For days, agitated Israeli officials warned of an imminent “ecological disaster” in anticipation of Friday’s massive protest at the border with the Gaza Strip, where Hamas, the ruling Palestinian Islamist militia, readied tens of thousands of tires to be set on fire.
The Israeli army equipped teams with particle gauges and Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories—the Israeli army’s branch that oversees all contact with Gaza—wrote a letter to the World Health Organization cautioning that “the burning of tires in such a huge quantity will cause severe damage to the ecosystem in the area, will severely harm the life, the flora and health of the residents, and will add to the severe damage to the aquifer and lead to unprecedented air pollution.”
As it turned out, wind patterns ensured that any pollution resulting from today’s rally, the second consecutive demonstration out of six that are planned, blew back over Gaza, one of the most beleaguered places on earth, a tiny strip of land locked between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, in which almost two million Palestinians reside.
Israel’s southern communities, some only a few hundred feet from the border fence, barely smelled a whiff of the acrid, thick, poisonous smoke.
The random airstream, ensuring that Gazans suffered a little bit more than they had to today, serves as a perfect metaphor for the predicament of this parcel of land.
About 20,000 Palestinians joined this week’s demonstration, down from about 30,000 last Friday. Thus far, a total of 27 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, 19 last week, in rallies that were significantly more violent.
The six demos, as a whole, are dubbed the #GreatMarchofReturn, a reference to the fact that most Gazans descend from towns and villages now located within Israel’s sovereign territory.
Making a rare public appearance, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar milled among a few hundred rally participants at a safe distance from the border and declared Gaza is primed to “explode in the face of the occupation.”
He said the world should “wait for our great move, when we breach the borders and pray at Al-Aqsa,” referring to the great mosque in Jerusalem that has become a focus of Palestinian fury since President Donald Trump’s December announcement that the United States would recognize the contested city as Israel’s capital, with no reference to Palestinian claims over its eastern half.
The crowd around him responded, “We are going to Jerusalem, millions of martyrs.”
In fact, Gazans are stuck going nowhere, a fact known by the Palestinian Authority, Israel, Egypt, and, of course, Hamas.
Hamas took the Gaza Strip over from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority in a bloody coup in 2007. Since then, the lives of Gazans have gone from difficult to terrible. On Thursday, following weeks of pressure from Israel and Egypt, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas withdrew his threat to darken Gaza beyond the four hours of daily electricity it is now ensured, and to stop funding the potable water that is imported from Israel.
Last month, he told the French newspaper Le Monde he was considering declaring Gaza a "seditious entity."
Egypt is focused on defeating a jihadi insurgency that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Egyptians in the vast Sinai desert, that borders on the Gaza Strip. Its Rafah border crossing is closed.
Israel facilitates the importation of basic goods and products into Gaza, but very rarely permits any Gazan entry into its territory.
Hamas’ charter calls for the destruction of the State of Israel.
“Everyone is disappointed, they don’t trust any leader,” Rushdi Abu Alouf, a veteran Gazan journalist, reports: “Worried, and angry.” Asked if the anger of Gazans is directed at Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas or the rest of the Arab world, Abu Alouf replies “yes, all of them.”
Ostensibly, the mass protests are against Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. In reality, Hamas is wounded and cornered and has almost nothing to lose.
The protests and the implicit threat they could spark a war with Israel, bringing enormous destruction upon the Strip, are hint at the Hamas’ existential crisis.
It has no source of income. Gaza received an estimated five percent of the funds promised to it by Arab countries following the last war, in 2014, in which over 1,000 Gazans and over 100 Israelis were killed. The United States has frozen the annual funds it pledges to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the international body that manages schools and most clinics and hospitals in Gaza.
All efforts at Palestinian reunification have floundered on the same hard rock: Hamas is unwilling to give up its arms. Abbas, 83, is unwilling to leave an armed extremist militia as his legacy.
He holds fast to the demand that there can be only “one authority, one law and one gun” in all of the Palestinian territories, “like every other country in the world.”
He doesn’t want to see “all sorts of militias” in Gaza.
Neither, for that matter, does Hamas, which, in addition to confronting the weariness of Gazans, also faced daily threats from rival Salafist militias attempting to make their mark.
Neither Israel nor Hamas desire full-blown war, but it seems increasingly possible Hamas can only envisage surviving the next few months by provoking war in the hope death and destruction will once again enjoin the Arab world to throw some financial rope its way.
Hamas is playing with fire, as Abu Alouf says.
On Thursday, reports about the predicament faced by Gazan bus drivers began floating into Israel. The Israeli army released a recording of a conversation between a soldier and a bus driver, in which the driver described Hamas operatives last week sequestering him and forcing him to drive busloads of protestors to the border or relinquish his vehicles.
In a briefing later Thursday, Israel Defense Forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis then told journalists that “if you drive your bus filled with people to the border tomorrow, you will be considered a terrorist,” meaning, beware of Israeli snipers.
Left unanswered: between a rock, a hard place and the sea, what is that bus driver to do?