The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas — designated as a terrorist organization by the European Court of Justice, as well as Canada, Egypt, Israel, Japan, and the U.S. — has been engineering a campaign of mass protests (the “March of Return”).
The protests, repeated every Friday at the Gaza-Israel border, began on March 30. To date, 40 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, and — the terrorist-run health ministry alleges— more than 1,900 wounded.
(There is no way of knowing the veracity of the health ministry’s injury counts. They may be true, they may be inflated, but there is no reason to automatically accept them given Hamas’s history of dealing loosely with mathematics.)
Some of the casualties occurred in the continuous intermittent exchanges of fire on the days between the Friday actions.
In 2017, Mideast Dig published Ten Questions for Israel’s Eado Hecht — a renowned defense analyst specializing in military theory, doctrine and history*. Today, he weighs in with a guest essay on the current situation.
* Dr. Hecht is also one of the world’s experts on “underground warfare” — in particular the tunnels Hamas builds in its ongoing efforts to infiltrate Israel. (In 2015, he testified on the subject for the UN.) He is a Research Fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, an independent, nonpartisan think tank near Tel Aviv that was launched in 1993 and named in memory of Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat — whose efforts to create peace laid a foundation for conflict resolution in the region.
But first, as a prelude to Dr. Hecht’s essay, this is worth noting: On April 11, the New York Times editorial board published a piece disingenuously titled “Israel’s Violent Response to Nonviolent Protests.” To be sure, the Times is one of the world’s greatest journalism treasures. But when it comes to Israel, editors at the newspaper tend to reflexively attack the country — penning editorials that are pro forma, predictable, and tiresome — before the facts are in.
The death or injury of even one innocent civilian is tragic. Unfortunately, the Times continues to overlook (or ignore) an investigative report published on April 11 — the same day as its editorial — that concluded that 26 of the 32 Palestinians killed as of that date were affiliated with terrorist groups.
The study was conducted by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, a highly-regarded research institute in Israel that collects and analyzes information about terrorists. The report was covered extensively in the Jerusalem Post (by Yonah Jeremy Bob, that paper’s intelligence, terrorism and legal analyst). Surely the editors at the Times, as well as its news reporters, should at least cite such a report when they rely on Hamas-controlled data. And if Times staffers are skeptical of the Meir Amit findings, they should conduct their own investigative probe of them.
So, too, the UN. “I am sorry to say that, once again, UN reports about the Palestinians killed are biased, and the media that publish articles based on those reports and on Palestinian propaganda are also biased,” the center’s director, Dr. Reuven Erlich, wrote to us on April 18. “There is nothing new under the sun, apparently.”
Dr. Erlich says that the Meir Amit report is based on open-source reporting, so it shouldn’t be too difficult for our major media colleagues to accept or challenge its findings. “The information is readily available to any interested journalist or researcher,” he points out. But they must have “the will and necessary professional capabilities (a good knowledge of Arabic and the ability to navigate Palestinian websites, and good analytical skills) and be willing to invest the effort.”
The report was an interim analysis, Dr. Erlich adds, “because the events continue, but the trend is clear: terrorist operatives or others affiliated with the terrorist organizations are on the front lines of the ‘great return march,’ involved in violent clashes with the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] — and occasionally involved in terrorist attacks. For that reason they absorb most of the losses.”
And now, we believe our readers will find great value in this column today by Dr. Eado Hecht:
THE ‘MARCH OF RETURN’ AND THE FIGHTING ON THE GAZA BORDER
by Dr. Eado Hecht
I think the recent escalation of activities on Israel’s Gaza border and the manner in which it is being depicted in the international media require an explanation from the Israeli viewpoint — of the facts on the ground.
In the period since the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014 [the last Israel-Hamas war], the border with Gaza has been the quietest since the 1990s.
‘Quietest’ of course does not mean quiet. From October of 2014 through March of 2018, there have been the following: 94 rockets and mortar bombs fired from Gaza into Israel, as well as dozens of incidents in which armed Palestinians either tried to cross the border or attempted to shoot or throw various explosive or incendiary devices across the border at Israeli farmers or army patrols.
In addition, armed Palestinians have often emplaced disguised bombs near the border fence, or on it. For instance: sticking a flag on the fence with a bomb hidden in the stick holding that flag. This last tactic has occurred more and more frequently over the past few months. (In February, two Israeli soldiers were wounded severely and two moderately by a bomb camouflaged in this manner.)
Recently Hamas has increased its propaganda on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. There is indeed a severe economic condition in Gaza – but not because Israel prevents food, water and electricity from entering:
- Every month hundreds of thousands of tons of food, petrol, building materials and other civilian products enter Gaza from Israel – including imports from around the world that pass through Israeli ports. (Important to note: Israeli inspectors often find attempts to smuggle military equipment within the civilian goods.)
- There are three water pipes from Israel that provide approximately ten million cubic meters of water per year (2.642 billion gallons) – this is in addition to local freshwater sources.
- Israel also provides approximately 50% of Gaza’s electricity via ten power lines – 124 megawatts per year.
- Tens of thousands of Palestinians needing medical care above the capabilities of the hospitals in Gaza come to Israeli hospitals every year (in 2016 approximately 30,000).
This activity does not stop even during escalations in fighting. So, for example, despite the dangers (including Hamas firing mortar bombs into the crossing sites during the summer 2014 war), truck convoys with supplies still entered Gaza from Israel.
[Essay continues below each photo]
The economic difficulty of the Gazans is caused by Hamas putting a large proportion of the money it is receiving in international donations and taxes to military use — purchasing weapons and digging more military tunnels —rather than spending it on improving the local infrastructure and economy. In 2017 Hamas spent $260 million on its military.
It is also caused by the internal Palestinian struggle between Hamas and the Fatah parties. Officially the Palestinian Authority (PA) governs all the Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza. In the democratic elections the Palestinian Authority held in January 2006, Hamas won a majority of the votes to the Palestinian Parliament, and its representatives became the government. Over the next year and a half, the ousted Fatah party attempted to subvert the results of the elections, and violent clashes ensued between Fatah members and Hamas members.
In the summer of 2007, the clashes became virtually an open war between the two parties; Fatah won the fight in the West Bank and Hamas won in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority was split physically into two entities. However, the central government, located in the West Bank and again controlled by Fatah, continued to fund the Palestinian Authority bureaucracy in Gaza.
Occasionally, to exert pressure on Hamas, they delayed transfer of funds or salaries needed by the Gazans. For instance, by refusing to pay for the electricity and water supplied by Israel to Gaza, or, as in 2014, by not paying salaries to Authority employees for a few months, and, recently, at the beginning of April, by unilaterally reducing the salaries of these employees by 30%.
Since the January 2016 elections, neither party is willing to conduct new elections.
And now we get to the events of these past few weeks:
In the beginning of 2018, Hamas came up with a new concept on how to pressure Israel: Exploiting the economic difficulties of the Gazans. The organization would stage a “peaceful” million-person strong march from Gaza into Israel.
After a few months of organization, which included exhorting and tempting Gazans to participate for cash (in some cases extorting), and preparing logistics to support the marchers (buses, tents, water etc., apparently to the tune of $10 million), the first march occurred after the weekly Friday prayers on March 30.
After promising a million marchers, the final count stood at approximately 40,000. Not exactly a great success. The second attempt occurred on Friday, April 6: 20,000 participants. On April 13: 10,000 participants and, on April 20, only 3,000 showed up.
In general the protests have NOT been peaceful. People who stayed in the background weren’t targeted. But the people advancing on the fences include both ARMED and unarmed people.
[Screenshot: EuroNews video]
The “peaceful” participants included a large number of Hamas members, and members of other militant groups, who attempted to break through the border fence — hurling small explosive bombs and petrol bombs into Israel, in addition to throwing or slinging stones across the border.
Some participants attempted to place larger bombs adjacent to the border fence. (One of these bombs was mishandled and detonated on the people emplacing it.) A few armed groups attempted to cross the border in order to shoot at the Israeli forces who had been deployed facing the large crowds, attempting to exploit the Israelis’ preoccupation with those large crowds.
The Friday “marches” were not the only activity on the Gaza border. In between, there occurred the usual low-frequency attacks by various groups, and responses by Israel.
Thus, for example, when one team of terrorists approached the border on April 8, they were shot at by tanks and retreated. A search of the area found two IEDs [improvised explosive devices] left or planted by the terrorists. In response, an Israeli aircraft dropped a bomb on a Hamas “military facility.” (This usually means either a Hamas training base or a Hamas fortified position overlooking the border.)
Another example occurred on April 11 when a bomb placed near the fence on the Gazan side exploded as an Israeli bulldozer passed by on Israel’s side of the fence. The bulldozer driver was not hurt. Shortly afterwards, Israeli tanks responded by firing shells at three Hamas military positions overlooking the border in that area.
Since mid-April a new weapon has been employed by the Gazans – kites carrying incendiary devices. These are flown over the border and when located over Israeli agricultural fields the string is cut and they crash down, setting fire to the crops and in one case to a small natural copse.
Since withdrawing from Gaza, Israel has built a security fence marking the border and watched over by a variety of video and other devices to detect attempts to cross it. On the Gazan side of the fence, Israel declared an area that anyone entering would be regarded as a would-be terrorist. Over the years, that area has been gradually reduced to free farming land for the Gazans and is now 200 meters [656 feet].
To reduce the possibility of mistakes, during the “marches” this was reduced in half to 100 meters [328 feet]. These distances are publicized and Gazans do not stray into this zone accidently.
Prior to the marches and periodically since they began, the Israelis remind the Gazans of this rule with radio broadcasts and leaflets dropped into Gaza. In principle, anyone approaching the fence closer than the designated distance risks being shot, but in fact there are strict rules of engagement by the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] that require a series of approvals and warnings before shooting actually occurs. At one point a seven-year-old girl was sent to the fence. Of course, she was not shot at.
When shooting is approved, it is preferred to shoot at the lower part of the targeted person’s legs – to wound rather than kill. Shooting deliberately to kill is done when the targeted person is armed.
It should be noted that no fence would completely stop a crowd determined to break through it, unless they are forced to stop attacking that fence by troops facing them. It is an accepted military truism, based on millennia of bitter experience, that no obstacle can do more than delay a determined enemy.
Unarmed citizens are not being targeted. Most of the Israeli fire is tear gas, but this has a limited capability to achieve the required result. Some Western media outlets have complained that Israel should be using water cannons in those situations, instead of live ammunition.
[In fact, the New York Times editorial included this sentence: “Israel has a right to defend its border, but in the face of unarmed civilians it could do so with nonlethal tactics common to law enforcement, such as the use of ‘high-powered fire hoses.’”]
But water cannons would be dangerous, perhaps lethally so, for IDF soldiers employing them. Water cannons have a very short range — the typical ranges for which police use them against rioters are, at most, a couple of dozen meters [or yards] — and limited off-road capability.
Essentially it is like a fire truck. The cannons can be used against people who are throwing stones and suchlike. But if there is a threat of explosives, gunfire or anything stronger than that, then water cannon operators are completely vulnerable. To use them at the fence would require driving them fully exposed, virtually touching the fence on the Israeli side. And there is no reason Israeli soldiers have to die just to soothe the inherent hostility of the New York Times.
Moreover, access to the fence by such vehicles [water cannons] is not available along the entire length of the border.
Furthermore, the concept is not to wet the rioters, it is to push them back by the force of the water, but this requires a flat trajectory of powerful spray, and doing that through the fence might actually help the terrorists because it could very likely damage the fence. That’s because the fences have electronic equipment attached to detect when someone is touching, climbing or cutting them.
So, when it comes to using water:
a) Access for the water cannon vehicles is difficult.
b) The vehicles and their occupants are vulnerable to anything more than stones and perhaps petrol bombs and — despite what many in the media are saying — the Palestinians include armed people operating rifles and throwing explosive devices. They also have advanced anti-tank weapons capable of piercing heavily armoured vehicles.
c) Not very effective in terms of range and could actually be counterproductive by ruining the detection equipment and portions of the fence.
The Hamas “march” deliberately aimed to bring the participants to the fence. Israeli forces responded with a mix of tear gas canisters and sniper fire. Sniper fire was restricted to specific targets, either armed men or those trying to lead groups onto the fence itself. (Note: not at the entire group, only the person seen to be leading them on, and each shot requires approval by a senior officer.)
Obviously, with the people being targeted using other people as shields, and moving around, not everyone hit was the intended target. There have been some internationally-voiced criticisms of ‘indiscriminate fire.’ This has not happened. If Israeli shooting had been indiscriminate, the Palestinian casualties, and especially the fatalities, would have leapt tenfold.
Also, the definition of ‘injured’ seems to be problematic. Hamas alleged 445 injuries among 3,000 participants at the most recent border clash (on Friday, April 20). That would mean one of every seven! If true, it should have appeared very prominently on the video clips of the riots, whereas in fact the number of people photographed being cared for or evacuated was minimal. A signal perhaps that they are deliberately inflating the numbers.
Palestinian civilians and even some of the media representatives (often local Gazans recruited by the international media) have been putting themselves in harm’s way by ignoring Israeli warnings and coming close to the fence. Often they are used as human shields to provide cover for armed activity, or else the terrorists attempt to draw fire towards them.
A case in point: See the photo [below] of the man throwing a device while lying down in front of press photographers, deliberately putting them in harm’s way if the Israelis return fire.
In 2014, during the battle in the Sajaya neighbourhood of Gaza City, IDF soldiers found a Hamas manual that read: “The [IDF] soldiers and commanders must limit their use of weapons and tactics that lead to the harm and unnecessary loss of people and [destruction of] civilian facilities. It is difficult for them to get the most use out of their firearms, especially of supporting fire [e.g. artillery].”
The manual goes on to explain that the “presence of civilians in pockets of resistance” causes three major problems for advancing Israeli troops:
- Problems with opening fire.
- Problems in controlling the civilian population during operations and afterwards.
- Assurance of supplying medical care to civilians who need it.
In other words, they admit they know Israel does not want to shoot civilians and does not want to create needless suffering. So putting their civilians in harm’s way is a deliberate tactic of Hamas, even a strategy, designed to elicit international support for them and condemnation of Israel. Nothing they have done or said since [the 2014 manual] suggests they have changed their strategy.
Furthermore, checking the list of fatalities proves that the vast majority are active or reserve Hamas members. Thus, for example, a Palestinian press photographer, Yasser Abdul Rahman Murtaja, who was wounded on April 6 and died the following day, was actually an officer in the Hamas internal security service.
A study by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, based on analyzing Gazan media and social media platforms, obituaries, official declarations, etc., discovered proof that of the 32 Gazans killed from March 30 to April 11, at least 26 were members of Hamas or other terrorist groups (e.g. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, ISIS-Gaza). Furthermore, at least one of the fatalities, a crippled man alleged by the Palestinians to have been shot by the Israelis, may actually not have been shot by the Israelis at all.
It should be noted that many Gazans are not pleased with the proceedings. Apart from the small showing relative to the numbers promised, there have been careful criticisms published by Gazans against the breaking of the promise to be a peaceful demonstration. “Careful criticisms,” because Gaza is not a democracy. People who cross Hamas tend to disappear altogether, be publicly killed under the label of ‘Israeli spies,’ or spend long periods in jail. A couple of days before the first “march,” Hamas reported the arrest of an individual criticizing the program and declared him to be an Israeli spy.
Meanwhile, on April 14 the IDF released photographs of yet another offensive tunnel [photo below] it had discovered crossing under the border. This is the eighth offensive tunnel to be discovered and destroyed since October of 2017. A couple more were discovered and destroyed in 2016. The IDF assumes that there are other, as yet undetected, offensive tunnels.
To elaborate: an offensive tunnel (often termed ‘terror tunnel’) is one that crosses under the border from Gaza into Israel and is dug to enable the infiltration of attack teams into Israel.
In addition, there are ‘smuggling tunnels’ between Gaza and Egypt, the purpose of which is to import and export a wide variety of commodities. In 2012 there were about 2,000 smuggling tunnels. However, when the current Egyptian president took power in the summer of 2013, he ordered the Egyptian army to locate and shut these down.
The dimensions of smuggling tunnels are much larger than those of offensive tunnels – some are big enough to drive a car through – and they have an opening on the Egyptian side. This makes them easier to detect.
Since 2013, the Egyptians have been destroying them at a rate faster than the Gazans dig new ones, so the total active number at any point in time has dropped to a few dozen or a couple of hundred. (That’s a big range, but the numbers shift all the time, as some are destroyed and new ones dug, so it is difficult to be more precise.)
Offensive tunnels are dug into Israel but do not break the surface. The last bit is excavated only when the terrorists want to exit them to conduct an attack. They are also much narrower and dug deeper into the ground, which is why in the past they were undetectable. After a crash program of development, the IDF has apparently solved some of the detection problems, but still not all of them, as it hasn’t yet detected all the offensive tunnels assessed to exist.
The last category of tunnels is the defensive tunnels — thousands of them, dug inside Gaza without crossing the border. These are dug to serve as storage sites, command sites and underground travel routes between different areas in Gaza, in order to hide weapons, equipment and personnel from Israeli aircraft.
All of this information and more is readily available to media outlets. Many of them simply do not want to know or to publish it.
[UPDATE: Two armed Gazans with a grenade and a knife were arrested today after crossing into Israel, having breached a security fence. “It was not immediately clear what the suspects’ intentions were in Israel,” writes the Times of Israel. In large part, that’s because there have been many cases of Palestinians entering Israel with weapons with the goal of being arrested and sent to prison, seeing incarceration in Israel as preferable to life under Hamas. — Ed.]
[OF NOTE: “The explicit purpose of Hamas leaders is to breach the fence and march on Jerusalem,” writes New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens, in well-informed contrast to the position of the paper’s editorial board. “Israel cannot possibly allow this — doing so would create a precedent that would encourage similar protests, and more death, along all of Israel’s borders — and has repeatedly used deadly force to counter it. The armchair corporals of Western punditry think this is excessive. It would be helpful if they could suggest alternative military tactics to an Israeli government dealing with an urgent crisis against an adversary sworn to its destruction. They don’t.” — Ed.]
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