The “Great March of Return” was originally planned to be a six-week non-violent protest campaign by Palestinians at the Gaza border fence with Israel to express their desire to return to the lands they claimed their ancestors had lost or been driven from. Originally conceived in 2011 by Gaza journalist and activist Ahmed Abu Artema, the idea did not gain popular support until 2018. After a viral Facebook post by Artema, wondering “what would happen if 200,000 peaceful protesters broke through the barbed wire...raised the Palestinian flag and pitched tents a few kilometers into our own occupied territory,” community activists began planning what they referred to as the “Great March of Return.”
The protest was planned for Fridays beginning on “Land Day” on March 30, and ending on May 15, when Palestinians commemorate what they refer to as the Nakba, the “catastrophe” of Israel becoming an independent state. Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine endorsed the march and sought to co-opt the protests to serve their own interests.
The march was directed at Hamas’s rivals as well as Israel. Hamas wanted to send a message to the Palestinian Authority, which we learned from the “Palestinian Papers” was prepared to compromise on the demand that five million Palestinian refugees be given the opportunity to return to “their homes.” Palestinian negotiators know that Israel will never agree to allow millions of Palestinians who claim to be refugees to flood Israel. Hamas, however, insists the refugee issue is non-negotiable. “The [Palestinian] right of return is a national interest and no one in a position of authority will forgo it,” said Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.
To further emphasize the uncompromising goal of Hamas, senior military leader Yahya Sinwar declared, “The March of Return will continue… until we remove this transient border.” The protests “mark the beginning of a new phase in the Palestinian national struggle on the road to liberation and ‘return’… Our people can’t give up one inch of the land of Palestine.”
On April 27, Al-Aqsa TV aired footage of the “Fence Cutters’ Unit” in Gaza chanting: “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of Muhammad has begun to return.” One of the members declared: “Today is the day of the march toward our occupied and robbed Palestinian lands. Today, we cut the Zionist enemy’s main barbed-wire fence on the Gaza border….today we shall enter our occupied lands, and ignite a revolution against the Zionist enemy, in order to proclaim, loud and clear, that this enemy is destined for perdition….We are about to liberate our blessed Palestinian land.” He then warned Jews living near the border, “Leave immediately, before it is too late! The Palestinian revolution will not cease until victory or martyrdom!”
Reinforcing the view that Hamas is motivated by Jew-hatred, Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV broadcast a sermon delivered in East Jabalya, Gaza, on March 30, 2018, in which the preacher said that the “blessed land” was being “trampled by the accursed descendants of apes and pigs, the remnants of the brutal, savage, and barbaric colonialism.”
As journalist Yossi Klein Halevi noted:
Approximately 70,000 Israelis reside in southern Israel next to the Gaza Strip. According to the military, the primary threat posed along the border is the threat of abductions and killings of Israeli civilians as well as harm to residential and commercial infrastructure.
During the days leading up to the initial march, Hamas and other Palestinian groups bused approximately 30,000 Gazans to the border fence to participate. Whole families, including children were brought to the area, and housed in five tent encampments set up by Hamas approximately 500-700 meters from the Israeli border.
No country would allow a mob of civilians backed by terrorists to storm its border. Prior to the protest, to prepare for potential incidents, the IDF doubled its presence along the border and officials made clear they would not permit anyone to breach the barrier. Israel was put in a no-win situation. If troops did nothing, terrorists could attack soldiers and place bombs along the fence, and the mob could cross into Israel and threaten the population. If Israel took measures to stop them, any injuries could be exploited by Hamas for propaganda purposes.
On March 30, most of the Palestinians remained near their encampments and engaged in non-violent protest. The Palestinians had publicized the march as a peaceful protest, but it was anything but, as marchers who approached the fence threw rocks, Molotov cocktails, burning tires and other projectiles at Israeli soldiers. Mixed among the marchers were terrorists with more lethal weapons. In addition, while marchers tried to distract Israeli forces, other Hamas terrorists sought to infiltrate Israel and place bombs along the fence. Israel responded with a combination of riot control measures aimed at minimizing civilian injuries and eliminating threats from Hamas fighters armed with knives, guns, bombs and other weapons. Still, 19 Palestinians were killed, and hundreds wounded during the rioting.
As a reward for participating in the protests, and incentive to join future riots, Hamas offered payments of $3,000 to the families of anyone who was killed in the protest, and $500 to anyone who was seriously injured. Hamas fighters also began practicing breaching the fence, rushing IDF posts and abducting Israeli soldiers and civilians.
Hamas claims to follow Islamic law but has no qualms about ignoring the tradition of keeping young children from a battlefield. A dignitary from the Al-Sawarka tribe in Gaza declared:
One of the human shields was a seven-year-old girl who was returned to her family by IDF soldiers.
“I saw with my own eyes Hamas activists pushing people [including] women and children to the fence,” one soldier told the Jerusalem Post. Another said he saw one man pushed to the border in a wheelchair before he stood up and ran away. An IDF official said, “Hamas placed many women at the front in an effort to make it difficult for us to deal with terror targets.” Hamas was also encouraging children and teenagers to cross the fence to steal IDF equipment.
Mahmoud Al-Habbash, Mahmoud Abbas’ Advisor on Islamic Affairs and Supreme Sharia Judge, accused Hamas of deliberately encouraging civilians to endanger themselves: “You Palestinians, our people, go and die so that we’ll go to the TV and media with strong declarations.” In another sermon, he said, “'The leadership in Gaza is having a good time…They gamble on the life of the young, when they have many agendas and wish to revive themselves with the blood of our people.”
As Hamas hoped, the media adopted its narrative. This was reflected in headlines which scrubbed Hamas from the conflict and created the impression the Israeli military was shooting peaceful protestors rather than rioters and terrorists. For example, a New York Times headline read, “Israeli military kills 15 Palestinians in Confrontations at Gaza Border.” Reuters went with “Israeli forces kill 16 Palestinians in Gaza border protests: Gaza medics.” The Los Angeles Times reported: “15 Palestinians reported killed by Israeli fire as Gaza border protest builds.” CNN ran with “Gaza protests: 17 Palestinians killed in confrontations with Israeli forces.” These reports also fail to mention that the IDF is protecting approximately 4,000 Israelis living in communities in close proximity to the Gaza fence. Similar headlines and stories emphasizing Palestinian casualties were run throughout the weeks of protests.
Hamas claimed that Israeli soldiers killed an eight-month-old baby during the May 14 protests, which media around the world repeated. While it begged the question of what kind of parent would bring an infant to a riot, the publicity provoked a storm of criticism of the IDF. Ten days later, Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry removed the baby from the list of people it claimed were killed by Israeli troops. The ministry had claimed the baby died from tear gas inhalation, but a doctor was later anonymously cited by the Associated Press as saying the infant had a pre-existing medical condition and that he did not believe tear gas caused her death. It was subsequently reported that the baby had died from a blood disease similar to the one that killed her brother when he was only a few months old and that Yahya Sinwar paid the family about $2,200 to lie and say the baby died of tear gas inhalation.
On April 6, Hamas instigated a second riot along the border. Hamas called this the “Friday of Tires” and announced plans to create a wall of burning tires along the Israeli border to obscure the vision of Israeli soldiers so protestors could not be stopped from reaching the fence. Approximately 20,000 people participated in the second protest, significantly fewer than the week before, and most remained at the encampments. Protestors and Hamas terrorists again engaged with Israeli forces and attempted to sabotage the fence and infiltrate into Israel. The Israeli military used large industrial fans to blow the smoke from the burning tires away and firehoses to try to put out the fires, which created a potential environmental disaster in Gaza. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, tire fires release toxic air pollutants and the oil from burnt tires seeps into the ground and harms the soil and pollutes the water.
Protestors again approached the Gaza border on April 13. This time the turnout was considerably smaller, estimated at 10,000, and fewer rioted. Two days later, Palestinians flew a kite carrying a fire bomb over the border from Gaza into Israel, where it caused a small fire in an agricultural field outside Kibbutz Kissufim, a Jewish community near the Gaza Strip. Firefighters extinguished the blaze, preventing major damage. No injuries were reported. During the same weekend, four terrorists from Palestinian Islamic Jihad were killed in an explosion during training.
On April 20, protestors returned for a fourth riot, but the number was again considerably smaller, estimated at 3,000. The IDF dropped leaflets warning Palestinians to stay away from the border fence, but many tried to breach the fence anyway. Others burned tires and again attempted to fly kites with incendiary devices over the border. Israeli forces responded with the usual riot control measures. Four Palestinians were killed, including a 15-year-old boy. The circumstances related to the boy’s death were being investigated.
In this video, Palestinian protesters are seen infiltrating the Israeli security fence and setting fire to a military outpost.
Protests directed at the fence continued April 27. According to the New York Times, “Those assaulting it threw firebombs and rolled burning tires at the fence to try to melt it; at least some carried pistols, according to both the Israeli military and Palestinian witnesses.”
The sixth week of protests on May 4 were again marked by efforts by Palestinians to damage the border fence and cross into Israel. The IDF also reported that Palestinians crossed the border fence at one location and placed firebombs before returning to Gaza. Dozens of Palestinians also broke into the Kerem Shalom crossing, the main entry point for merchandise entering Gaza, and set fire to the gas pipeline that supplies fuel to the Strip. They did not get through to the Israeli side. The protestors caused millions of dollars in damage to the pipeline, which will worsen the economic plight of the people in Gaza. No fatalities were reported.
Protestors returned on May 11. Once again, some attempted to fly kites with incendiary devices into Israel to set fire to agricultural fields. To prevent these attacks, Israel began deploying drones to cut the strings of the kites. Amateur drone racers were also used to fly through the kites to shred them or down them with the help of fishhooks.
The Israel Air Force dropped leaflets over the Gaza Strip warning Palestinians not to approach the Israeli border on May 15, 2018, or take part in any violent activity aimed at damaging the border fence or harming the soldiers deployed along it.
A second leaflet accused the Islamist group of prioritizing the protests over the humanitarian needs of Gaza’s citizens:
Hamas planned to mobilize 100,000 people to attempt to break down the fence and attack Israeli communities. The group fell far short of its goal. An estimated 40,000 demonstrators threw stones at soldiers and burned tires on May 14 as the United States formally opened its embassy in Jerusalem. During the riots, here is a sample of the threats Israeli forces had to neutralize:
- 12:58 p.m. - Bomb explodes.
- 1:15 p.m. - A terror cell sought to plant explosives by the border fence and opened fire at IDF forces.
- 1:30 p.m. - Fire opened at IDF forces.
- 1:45 p.m. - Fire opened at IDF forces by eight terrorists.
- 2:09pm - Three bombs explode.
- 2:53 p.m. - Five pipe bombs exploded.
- 3:10pm - Bomb explodes.
- 7:02 p.m. - Terrorists opened fire at IDF troops.
- 17 kites carrying flammable materials were flown from Gaza into Israel, causing fires in 23 locations.
The IDF killed three terrorists who tried to plant an explosive device in Rafah and the IAF launched multiple airstrikes at Hamas targets inside Gaza.
Reporter Yonah Jeremy Bob described what he saw: “While there were nonviolent Palestinians demonstrating, thousands of Palestinians were also involved in more aggressive or hostile actions, and the numbers were so large that it was hard to imagine that most of them were not pawns.”
During the protests Israeli forces captured several Palestinians attempting to cross the border from Gaza and learned details of Hamas tactics. For example, the Shin Bet discovered Hamas offers Palestinian families in the Gaza Strip $100 if all family members participate in the protests. All schools and higher education institutions in Gaza were closed and Hamas forced merchants to declare a general strike so Palestinians would not have other activities on the days of protests. Hamas provides transportation, tires to burn, Molotov cocktails and flaming kites. Hamas terrorists are forbidden to approach the fence so they will not be shot or apprehended by the security forces. They are only to advance if the fence is breached, in which case their assignment is to carry out terror attacks.
Apparently, Hamas was so confident they would succeed in breaching the fence on May 14, 2018, they sent messages via social media informing Palestinians their leaders would be giving victory speeches from Israeli communities – Ismail Haniyeh from Nahal Oz, Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Khalil al-Hayya in Kfar Aza and Nafed Azzam in Be’eri.
Hamas originally announced the protests would end on May 14, 2018; however, the group said it would continue to call on people to march on the fence through Ramadan. On May 18, only about 1,000 protestors showed up at the fence, but continued their violent activities of slinging stones, burning tires and flying flaming kites into Israel.
Despite the declining turnout, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said June 7, 2018, that the protests in Gaza will “continue until Jerusalem is liberated and the Gaza blockade ends.” He also called for it to expand into the West Bank and Jerusalem, which had not occurred to that point.
On August 1, 2018, Gaza Return March spokesman Ahmad Abu Rutema said the protests have become “too costly” and called for a “tactical withdrawal.” He admitted, “We have lost the battle for public opinion.” Nevertheless, demonstrations continued on Fridays on a smaller scale with rioters throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails and sending incendiary kites over the border.
On May 28, 2018, the Israeli military struck a terror outpost in Gaza and killed three members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in retaliation for planting an explosive device along the border fence the night before.PIJ began showering Israel with a hail of mortars and short-range rockets on the morning of May 29, causing warning sirens to sound along the Israeli border. Most projectiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome, but some made it through. One missile exploded in the yard of an Israeli kindergarten. Five Israelis were wounded in the barrage, most by mortar shrapnel. This was the most heated conflict between the two sides since Operation Protective Edge in 2014. In response to this brazen attack, the Israeli Air Force bombed approximately 65 military targets in the Gaza Strip. After 24 hours of back-and-forth fire, Hamas released a statement agreeing to a ceasefire.
The ceasefire did not last, however, and Hamas resumed firing rockets into Israel and the IDF responded with air strikes on targets in Gaza. During the week of August 6, 2018, alone, more than 180 rockets were fired into Israel. At least 20 civilians were hospitalized for shrapnel wounds and shock. Despite the bombardment, and public pressure for a more severe response, Israel’s leaders were exercising restraint and were hopeful a ceasefire could be arranged so it would not become necessary to send troops into Gaza.
The IDF repeatedly dropped leaflets warning residents to stay far from the Israeli border, to refrain from attempting to breach or damage it, or carry out terror attacks against Israeli civilians or security forces during the protests.
In its latest report published near the end of January 2019, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center found that over the 42 weeks of protests a total of 187 Palestinians were killed – 150 (80%) of them were affiliated with Hamas or with other terrorist organizations.
According to the UN, 279 Palestinians had been killed between March 30, 2018, and April 30, 2019. On the worst day of violence, 62 Palestinians were killed on May 14, 2018. A Hamas official, Salah Bardawil, admitted that 50 of those killed that day were members of the terror group as were at least 50 percent of those who died before.
In March 2020, Gaza medical officials gave Reuters a lower casualty figure 215 over a longer period of time – March 30, 2018-March 30, 2020.
The Hamas-controlled Health Ministry in Gaza, which the media relies on for its data, does not disclose the organizational affiliation of the fatalities; thereby “helping to convey a false idea of killing ‘innocent’ demonstrators by the IDF,” according to the Center. “The large number of fatalities from the terrorist organizations on the front line demonstrates that the violence against the IDF near the border is not ‘popular’” and that “the IDF soldiers do not shoot indiscriminately at ‘innocent’ demonstrators but instead, in most cases, target and hit specific terrorist operatives.”
A senior officer told Haaretz that snipers are only permitted to shoot at the legs of people approaching the border unless they have weapons and threaten Israelis’ lives. The officer said some of the deaths of Palestinians were unintentional, the result of a protester bending down, a sniper missing his target or a bullet ricocheting.
One soldier described the experience of guarding the fence:
What started out as a minor annoyance increasingly became a major hazard as protestors began to send hundreds of kites and balloons with incendiary devices across the border. The IDF gradually adapted to the threat and began using a number of techniques, including drones attached with razor blades and claws, to bring down what have become terror weapons. More than 500 have been stopped by these methods.
After the protests stopped, Palestinians continued to start fires. As of mid-October 2018, more than 1,000 fires were ignited by these easy-to-construct devices. More than 8,000 acres of forest and agricultural land have burned, causing millions of dollars in damage. In addition, fires have destroyed 25 percent of all nature reserves near the border, killing plants and animals. Many of these areas will take years if not decades to restore to their original condition. The government has pledged reparations for farmers who have lost crops,
The IDF seeks more effective ways to prevent the fires. One dilemma is whether to take more severe measures to stop Palestinians from launching the kites, such as targeting them with live ammunition, but the military has opposed this option.
On July 9, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that in light of the continued launching of incendiary aerial devices, Israel was closing Kerem Shalom, the main commercial crossing into the Gaza Strip. The IDF announced the only traffic would be humanitarian supplies such as food and medicine. In addition, the government said it would limit fishing off the Gaza coast to six nautical miles, reversing an earlier decision extending it to nine miles.
Renee Garfinkel noted the contradiction between the words and deeds of Palestinians:
The principal funder of Hamas is Iran, so it was not surprising when it was reported in early June 2018 that Salman al-Harfi, the Palestinian ambassador to France, told a government official in Paris that “Iran is fully financing and pushing the Hamas demonstrations.”
On May 30, 2019, Iran paid $651,000 for distribution to 1,540 families of Palestinians killed in clashes with Israeli troops, many of whom had salaries cut by the PA as part of sanctions imposed by Abbas on Gaza. Each married person was to receive about $600; single individuals would get $200. “We will continue supporting resistance, especially in occupied Palestine,” Ali Shamkhani, secretary general of the Iranian National Security Council, told representatives of Hamas and PIJ during a video conference. “We will support resistance regardless of any political pressure or economic sanctions,” Shamkhani said, adding “backing and supporting resistance is a legal duty for Iran.”
Sinwar said, “without the Iranian support, we wouldn't have been able to keep standing so powerfully.” He added, “Iran stands by our side, when the Arabs neglect us.”
While much of the Arab world condemned Israel’s actions, the reaction was relatively muted. Similarly, the Palestinian Authority criticized Israel but did not mobilize protests in the West Bank.
Egypt has its own parochial concerns. The Egyptian government fears the possibility of Hamas redirecting the protests toward the border with Egypt. In January 2008, armed Hamas activists broke through that border fence and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians infiltrated Sinai. Once the Gazans had spent several days stocking up on food, gas, and other basic products, Egypt reached an understanding with Hamas leading to the return of Palestinians to Gaza; nevertheless, the Egyptians do not want a repetition of this scenario and the possibility of Islamist terrorists joining others the government is now fighting in the Sinai.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was summoned urgently to Egyptian intelligence service headquarters in Cairo on May 14, 2018, where General Intelligence Service head Maj. Gen. Abbas Kamel told him “in no uncertain terms, that the blood of the dead was on his and Sinwar’s hands. They even showed him images of Hamas operatives paying teenagers to go die near the fence.”
The Egyptians “made it clear to him [Haniyeh] that the Hamas leadership will be held responsible for any more deaths in border riots. They told him history won’t forgive the Hamas leadership for such senseless deaths.” Kamel then demanded that Haniyeh “order his people to cease the border riot campaign immediately.” Egypt did make a conciliatory gesture by opening its border crossing at Rafah for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan,
The UN Secretary General, Arab leaders and the European Union called for independent investigations into the violent clashes. Knowing this, like prior inquiries, would likely lead to a one-sided attack on Israel, the United States blocked a draft UN Security Council statement calling for an investigation of the border clashes. Another effort to to condemn Israel on and deploy an international security force in Gaza was mounted by the Palestinians with the help of Kuwait at the Security Council on May 20, 2018, which was also opposed by the United States and Israel.
Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Council censured Israel for “the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force” and called for an independent investigation into the killing of rioters in the Gaza border clashes. The United States criticized the HRC resolution as did Israel. The Foreign Ministry said the HRC “once again has proven itself to be a body made up of a built-in anti-Israel majority, guided by hypocrisy and absurdity.” Israel said it would not cooperate with the inquiry that is not interested in the truth, “but rather to impair Israel’s right to self-defense, and to demonize the Jewish state.”
By contrast to the international condemnation, 71% of Israelis believe that the IDF’s open-fire policy during the clashes at the border is justified.
Within Gaza, Palestinians were also questioning their leaders. “Nothing achieved,” Mohammed Haider told the New York TImes. “People are dead. They deceived us that we would breach the fence. But that didn’t happen” (Declan Walsh and Isabel Kershner, “After Deadly Protests, Gazans Ask: What Was Accomplished?” New York Times, May 18, 2018). “And Hamas is no closer to improving the lives of increasingly restless Gazans. The group lacks money to even pay public employees’ salaries or other expenses of governing” the Times journalists added.
On May 24, 2018, Israel’s High Court of Justice declared the IDF’s rules of engagement were legal. The Jerusalem Post noted that “due to the high esteem in which the High Court is held overseas, the decision will make it more difficult for the International Criminal Court to declare the IDF’s conduct a violation of international law.”
The Friday marches have continued with smaller and smaller numbers of participants in the summer, but the protests have morphed into ongoing terror attacks in which Israel is bombarded throughout the week by rockets, mortars and incendiary devices.
Since the beginning of the protests on March 30, 2018, 417 rockets and mortars fired at Israel, nearly 200 of them were launched over the weekend of July 13-14. Most rockets were intercepted by Iron Dome or fell in empty areas. Two of the rockets, however, hit a home and a synagogue in Sderot, wounding four Israelis including two teenage girls. Israel responded with multiple air strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza.
The IDF subsequently told residents in Gaza border communities to remain within a 15-second radius from bomb shelters or safe rooms, closed the nearby beach and restricted gatherings of more than 100 people in open spaces, and more than 500 people in closed spaces across the border communities.
The Palestinians have now adopted a “scorched earth” policy and are using more sophisticated timers to delay combustion of incendiary kites and balloons to increase their range. Michael Cotler-Wunsh noted this strategy is banned under Article 54 of Protocol I of the 1977 Geneva Conventions. The relevant passage states: “It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.”
On July 16, 2018, Israel announced it was tightening restrictions imposed on July 9 by cutting off fuel and gas supplies to the Gaza Strip after a ceasefire agreement was violated earlier that day when a rocket was fired into southern Israel. Medicines and food will still be allowed to pass through the Kerem Shalom crossing. The government also decided to further narrow the fishing zone in the Gaza Strip from a range of six nautical miles to three nautical miles.
Meanwhile, Egypt warned Hamas to stop launching incendiary balloons and kites into Israel and announced it was temporarily closing the Rafah crossing, the only other outlet for Gaza, due to a technical malfunction. It was unclear if Egypt was coordinating the closure with Israel’s announcement to pressure Hamas to resume a ceasefire.
On July 24, 2018, Israel announced it would partially reopen the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Gaza. It would return to full activity, the Defense Ministry said when Hamas stopped all airborne firebombs from being launched and all other provocations on the border.
A large protest of approximately 7,000 Palestinians occurred on July 28, 2018, during which rocks and explosive devices, including pipe bombs, a Molotov cocktail and a grenade were thrown at Israeli troops. Three Palestinians were killed, including a 12-year-old boy. During that day and the weekend, incendiary devices caused more than 20 fires in Israel. In addition, the Israeli Navy intercepted a ship after it disobeyed commands to stop sailing toward the Gaza Strip.
Following Egyptian mediation for a cease fire at the end of July 2018, Israel agreed to resume shipments of gas and fuel to the Strip. When attacks from Gaza continued, however, the decision was reversed, limiting the flow of supplies to food and medicine. After calm was restored, Israel reopened the Kerem Shalom Crossing into Gaza and extended the Strip’s permitted fishing zone on August 15, 2018.
In early September 2018, Israel was forced to close the Erez crossing, the only pedestrian entry into Israel from Gaza, after rioting Palestinians damaged infrastructure. That closure is expected to remain in effect until repairs are completed. Meanwhile, Palestinians needing to enter Israel may be admitted for humanitarian reasons on a case by case basis.
On September 4, 2018, Sinwar admitted protests staged on the Gaza border were intended to avert an internal crisis and divert pressure onto the Israelis. “After the reconciliation efforts [between Hamas and Fatah] reached an impasse, a number of factions planned to cause an internal explosion in the Gaza Strip, but the Marches of Return thwarted the plan,” Sinwar said. He also claimed, “Palestinian officials collaborated with Israeli intelligence in order to sabotage the reconciliation efforts.”
After weeks of smaller demonstrations, a larger protest of about 7,000 Palestinians marched on September 7, 2018. They once again threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at soldiers, who responded with tear gas and other non-lethal means. Troops fired at Palestinians who attempted to breach the border fence and enter Israel. After a few weeks’ respite, incendiary balloons were again flown across the border, setting two fires. Troops also later found an improvised explosive device that had been placed at the base of the fence. The following day, a group of Palestinians carrying a knife and an ax were arrested while trying to breach the security fence along the border in northern Gaza.
In late September and early October 2018, the protests began to grow larger and more violent again as efforts to reach a long-term ceasefire agreement stalled. On October 12, 2018, for example, an estimated 15,000 Palestinians joined protests. Protesters threw explosive devices, hand grenades and firebombs, burned tires and threw stones at IDF soldiers. Seven Palestinians were reportedly killed as troops responded to the riots. The escalation came shortly after Israel had agreed to increase fuel deliveries to Gaza paid for by Qatar to ease the shortages there. In response to the violence, Israel suspended the shipments.
Even before Israel acted, the Palestinian Authority threatened to boycott the Israeli gas company that provides diesel fuel to the West Bank and Gaza. The PA also warned UN employees in Gaza they would pay a “heavy price” if they helped transfer the fuel.
These threats, as well as the failure of ceasefire negotiations, were a result of interference from Mahmoud Abbas. He objected to being left out of the talks and hoped the punitive measures he employed would win concessions from Hamas that would enable him to resume control over Gaza. Hamas, however, was unwilling to meet his demands. Moreover, sanctions imposed on Gaza aimed at convincing the people there to rise up against Hamas appeared to backfire as Abbas was blamed more for their deprivations.
Hamas also began a dangerous escalation of violence that threatened to start a full-fledged war. Analyst Yoni Ben Menachem noted that Hamas has formed “night confusion units” to turn the protests “into 24/7 events to get the IDF soldiers accustomed to the ongoing presence of Palestinian activists at the fence, including at night.” Hamas hopes to either break through the fence or tunnel under it (Israel discovered and destroyed one tunnel on October 11, 2018). He said the goal is to surprise the IDF and infiltrate Israeli territory to abduct soldiers to trade for imprisoned terrorists. Meanwhile, the demonstrations keep the Palestinian issue in the international press and, Hamas believes, discourages Israelis from settling in the Negev.
Following another upsurge in violence, negotiations resumed for a ceasefire at the end of October 2018. As confidence-building measures, Israel allowed Qatari fuel to enter Gaza, enabling households to receive eight hours of electricity a day instead of four. Gaza’s fishing zone was also increased to 6-9 miles. For its part, Hamas stopped providing free transportation to the weekend riots and reduced the number of incendiary balloons flown from Gaza into Israel. Divisions remain, however, within Hamas as the political wing wants Hamas to accept Egypt’s proposals for a deal with Israel, but the armed wing favors continued armed struggle and the continuation of violent border riots.
A tug-of-war between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority has been ongoing since the beginning of ceasefire talks with Israel mediated by Egypt, undermining efforts to calm the situation along the Gaza border. Abbas wants to be involved in negotiations, fearing otherwise an agreement will strengthen the position of Hamas. He has attempted to weaken Hamas for several months by imposing a variety of sanctions on Gaza. After Abbas threatened to cease monthly payments to Gaza if it was excluded, Egypt suspended talks.
In January 2019, Abbas decided to stop paying salaries to hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza, including many Fatah members, in his continuing effort to pressure Hamas. Days earlier, Hamas banned Abbas supporters from holding a rally to celebrate the 54th anniversary of the launching of the first Fatah terror attack against Israel. They further inflamed Abbas by allowing loyalists of his rival Mohammed Dahlan to hold their own rally
In an effort to to pressure Israel and Egypt to work out a ceasefire, Hamas is paying protestors to renew their enthusiasm. Hamas has been offering $200 to every Palestinian wounded in clashes with the IDF since September and $100 to those wounded earlier. Some reports indicate the money came from Iran.
After relative quiet for several weeks, violence surged again in February 2019. Hamas resumed sending balloons with carrying incendiary devices and the Palestinian “night confusion units” set fires, hurled explosive devices, and shined lasers at troops across the border as part of efforts to infiltrate the border and injure Israeli soldiers. On February 17, for example, a soldier was moderately wounded after an IED exploded next to him. Protesters also blast music and prayers through loudspeakers.
The night riots are more violent than the weekly daytime Friday protests and are designed to spread fear among civilians and soldiers. The combination of darkness, risk of infiltration attempts and extreme violence has led the IDF to order an increased use of live fire against such demonstrators.
According to a February 2019 report by the IDF, more than a half million people have attended the protests since they began, with the number of Palestinians congregating at points along the border ranging from a few thousand to 45,000 each day. The rioters are provided with electricity, free wireless Internet and network connections, as well as food and drink by Hamas.
The IDF listed a number of violent activities during these “peace” marches:
- Launching 1,300 rockets and missiles on Friday or Saturday “immediately after mass violent riots.”
- Throwing stones, marbles, ball bearings, grenades and improvised explosive devices at soldiers.
- Laying mines and booby-trapped explosive devices with delayed detonation devices along the border fence.
- Using electronic jamming to interfere with IDF drones and shooting them down from the sky.
- Launching thousands of aerial incendiary devices that caused 2,000 separate fires, which burnt more than 8,500 acres of land, including approximately 3,200 acres of nature reserves and 2,700 acres of forest.
- Burning tires.
- Sabotaging security infrastructure of the border fence.
- Cutting through the fence and briefly infiltrating southern Israel before being captured or killed.
- Conducting military exercises, including training for infiltration and abduction scenarios, which would be executed if terrorists succeeded in getting past the security infrastructure and forces.
The report highlighted the ongoing threat to the Jewish communities in the vicinity. “Attacks against individuals, lynches and abductions, as well as the overrunning of buildings and residential areas are real possibilities by persons incited to violence and with the means to carry it out. The same applies for damage to national and commercial infrastructure,” the report said, adding that “in addition, due to their vicinity to the Gaza border and exposure to the line of fire, these communities are under constant threat of sniper fire, anti-tank fire and other ground-to-ground missiles [that are] aimed towards them.”
The IDF has “substantially” increased its forces deployed on the Gaza border and all troops have undergone “specially developed training designed to replicate the expected elements of the Gaza border events.” Counter-terrorism units have also been sent to nearby communities to respond to any infiltration or attacks.
After rockets were fired from Gaza at Tel Aviv on March 14, 2019, and Israel launched large-scale retaliatory airstrikes, Hamas decided to cancel the weekly Friday protests in an effort to calm the situation. They also acted in anticipation of the protests planned for the one year anniversary of the “march” on the 29th, and the annual commemoration of Land Day that Saturday.
The anniversary passed with minimal violence and, though Hamas had called for a million people to march on Land Day, the number was closer to 40,000. The organization demonstrated it does indeed control the protests by deploying security forces in bright orange vests to prevent anyone from approaching the border fence and attacking IDF personnel.
Meanwhile, Egypt continued efforts to mediate a long-term ceasefire. In return for Hamas exercising restraint, Israel agreed to reopen the border crossings into Gaza, extend the fishing zone off the coast of Gaza and allow Qatar to deliver funds to bolster the economy and infrastructure.
The deteriorating economic situation in Gaza has begun to provoke greater anger toward Hamas. Some Palestinians fear the group is going to drag them into a catastrophic war with Israel to distract from the internal dissent.
In March 2019, a number of protests were staged against Hamas in Deir Al Balah, Khan Younis, Jabalya, Rafah, Al Bureij and several refugee camps with the rallying cry, “We want to live,” in response to the high cost of living, widespread unemployment and energy shortages.
Hamas security officials arrested and beat protestors and journalists. Those who were injured and hospitalized were arrested when they left. Doctors who wrote in their medical reports that injuries were caused by Hamas forces were also beaten.
Gaza’s Hamas-controlled health ministry, which is quick to release statistics of Palestinians injured by Israeli troops, refused to release the number of protesters injured by Hamas forces. Hamas officials explained violent measures were used to disperse demonstrations because they were harming the “resistance to the occupation.”
As the protests continued into the fall of 2019, Hamas came under increasing criticism from Gazans who were upset by the failure to achieve any of their goals. Moreover, they were angered by the lack of assistance they were getting from Hamas while accusing the organization of taking the Qatari money meant for the people for themselves.
After a few weeks of relative calm following a ceasefire agreement mediated by Egypt, protests resumed on May 3, 2019. Although it was relatively small compared to past demonstrations, about 7,000 people, it was violent. During the riots, two Israeli soldiers were wounded by a Palestinian sniper. Israel responded with airstrikes. The situation quickly escalated as Hamas and Islamic Jihad began to fire a barrage of rockets into Israel.
By the time a ceasefire was reached early May 6, 2019, as a result of Egyptian mediation, the Palestinians had fired approximately 690 rockets in 41 hours — the largest-ever in a two-day period — 240 were intercepted by Iron Dome and many others either fell in deserted areas or never made it outside Gaza. Over the course of one hour on the evening of May 5, at least 117 rockets were fired at Ashdod, but only one of made it past Israel’s air defenses. That rocket killed Pinchas Menachem Prezuazman, 21, a dual American-Israeli citizen, as he was running for shelter.
In addition to dozens who were injured, the other Israeli fatalities were Moshe Agadi, 58, who died after a rocket hit his mother-in-law’s home in Ashkelon; Ziad Alhamada, 49, was critically wounded after a rocket hit the Ashkelon factory where he worked and Moshe Feder, 67, died after an anti-tank missile hit a car he was driving near the Gaza border. Israel struck 320 targets in retaliation and 27 Palestinians were killed. At least 17 were members of one of the terrorist organizations, including Hamed Ahmed Abed Khudari who was intentionally targeted because he was responsible for money transfers from Iran to Gaza.
The reason the Palestinian terrorists launched such a massive attack was anger over the failure to implement all of the terms of the previous ceasefire agreement, in particular the delivery of $30 million dollars per month from Qatar, which Hamas desperately needs to alleviate the dire economic situation. Reportedly, Israel had nothing to do with the delay; it was a result of the Qatari envoy having to travel to the United States because of a family member’s illness. Israelis also speculated that Iran was encouraging PIJ to launch attacks to show they could hurt Israel and also distract from their own domestic problems.
Hamas also apparently calculated that it had more leverage to make demands on Israel because of the upcoming celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) and the Eurovision song contest. Israel did not want an upsurge in violence to interrupt either event or scare off potential visitors planning to attend them.
Despite the ceasefire, Hamas continued to launch incendiary devices in following weeks, causing more fires near Israeli communities close to the border of Gaza. Israeli analysts believe Hamas wants Israel to know the ceasefire does not include these types of attacks or the continuation of marches. The goal is to pressure Israel to ease restrictions on the Palestinians and, ultimately, to end the blockade.
In mid-August 2019, violence escalated along the border. Israeli defense officials believed it reflected the inability of Hamas to control events.
Meanwhile, Israel and Egypt were taking steps to ease conditions for Gazans. The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Sinai is now open most days of the week and Egypt began operating another crossing point for food and building materials. Egypt and Hamas benefit from the arrangement. Gaza imports more than $45 million worth of products from Egypt each month from which the army and intelligence service siphon off approximately $15 million in
commissions. Hamas collects about $15 million from taxes it levies on these imports.
For its part, Israel is allowing more dual-use materials into Gaza (the restrictions were because Hamas could use them for the construction of tunnels and weapons). Israel also increased the supply of electricity so it now is on for 16 hours a day as opposed to four hours. In addition, thousands of Gazans are now being allowed into Israel to work. Further concessions have been withheld because of the refusal of Hamas to return Israeli civilians who were kidnapped as well as the bodies of soldiers.
A series of rocket attacks on August 25, 2019, which caused panic and the evacuation of a concert in Sderot, prompted Israel to reduce by half the amount of electricity available to Gaza residents.
As of September 2019, Qatar was spending $30 million a month in Gaza, including $10 million to purchase fuel for electricity and $100 for 100,000 poor families. Muhammad Hamada of the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Development and Social Affairs disclosed in February 2020 that Hamas had disbursed nearly $80 million that Qatar had donated. According to Hamada, the money was distributed to 70,000 families, but when he detailed how the money was spent, 80% was unaccounted for.
To calm tensions and respond to the economic conditions in Gaza, Israel agreed in the fall, apparently in coordination with Hamas, to provide some 5,000 permits to Palestinians allowing them to work as laborers in construction, agriculture and manufacturing.
Hamas and Israel observed a general ceasefire following the mediation of Egypt. The large weekly riots were suspended though protestors continued to come to the border. Islamic Jihad periodically sent volleys of rockets into Israel provoking the IAF to launch airstrikes on PIJ targets.
At the beginning of 2020, terrorists began to shift from flying incendiary kites and balloons into Israel to sending balloons across the border — sometimes bearing the messages “I Love You” and “Happy Birthday” – with improvised explosives dangling by a string. “Most land in open countryside, and none has yet caused injury or death, something a local police commander described as a miracle bound to give way to a tragedy,” according to the Washington Post. “Still, the escalation of this drifting menace — one of the ways in which militants in Gaza keep up a low-intensity armed resistance…has taxed police departments, disrupted daily life and taken a psychological toll on those who live within reach of the Gaza breeze.”
At the end of March, mass rallies planned for March 30 to mark the second anniversary of the riots were cancelled due to rising concern about the spread of COVID-19. “We call upon our people not to go to the Return encampments on March 30 and to stay home in order to maintain the safety of our people in the face of this lethal pandemic,” said Khaled al-Batsh, a senior member of the Islamic Jihad militant group. He encouraged Gazans to commemorate the date by raising Palestinian flags on their rooftops and burning Israeli ones.
Violence did not cease completely as a rocket was fired from Gaza at Israel prompting an IAF retaliatory strike.
While Hamas says that its goal is to erase the border as part of its effort to destroy Israel, Israeli officials see protecting the border as essential to peace. “What we’re doing there in Gaza is something we have to do,” according to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “Especially those who believe in having separation from the Palestinians, getting into a peace agreement, having borders – you have to make clear that borders are respected.”
In July, Fathi Hamad, a member of the Hamas politburo, praised the “peaceful protests,” while also making this statement:
Hamad was reiterating the Hamas agenda enshrined in its covenant, which makes clear the group has no interest in ending the blockade of Gaza or establishing a Palestinian state. The Hamas objective is to kill the Jews wherever they are and destroy Israel.
America’s UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley, spoke out against the behavior of the Palestinians in Gaza:
She also commented on the hypocritical condemnation of Israel’s reaction by the international community:
The riots have made the Israeli public more skeptical of peace talks. By their actions, the Palestinians have sent a message that Israel cannot expect peace in exchange for land. If unremitting violence is the consequence of evacuating every soldier and settler from Gaza, Israelis see little incentive to withdraw from any additional territory, especially in the West Bank, where terrorists would be closer to the country’s industrial and population centers.
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