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Israel and the Palestinians gear up for weeks of confrontations at the Gaza border

Further clashes are likely after last Friday's violence

    Palestinians demonstrate at the Khan Yunis border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip last Friday
    Palestinians demonstrate at the Khan Yunis border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip last Friday (Photo: Getty Images)

    Both Israel and the Palestinians are gearing up for another confrontation on the borders of Gaza, perhaps as early as this Friday.

    The organisers of the “Great Return March” have promised to keep up their efforts until May 15 and to continue holding smaller marches towards the border in the meantime.

    Israel claims this is all the work of Hamas and the IDF is currently sticking to its policy of firing at anyone entering the buffer-zones near the border.

    On Friday, the first day of marches, 16 Palestinians were killed by Israeli sniper-fire and hundreds wounded.

    In nearly all cases, those shot at were approaching the fence, some throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. In one case, they opened fire on an Israeli soldier.

    However, the IDF has not been able to explain footage of at least two cases in which unarmed men are seen being shot while running away from the fence.

    The Israeli government insists that in all cases, those killed were engaging in “acts of terror” by trying to sabotage the fence and harm Israeli soldiers.

    On Tuesday morning, Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited the IDF headquarters near the Gaza border and said “anyone who goes close to the fence is risking their lives”.

    He continued: “I suggest that the residents of Gaza invest their efforts not in protesting against Israel but in changing the leadership in the strip.”

    While Hamas leaders were prominent in the protests on Friday, they have been careful not to identify themselves as the organisers.

    “The people who participated in the march are women, children, old people, not Hamas,” according to Isam Hammad, vice chairman of the 

    International Co-ordination Committee for the Great Return March.

    “The committee has representatives from all Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah and civil society and independent organisations.”

    Of the 16 people killed, ten were members of Hamas and other militant organisations including Islamic Jihad, the IDF spokesman said.

    Hamas itself admitted that its members were killed.

    Israeli intelligence believe that Hamas has made a strategic shift in recent months.

    After over a decade spent building up a rocket arsenal and excavating tunnel networks, it has finally come to the conclusion that any attempt to confront Israel’s overwhelming firepower and technology will only bring further suffering to the people of Gaza, and political isolation for Hamas.

    It is not about to dismantle its arsenal or recognise Israel, but it has no plans either to provoke a major escalation as it did in the summer of 2014. Israeli officers now believe it has accepted the fact that the cross-border tunnels Israel has been steadily detecting and destroying in recent months are lost as a strategic asset.

    Hamas’s endorsement of the “Great Return March”, its efforts to organise behind the scenes and its members who tried to charge at the fence under Israeli fire are all elements of its attempt to re-establish its relevance and challenge President Mahmoud Abbas for leadership of the Palestinian cause.

    So far, the results have been mixed.

    The 30,000 Palestinians who joined the march last Friday are less than two per cent of Gaza’s population and, despite the media coverage that the events received, it was not translated into any real diplomatic pressure on Israel or significant statements from Arab governments.

    Hamas is not popular in any of the Arab capitals right now and the only forceful statements came from Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a terrorist” and Israel “a terror state”.

    But Hamas still hopes that in going back to the tactics of “popular struggle” — stone-throwing and Molotov cocktails against soldiers, as the Palestinians did 30 years ago — it can regain its standing both within the Palestinian people and the wider Arab world.

    It certainly plans to continue trying for the next five-and-a-half weeks until May 15, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s establishment and what the Palestinians call a tragedy.

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