In the lead-up to this Saturday, when tens of thousands of Palestinians are expected to take part in protests along the Gaza border to commemorate both Land Day and the first anniversary of the “Great March of Return,” Hamas and Israel appear to be playing a high-stakes game of chicken, with each side — in both word and deed — threatening all-out war against the other.
As an Egyptian military intelligence delegation shuttles back and forth between Tel Aviv and Gaza to broker a ceasefire agreement between the two sides, Hamas is attempting to extract the greatest possible concessions from Israel using the specter of a punishing assault on the Israeli home front just before a national election — one that it knows would also cost Gaza dearly.
Though the main stated goal of the past year’s protests — the right for Gazan refugees and their descendants to return to their ancestral villages in Israel and the West Bank — is almost surely a nonstarter with Jerusalem, Hamas is hoping for Israel and Egypt to lift their blockade of the Strip, which the two countries maintain is necessary to prevent terror groups from importing weapons into the coastal enclave.
Israel, in turn, is looking to restore calm to the communities surrounding the Gaza Strip — meaning an end not only to rocket fire but to all violence along the border, including the riots along the security fence and the airborne incendiary and explosive devices — while also denying its enemy, Hamas, a victory, but says it is prepared for war if these talks fail.
“I recently ordered that units be reinforced and that additional [armored] vehicles be dispatched in preparation for an extensive campaign. All citizens of Israel know that if an extensive campaign is necessary, we will go into it strong and secure, after all other possibilities have been exhausted,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Thursday.
Also on Thursday, Hamas officials said their group would only agree to an Egypt-mediated ceasefire with Israel after the protests for Land Day, the annual commemoration of the expropriation of Arab-owned land by the Israeli government in the northern region of Galilee in 1976.
The group is trying to paint Israel’s stubbornness and threats of force as the result of the ruling Likud’s election campaign, a fairly dubious assertion as another bout in Gaza — what would be Netanyahu’s third in under seven years — is as liable to negatively effect the prime minister’s re-election chances as help them.
The Islamist terror group is desperate for a victory in order to justify its reign over the beleaguered coastal enclave. Over 11 years into Hamas’s rule, the majority of young people in the Strip are unemployed, electricity is available for just a few hours per day and potable water is scarce.
Hamas’s latest gambit in its fight against the Jewish state, the March of Return protests, which began March 30, 2018, has resulted in nearly 200 people — both civilians and combatants — killed by Israeli gunfire, according to a recent UN report, but has yielded few to no significant achievements for the terror group.
The Israeli military said Thursday it is readying for protests along the Gaza border planned for Saturday, Palestinians’ Land Day, and a possible outbreak of violence.
The date also marks a year since the start of weekly violent protests along the Israel-Gaza border, known as the March of Return, which at times have escalated into exchanges of fire between Israel and Palestinian terror groups in the coastal enclave, most recently earlier this week.
“IDF troops have completed operational preparations for the events of Land Day in the southern region and are continuing to increase preparedness for a possible escalation of violence caused by violent and terrorist acts during [the protests],” the army said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he’d ordered the military to prepare for an “extensive campaign” should Egypt-brokered ceasefire negotiations fail.
Ahead of the protests and riots expected for the weekend, the Israel Defense Forces deployed three additional brigades to the Gaza Division, along with an artillery battalion, and called up reservists from air defense and other select units.
The military also canceled weekend leave for all combat soldiers stationed in the Southern Command.
“The troops are receiving briefings and conducting preparedness checks and exercises simulating potential scenarios,” the military said.
Throughout the day IDF Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Aviv Kohavi has been “holding situational assessments, discussing possible scenarios and approving operational plans,” the army said.
Kohavi also ordered that all preparations be completed by Friday.
Palestinian Land Day marks a 1976 decision by the Israeli government to seize thousands of dunams of Arab-owned land in the Galilee region of northern Israel.
Last year on Land Day, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip launched the Great March of Return, a series of weekly protests and riots along the security fence that have at times seen the participation of tens of thousands of Palestinians. Israel maintains that the Hamas terror group appropriated the campaign for nefarious purposes, using the civilian protesters as cover for violent activities.
Some 30,000 Palestinians participated in the first protest event, held on March 30 2018. Fifteen Palestinians were killed in clashes with IDF soldiers protecting the border. Since then over 180 Palestinians have been killed in border violence, according to February figures from the UN Human Rights Council. Hamas has claimed dozens of the dead as members.
Israeli defense officials — as well as Hamas’s political foe, the Palestinian Authority — accuse the terror group of encouraging the border riots in an effort to distract from its failures in governing the Gaza Strip, a crowded patch of land with crushing unemployment, limited access to electricity and potable water, and few economic prospects.
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