Hamas spent weeks on the shaping of a new image-building campaign, starting on March 30 with the “March of Return,” or “March of Millions.” This soon evolved into violent riots, the cover for terrorist infiltrations and a climax on May 30 with the most massive rocket and mortar assault on dozens of Israeli communities and towns seen in four years. Hamas and its partner-in-terror Islamic Jihad, both of which draw on support from Tehran, thus marked a watershed moment in Palestinian history.
The campaign, which ended in costing 120 Palestinian lives and 2,000 injured, was first intended by Hamas as fodder for the Palestinian propaganda machine which targets pro-Arab circles in the West. It was supposed to convincingly depict the paramilitary terrorist organization’s transformation into a popular liberation movement capable of sweeping up Palestinian communities in and outside the Gaza Strip.
The “March of Return,” touted as a “peaceful protest,” was intended to inspire Palestinians to rise up and consummate their longing to return to their pre-1948 homes, rather than as a drive for independence. The 60-km long tent encampment facing Israeli military defense positions across the border fence was meant to symbolize the transience of the Palestinian situation in the face of unbridled violence. Harping on the “nonviolent nature” of the Palestinian “demonstration,” Hamas propagandists for six weeks strove to project images of unarmed Palestinian masses marching up to a frontier bristling with thousands of Israeli soldiers armed with guns, tanks and an air force. Israel eventually stoked this depiction when its soldiers, under hails of rocks and explosives, fired into a mob of many thousands of Palestinians who were hurling themselves on the border fence to stop them breaking through.
Although Hamas tried hard at first to manufacture a picture of civilian protest, its campaign finally crashed over its inability to change its terrorist spots:
- The planning for large-scale protest events, the image-building and funding for keeping tens of thousands of demonstrators in the field, were all beyond Hamas’ capabilities. It was the brainchild of the propaganda department of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Al Qods. Sensing this, the two million ordinary people of Gaza mostly shunned the demonstrations.
- The heads of Hamas’ armed wing, the Ezz e-din al-Qassem, pushed hard for the tens of thousands of rioters massed at the Israel border fence to provide cover for the cross-border infiltration of terrorists for attacks on Israeli forces. As the campaign advanced, more and more armed terrorists managed to slip through. The would-be festive nature of these events was further marred by the toy kites which the ringleaders set on fire or attached to explosives before lobbing them across into Israel.
- Ultimately, on May 29, Hamas reverted to character and abandoned its pretensions to mounting a peaceful protest. For 36 hours, more than 150 rockets and mortar rounds rained down on Israeli towns, villages and kibbutzim, many of them intercepted by Iron Dome batteries. The popular protest campaign movement Hamas had been touting for months melted away in the heat of the onslaught.
Behind these graphic images, a row broke out between Hamas and its patrons, Iran and Hizballah. The Islamic Jihad had asked its Iranian handlers in Beirut for permission to start shooting at Israel. When that permission came through, the Jihad immediately launched mortar fire on Tuesday, May 29 shortly before 7 a.m. It took Hamas six hours, until around 1 p.m., to join the rocket assault. But on the quiet that afternoon, as Israeli retaliatory strikes were underway in the Gaza Strip, Hamas leaders secretly called Cairo to ask for Egyptian mediation to arrange a ceasefire.
Jihad’s Iranian handlers and Hizballah, having caught on to Hamas’ backdoor appeal to Cairo, ordered a ceasefire shortly after midnight Wednesday. Smaller Palestinian terrorist groups fired sporadic volleys for another five hours. By 5 a.m. Wednesday, the Gaza front had fallen quiet.
For Iran and Hizballah, this ceasefire came too soon. They had planned for Hamas and the IDF to continue to trade blows until early next week. But the way the episode turned out confirmed long experience in the Middle East that Hamas is never consistent in performing for interests other than its own and always breaks away at some point to follow its own path. Hamas has backed out of every understanding it ever reached, whether within the Palestinian movement or outside it, as Tehran has now discovered.
The extremist group is now left with an empty cupboard. There is no way back to its starting-point of peaceful protests, since they were revealed as a fabricated shield for terrorist infiltrations of Israel. Its tunnels have collapsed as a mechanism for terror after the IDF techno department learned how to detect and destroy them. Its rockets are downed by Iron Dome, which recently began intercepting mortars as well: Relations with Tehran, on the one hand, and Cairo, on the other, have been badly compromised. As rulers of the Gaza Strip, Hamas has failed to break through the suffocating economic, land and sea blockade Israel and Egypt have thrown around the territory. In April and the first half of May, Hamas chiefs could still claim popular kudos for putting the Palestinian cause out front, but the abysmal culmination of this campaign has dumped the people of Gaza back into the slough of despair and left them still at the mercy of a regime of terror. Paradoxically, while failing to stage a non-violent protest, Hamas was found to have enhanced its military capabilities, as a senior IDF officer testified in his summing-up of the clash.