How Israel Should Respond To The Hamas-Led Nakba March in Gaza

The Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip is heavily engaged in preparations for a major event, the “Great March of Return,” when thousands of Gaza’s Palestinians are to march toward the security fence and position themselves in tent cities along the Israeli border. This event, scheduled for May 14, 2018, marking seventy years since the establishment of the State of Israel, is designed to highlight the Palestinian refugee issue and connect it to the plight of those living the Gaza Strip.

The move is also designed to serve the Hamas leadership in Gaza in its struggle within the Palestinian arena, given its assessment that the reconciliation talks with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are doomed to fail, and to position Hamas as leader of the struggle and a worthy alternative to Fatah.

The move is likewise presumably designed to divert the frustration of Gaza’s citizens with Hamas to the national struggle against Israel. The hope is that a large-scale move will push Israel to a corner showing unarmed citizens protesting their predicament against armed troops. This is the cognitive message that Hamas seeks to relay to the world. It also appears that the march’s organizers intend to draw a parallel between the Nakba and the Holocaust, by dressing the participants in striped prisoner uniforms.

The organizers, who also work on the social networks, aim to mobilize some 100,000 participants for the march. They have taken pains to define the march as non-violent, seeking to solicit international sympathy. Such events, however, could easily get out of hand and escalate into violence. Indeed, for the organizers, deterioration to violence could serve the message they seek to drive home, since it could prompt Israel to retaliate.

This would discredit Israel and help augment the desired impression in the international arena as well as in the Palestinian domestic arena. To cope with these challenges, Israel must respond on several planes.

Israel cannot permit damage to its security infrastructure or attempts by the demonstrators to cross the barrier. If this occurs, IDF will use force. Past experience has shown that it will use riot dispersal means, though in extreme cases sniper fire might be employed aimed at hitting the lower half of the body of demonstrators endangering IDF troops. Such pictures are just what the organizers are after.

In a cognitive-based battle, Israel must take into consideration four target audiences; the Hamas leadership; the Gaza Strip population; the international arena; and the Israeli public. The cognitive counter-effort must be formulated around three principal messages: first – the Hamas leadership has failed in its management of the Gaza Strip, and has failed in its responsibility toward its citizens, preventing them from receiving the aid they need so badly to alleviate their humanitarian predicament.

It attempts to absolve itself of any responsibility and channel the frustration to provoked friction with Israeli troops along the border, making cynical use of the civilian population and endangering it, as it did in previous wars when it used them as human shields. The second message: Israel will defend its borders and its sovereignty and prevent Palestinian civilians from damaging the border fence or crossing into Israel, in accordance with international law.

Finally, Israel calls on the Hamas leadership and the international community to avoid endangering the lives of the Palestinian population unnecessarily, warns the Hamas leadership of the price it may have to pay for its direct responsibility for clashes that could develop, and warns Gaza’s citizens of the unnecessary risk to human life in the service of Hamas’s interests.

These efforts should be put into effect before, during, and after the event. The effort should be conducted vis-à-vis all the target audiences in a proactive manner, in all available channels, covertly and overtly, directly and indirectly. The messages should be conveyed to the international community on every possible platform, in coordination with the United States.

Part of the Israeli effort should be reflected in immediate action to alleviate the hardship in the Gaza Strip: increasing the supply of water and electricity and significantly increasing the supply of medicines to hospitals, even if contrary to the PA’s preference – if the latter elects to continue to impose sanctions on the Gaza Strip and refuses to pay for fuel, electricity, water, and medicines. In this case, Israel should prefer the welfare of Gaza’s residents over the interest of the PA in its struggle against Hamas, and even subtract the costs of aid from tax money that Israel collects for the PA.

Hamas’s attempt to draw a parallel between the reality in Gaza and the Holocaust by the march on the Gaza border necessitates a very strong response by Israel, mobilizing the international community to step up the pressure on the Hamas leadership. Should the march go ahead as planned, it should be disrupted without the use of arms, and with adequate forces and riot control means to prevent Gazan citizens from reaching the border fence and damaging it.

In the event of a mass procession, the clear aim is to prevent damage to the border fence, more than obstructing the march itself. Moreover, Israel should take steps on the diplomatic, economic, and military levels to prepare the ground for the cognitive campaign in the respective target audiences, should a conflict ensue.

Dr. Kobi Michael is the former deputy director general and head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, and is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research.

Dr. Gabi Siboni is the senior researcher and the director of Cyber Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).