The same message was blaring out from the vans fitted with large sound systems that made their way around Gaza in the days leading up to this week’s protest: “The National Organization of Return invites you to participate in this Friday’s protests.” Mobilizers were encouraging Gazans to assemble at demonstration points near the fence that encircles the besieged coastal enclave for a march that looked to be a litmus test for war.
These vans have been a common part of the story in the six months since the Great March of Return protests began. Each week, demonstrators have turned out en masse to march on the border to demand the right to return to occupied lands, facing live ammunition and tear gas from the Israeli military, who deployed snipers in the hills overlooking eastern Gaza. The casualty numbers have been stark, with as many as 200 Palestinians killed by Israeli fire.
This week, however, the protests seemed to take on greater import. Tensions with Israel were high after a series of setbacks and renewed violence. A planned Egyptian General Intelligence Service (GIS) delegation visit to Gaza led by GIS head Abbas Kamel was called off late on Wednesday amid the tension. By midday on Thursday, Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s military wings each published video messages addressed to the Israeli military, insinuating their readiness for war. And then on Thursday night, in an about-turn, reports emerged that an Egyptian delegation was on its way to Gaza for a rushed meeting, which was conducted at senior Hamas political official Ismail Haniyeh’s house.
The Egyptian delegation consisted of Major General Ahmed Abdel Khalek, who is in charge of the Palestinian file, in addition to Hamam Abu Zeid, Ayman Abu Mousa and Mustafa Gamil, officials from the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv. According to Hamas political bureau member Khalil al-Hayya, the GIS delegation did not convey any messages from Israel to Hamas, and Kamel’s visit would still happen.
After this meeting had concluded, a source close to Hamas, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity late on Thursday night, said that Hamas would be ready for war if Israel inflicted significant casualties during the marches.
Despite the preparations and rhetoric however, there were notably fewer protesters and incendiary balloons launched during Friday’s protest. The black smoke from burning tires that protesters have used to provide cover from sniper fire was less opaque.
Demonstrators did attempt to launch some balloons into the air, but these efforts were met by Israeli military drones and anti-personnel rockets.
Whereas previous marches have seen scores of Palestinian fatalities, the generally subdued nature of Friday’s protests was reflected in the relatively lower number of casualties. According to the Gaza Health Ministry, “130 protesters were injured by bullets, including 25 children, and four staff members of the ministry and journalists.”
According to a second source close to Hamas, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, the decision to de-escalate the marches was agreed upon late on Thursday night, after the meeting with the Egyptian delegation.
“Although some political leaders disagreed with the idea, Hamas decided to go ahead with the de-escalation,” the source says.
Egypt’s push for de-escalation was made in exchange for the promised alleviation of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, according to the source.
“[Egypt assured Hamas that] if Hamas gives this week a chance for peace, Israel will allow good projects from the UN to enter Gaza, in addition to revoking the decisions to close the Karm Abu Salem and Erez border crossings and re-allowing entrance of the fuel powering Gaza’s sole power plant after an eight-day halt,” the source says, adding that Qatar has already shown a readiness to provide the financial aid needed by Gazans through UN projects.
Qatar is aligned to be the main donor in easing the siege over Gaza, as the Gulf state has already paid US$60 million for the fuel powering Gaza’s power plant for the next six months, in addition to $150 million promised to be paid as emergency humanitarian aid to Gaza. In the latest framework for Palestinian reconciliation — a new Egypt-sponsored proposal that was finalized and sent to the Palestinian Authority (PA) for review following a meeting in Cairo at the beginning of October — Qatar would also assume responsibility for funding 50 percent of Gaza’s administrative employees’ salaries during a three-month transition period, during which the PA would take full control over Gaza’s ministries and administrative departments while a new unified government is being formed, according to what a source close to the PA told Mada Masr last week.
In his comments after Friday’s march, Hayya seemed intent not to admit there had been an intentional de-escalation in the popular movement, long a bargaining point of Israel and Egypt in truce talks. “The return marches will continue until they have achieved their goals,” the political bureau member said.
The escalation that may have cooled for the time being began when the supply of Qatari-funded fuel into Gaza through Israel — what seemed to a provision of a slimmed down truce agreement hammered out in talks between Gaza factions and Egyptian officials at the beginning of October — was halted by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman on October 12, in response to clashes along the border in last week’s protest.
On Wednesday, an “unidentified rocket” was launched from Gaza, striking and damaging a building in Bir al-Sabea. There were no casualties in the strike. The Israeli air force responded immediately with over 20 airstrikes, targeting the military bases of Gaza factions. Naji al-Za’anin, 25, was killed in one of the airstrikes, and three others were injured.
Sources close to Hamas told Mada Masr that Egyptian meditation and United Nations Envoy to the Middle East Nikola Miladinov contained the Wednesday violence from escalating into something that may lead into a war.
After Wednesday’s exchange of fire, the Israeli military increased troop deployments, sending hordes of tanks and other military vehicles to the border for what could be “fast escalation in actions” on Friday.
Several weeks ago, GIS officials met with Hamas officials to hammer out a simplified version of the ceasefire with Israel that, in August, seemed to be a done deal but sputtered out along with the rest of the negotiations. While the earlier truce deal sought to end violence between Gaza and Israel by reopening border crossings, expanding the Mediterranean fishing zone and rebuilding Gaza’s infrastructure, the new deal centered on the entrance of humanitarian aid into the strip funded chiefly by Qatar and under UN supervision, in addition to a potential prisoner swap.
Before the recent visit, there were a series of fraught back-and-forths between the West Bank and Gaza mediated by Egypt, culminating in Egypt and the PA’s decision to freeze the truce deal in early September, insisting that no agreement with Israel was possible before Fatah and Hamas reconciled.