Hamas ‘Great March Home’ Fizzles; What Happened?

Gaza rioters seen during clashes with Israeli forces near the Gaza-Israel border east of Khan Yunis on Tuesday.  (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)

The 35,000 rioters who massed on the Gaza border fence Monday were supposed to be just a prelude to the “main event” Tuesday – the “Great March Home,” in which Gaza Arabs would smash through the border fence and invade Israeli towns and villages. But that march never materialized; instead of the tens or even hundreds of thousands promised by Hamas, just a few hundred showed up. While not completely quiet, the day passed relatively peacefully, with the rock-throwing and firebomb-laden kite flying that was so prevalent Monday almost completely absent.

Israeli analysts told Yediot Acharonot that the decision by Hamas to essentially wave a white flag on what was to be the terror group’s most ambitious protest was due to a combination of Israeli threats, Egyptian cajoling and “gestures” by Israel to reduce tensions. Over the weekend, Gaza Arab rioters nearly burned to the ground the Kerem Shalom crossing, and Israel halted the flow of goods into Gaza, as the stations to inspect goods were destroyed – but on Monday night, Israel agreed to reopen the crossing Tuesday, allowing trucks with humanitarian supplies that had been inspected into Gaza.

“This was the direct result of Egyptian efforts to lower the tension and calm everyone down,” a top Israeli security official told Yediot Acharonot. “After the decision Monday night, there were no security incidents,” a situation that prevailed Tuesday as well. In addition, Egypt opened the Rafiach crossing, allowing goods and people to flow between Sinai and Gaza.

Also contributing to the change in Hamas’s attitude, said Channel 20, were explicit threats to Hamas leaders. On Tuesday, MK Yoav Galant, a member of the security cabinet, said that “if Hamas will continue to make mistakes, Hamas head Yahya Sinwar and his top staff can expect to pay the price personally. Hamas is desperate because Israel has closed off its methods of acting, and it is having a hard time carrying out terror attacks. The tunnels are being destroyed.”

As Galant spoke, IDF planes hit five Hamas terror targets deep inside the Strip – the first time since 2014 such targets had been hit, as IDF responses until now had been limited to Hamas installations near the border fence. According to analysts, Sinwar realized that Israel “meant business” this time, and decided to pull back. Doing so constituted a great loss for Hamas, which was counting on the Tuesday march to generate propaganda that would show it was winning, with Gaza Arabs pouring into Israel, at least for a short time, before being driven back by the IDF.

What comes next is a matter of conjecture. Sources told the newspaper that in recent weeks there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity by international officials, including Egypt, the U.S., the U.N. and others, attempting to persuade Hamas to give up the border riots. The officials have been speaking to Israel as well, seeking to come to some understandings that would allow Hamas to back down “with honor.” Israel for its part denied that talks were going on with Hamas, but the sources confirmed that Israel was talking to third parties, seeking ways to calm the situation down. For now, the officials are hopeful that with incremental steps, they will be able to persuade Hamas to keep things calm.

In an interview Tuesday with CBS News, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that it was very unlikely that Israel would hold direct talks with Hamas about anything. “As long as they seek our destruction, what am I going to talk about? I mean, if somebody said, ‘Could you talk to al-Qaida? Could you talk’ – would you have discussions with bin Laden? About what?

“Hamas,” said Netanyahu, “is pushing people with a view of a massive infiltration into Israel, openly declaring that their goal is to destroy Israel. They’re paying these people. So it’s not the peaceful demonstrations that you think about.

“They’re pushing civilians, women, children into the line of fire with the view of getting casualties. We try to minimize casualties. They’re trying to incur casualties in order to put pressure on Israel, which is horrible.”