests to keep the issue at a simmer without allowing it to boil over. Israel has threatened that if violence continues to escalate, it will resume targeted killing of Hamas leaders, a tactic it abandoned years ago. The assassination of leaders such as Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin is well remembered by the leadership of Hamas and despite their appeals to martyrdom, they are unlikely to want to follow that path. The question is, can they walk that tightrope?