Hamas loves the Palestinian people, but it doesn’t love them enough to refrain from sacrificing them for a political objective. The demonstration planned for Monday along the fence separating Israel from Gaza is seemingly only meant to express the cry of the besieged Gazans. If it escalates to a massacre, Hamas will pretend to be innocent and claim that only Israel’s hands spilled that blood.
That same duality exists on the Israeli side as well. The IDF issued a plethora of threats Sunday to fire at the Palestinian side. The assumption was that only walking on the edge would deter the masses from breaching the fence. Yet as we learned during the events of October 2000, threats to open fire may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not only Hamas hears the IDF’s threats; so do the soldiers sent to stop the demonstrators.
When Hamas’ wickedness meets the confusion of the Israeli government, which cannot find a solution to the Qassam fire, the result is playing with fire. When in October of last year Qassam fire skyrocketed, the ministers competed amongst themselves on who would destroy Gaza more.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak went for a siege. We’ll leave Gaza in the dark. We’ll paralyze their vehicles. We’ll minimize the supply of goods to the bare minimum. The population will suffer and Hamas, which serves as Gaza’s ruler, won’t be able to withstand the pressure. The siege also has a morale advantage: The images of Palestinian suffering in Gaza would ease the suffering of the Jews in Sderot. If the government cannot provide some comfort, it can at least provide some revenge.
Barak believed that the suffering of civilians would turn into pressure on the Hamas government to curb the fire. He was wrong. Any serious examination of military history would have taught him that when the other side is led by a zealous regime that is loyal to its path, the population’s suffering doesn’t deter it. It knows how to turn suffering into strength and civilians into propaganda means.
When Barak first proposed his plan, in October, I called it a “foolish decision.” The incidents that followed since then confirmed the fears: As a result of diplomatic and legal limitations, Israel did little to tighten the siege, yet that little was enough to feed the Hamas propaganda machine.
Hamas planned to breach the Philadelphi Route fence a while ago. The siege gave it an excellent excuse. The Egyptians fired a little, turned a blind eye a little, and after a few days brought back Philadelphi to its previous state. Hamas saw that it worked out well and started to plan its next breach, into Israel.
For a month now, discussions have been taking place in various forums on the question of how Israel should respond if and when thousands of Palestinian civilians, women, elderly and children, march to the fence. Television cameras will accompany them as well as much international sympathy. In the eyes of the camera they would be miserable, hungry refugees who merely want to return home.
The army, or at least some of it, says: We must respond with deterring force. Even one Palestinian must not cross the fence. The police, or at least some of it, say: We must respond wisely, with sophistication, split the marchers instead of concentrating them in one place, provide them food and drink, and transport them to Gaza safely. The army thinks in terms of October 2000, when a war was taking place on Israel’s highways. The police think in terms of the summer of 2005, when the mass demonstrations of disengagement objectors were curbed without any casualties.
In this case, the police are right, and not just for moral reasons. If Israel gets entangled in a massacre of bread-seeking civilians, it would pay very heavy prices, both domestically and internationally.
There is, of course, another option: The Israeli government announcing that the siege was the wrong move and that it has changed its mind. Such possibility is of course entirely imaginary: The realistic people who sit around the government table would prefer a thousand bullets over one small expression of regret.