Hugh Fitzgerald: Summing Up the Great March of Return


Orchestrated by the terrorist group Hamas, the Great March of Return of the “Palestinians” of Gaza, during which tens of thousands were to march toward Israel’s security fence, and attempt to breach it, in order to then enter Israel and attack as many Israeli soldiers and civilians as possible, is now over.

How did it go?

In numbers of participants, from the outset, things went not nearly as well as Hamas had assumed they would. It expected 100,000 marchers on the first day of the March (they took place on six successive Fridays, as well as on May 14 and 15); instead, 30,000 showed up. And worse still, the numbers went steadily down, to about 5,000, until an upsurge on the last Friday of 35,000. Not everyone was eager to be a martyr or to endure possible injury; many in Gaza, suffering economically from Hamas’ diversion of funds to tunnel-building, rocket-manufacture, and arms buying, and exhausted by the conflict, were trying simply to survive.

The world’s media was ready as always to take the side of the “Palestinians” against the  Israelis, who for some reason were not willing to let tens of thousands of people enter their country to attack them. That media failed to take note of the way that Hamas had dragooned children, women, and even mentally deficient adults to take part in the marches, carefully placing them in the front ranks. Thus they became human shields, but from the viewpoint of Hamas, it was fine, too, if they were wounded or — still better from the viewpoint of Hamas — possibly killed by Israelis.

The Western media infrequently mentioned the massive effort by Israel to warn off the marchers both in leaflets dropped by the thousands from the air onto Gaza’s border area, and by constant broadcasts from loudspeakers at the border.

The Israeli attempts to halt those marchers who ignored the warnings and continued to march then took the form of non-lethal means, using tear gas and rubber bullets. These tactics, too, were downplayed in the press. Tear gas barrages were shown, briefly, but the  television reports focused their  attention on what came, as a last resort, next — the use of live fire by the Israelis.

Each Friday brought a new total of the “Palestinian” dead. Forgotten, overlooked, or minimized, were all the attempts — by leaflet, broadcast, tear gas, rubber bullets — by Israel to halt the marchers. Also not made clear was what great care was being taken by the Israeli snipers who, having to find their targets amidst crowds of thousands, largely hidden by the smokescreen that burning tires afforded, managed to keep the numbers killed from March 30 until today, to 116, while the “Palestinians” claim that over that period about 12,000 have been wounded. What that means is that less than 1% of the total casualties resulted in death. Clearly the Israeli snipers have been making incredible efforts to keep fatalities at a minimum, firing almost always below the knee, but when marchers came up to the fence itself, through the smoke of the burning tires, hurling explosives, Molotov cocktails, cutting the wire fence, only then would the snipers shoot to kill.

Another failure of the Western media was its continuing to describe the marchers — I listened to  NPR, and the BBC — formulaically as “non-violent” long after their violence had been videotaped and uploaded for everyone to see. What can the major media have been thinking? We all saw those  “Palestinian” Arabs burning tires, to create smokescreens behind which they could approach the security fence. We saw them hurling Molotov cocktails over that fence at Israeli soldiers. We saw them planting explosives at the fence itself. We saw their newest weapon, kites to which had been attached burning rags, let loose to fly into Israel where once they landed could set fire to Israeli farms — which is exactly what happened. And — a telling detail which the media seldom reported — some of those kites had swastikas painted on them. But the media continued, in cognitive dissonance, to report these most violent of marchers as “peaceful.”

For a while Hamas seemed to be winning its media war. The violence of those “non-violent” marchers was overlooked, until it wasn’t. Several things happened to turn the tide.

First, a Hamas member admitted — even boasted — that of the 62 “Palestinians” killed on the penultimate day of the Great March of Return, at least 50 were members of Hamas. This gave a different slant on what had up till then been reported on as a march by ordinary “Palestinians,” not members of a terrorist group hellbent on becoming martyrs. Hamas itself was hoist by its own boastful petard.

Second, the Israelis kept repeating the truth about all the ways they had tried to avert violence — leaflets, broadcasts, tear gas, rubber bullets. Just as lies, oft repeated, can stick, it turns out that so can the truth, if you keep at it long enough. The Israelis were in no mood to concede anything, and constantly contradicted the media coverage. Eventually, some of that world media began to change its coverage. NPR finally reported, for example, on May 16 that the “Palestinians” had painted swastikas on those kites; it even carried an interview with a marcher who said that the “Palestinians” were eager to show the Israelis that they “wanted to burn them.” It became ever harder to call these people “non-violent.”

Third, the American government stood firmly behind the Israeli actions. The words of support by Ambassador Nikki Haley at the U.N. assured Israel it would be protected by an American veto in case of any anti-Israel resolution; she said that “no country would act with greater restraint than Israel” had done in protecting its border. Words matter; this stiffened the resolve of Israel and its defenders in the media.

Fourth, the other Arabs proved largely indifferent to the Gaza marchers. Many were preoccupied with their own problems. Saudi Arabia is now engaged in a titanic  struggle with Iran over power and influence; Yemen, its Shi’a Houthis supplied with rockets from Iran and not Gaza, is its main worry; the Saudis have come to see Israel as their most valuable ally against Iran. Egypt worries most about the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is rightly understood as a local branch; Hamas continues to attack Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai and Israel is seen by Egypt’s El-Sisi  more as an ally against a common enemy. Hamas. Iraq is preoccupied with the redistribution of power from the Sunnis to the Shi’a Arabs, as well as with the Kurdish claims for much greater autonomy. Syria remains convulsed in the seventh year of its civil war; half its population has been killed or forced from their homes; estimates for reconstruction run from several hundred billion to as much as a trillion dollars. Why should Syrians, Iraqis, Saudis, Yemenis, Egyptians spend time worrying about Hamas and the “Palestinians” in Gaza?

Fifth, even fellow “Palestinians” — those of the Palestinian Authority — were distinctly un-eager to see Hamas gain any kind of propaganda victory over Israel. For Mahmoud Abbas wishes to see Hamas fail; he has done what he can to make that come true. A year ago, he cut funds for Israeli-supplied electricity to Gaza by 35 percent, reduced by one-third the salaries of tens of thousands of PA employees in Gaza, and reduced the medical budget for Gaza by a reported 90%. He forced over 6,000 PA employees in Gaza into early retirement. This year he has continued to cut both salaries and employees of the Palestine Authority in Gaza, in a further attempt to weaken the economy and, he and his cronies hoped, to put more pressure on Hamas to turn over its remaining authority in Gaza to the Palestine Authority.

Sixth, the giddy globe continued to spin. News stories replaced other stories, outrages, disasters, scandals, alliances broken, deals made and broken. This distracted attention from the  Great March of Return, which eventually became that little affair in Gaza. The “Palestinians” like to think of themselves as the center of the universe. Certainly the manic attention given to Israel at the U.N., where fully half the resolutions are denunciations of that embattled country, has encouraged them to think thus. But since March 30, when the Great March began, Gaza was pushed off the front pages by all the other news: North Korea and Trump (an on-again off-again meeting, and possible rapprochement) between Trump and Kim Jong-un; the American withdrawal from the Iran deal, Rouhani’s outrage, and European efforts to salvage the deal; Mueller and the Russian investigation; Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels; the “rise of populism” in Europe (the Italian elections, AfD); the complete economic collapse of Venezuela; the eruption of the volcano in Hawaii; and — watched by two billion enraptured people — the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle These are all events that use up a great deal of the public’s bandwidth, and that have helped push Gaza and the “Great March of Return” ever farther back in the public consciousness.

Meanwhile, what have the Gazans gained? Israel has not ceded an inch. Hamas failed, over six weeks of trying, to breach the security fence. It failed at the U.N. Security Council to obtain an anti-Israel resolution. Hamas failed to win the support of the two most important Arab countries, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that for now regard Hamas as an enemy and Israel as a useful ally. Eventually, even the Western press began, fitfully at first, to recognize how “violent” these self-proclaimed “non-violent” demonstrators turned out to be. Again, it was by dint of repetition that the truthful Israeli narrative eventually won out. Israeli officials kept telling the world about the Molotov cocktails, the explosives readied for burial right at the fence, the kites — some shaped like swastikas, others with swastikas painted on them — that had burning rags attached. Israelis kept asking, tellingly, why didn’t the New York Times or the Washington Post ever mention those kites with swastikas, or show  photographs of them? And what’s more, the Israelis kept putting online videos of those armed rioters; the evidence could not be denied. So many began to question, also online, the media’s coverage,  that that same coverage began to change. By late May, the violence of the demonstrators, and the key role of Hamas in the whole business, were no longer being, because they could not be, denied.

In Gaza, the people — those who took part in the Great March and those who did not — returned to their miserable existences, which were lightened only by the fact that Israel, not wishing an economic collapse in the territory, pressured Mahmoud Abbas to pay for, and thereby restore gas deliveries, to Gaza. That is the one good thing that has happened to the Gazan Arabs, and was solely the result of Israel acting, and not for the first time, on their behalf. In mid-May, Israel also offered to send medical supplies to Gaza, to alleviate the shortages there, but Hamas refused to let any Israeli aid through, preferring to make the Gazan Arabs under its control suffer, rather than allow the world to see any demonstration of Israeli decency. This story was, fortunately, reported in the West — another sign that the Hamas propaganda machine was losing its potency. Eventually that media will become aware of all the efforts Israel has made to help the Gazan Arabs. More stories have appeared that mention that back in 2005, when Israel withdrew completely from Gaza, it turned over intact to the “Palestinians”  Israeli-built greenhouses worth $14 million dollars, in the hope that the Gazans would continue to operate them, selling to pre-existing European clients, and enlarging what had become a thriving and growing, business. Instead the Arabs completely destroyed those greenhouses, thereby depriving themselves of a business that had been bringing in $200 million a year and had been constantly expanding.

It’s now June. The Great March ended in failure. Israel did not give an inch, either on the ground, or in the diplomatic arena. Now the media reports have not only become more truthful, as they describe what actually went on during the march, but there have even been interviews with Gazans in which they admit that the march achieved nothing, and express their frustration not with Israel, but with Hamas.

On May 29, Hamas, having seen that its “non-violent” farce had gained it nothing, decided it had nothing to lose by reverting to type — no more pretense of “non-violence” —  and it fired a barrage of 70 rockets into Israel, aimed at a civilian community and a kindergarten. It was not surprising that President Trump’s Mid-East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, tweeted that “all Hamas can offer is terror,’’ but most welcome that others responded in the same way. The Irish foreign minister said that “Hamas-led violence undermines the Palestinian cause,” while France reiterated its “commitment to Israel’s security.” Emanuele Giaufret, the EU envoy to Israel, tweeted, “As kids were preparing for school this morning a barrage of rockets from Gaza fell on southern Israel. One landed outside a kindergarten. I know the resilience of communities in southern Israel but indiscriminate attacks are totally unacceptable and to be condemned unreservedly.” Even the U.N. envoy to the Middle East, Nikolay Mladenov, denounced the attack on Israel, saying such attacks were “unacceptable.” Such a chorus of indignation against Hamas is another sign of its failure. Its farcical “non-violent” march had led to nothing; now it was back to open violence.

Finally, the Israelis released evidence at the very end of May showing that 83 percent of the Palestinians killed on the Israel-Gaza Strip border during the recent Hamas-orchestrated “Great Return March” riots have been identified as members of terrorist groups, according to a new Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC) report.

A majority (63) of the 112 fatalities from March 30-May 15 were from Hamas, which rules Gaza, while 21 were affiliated with Fatah. Others were members of Islamic Jihad.

“The high percentage of Hamas operatives who were killed during the events of May 14 and in the previous events once again demonstrated Hamas’s central role in planning and controlling the events,” the ITIC report said. “In the ‘front line’ of the violent demonstrations, there were also Hamas operatives…. These operatives were ‘protected’ by women and children who were sent by Hamas to the front line to serve as human shields.” These were human shields whom Hamas was perfectly happy to have harmed so as to score propaganda points against Israel.

Now, what had at first seemed might be a propaganda victory for Hamas turned inexorably over six weeks into a defeat. The violence of the “non-violent” protesters became impossible to hide; they could be seen, permanently, on YouTube burning tires, hurling Molotov cocktails, burying explosives at the border, and sending swastika-painted burning kites into Israel. By the end of the march, no one in the Western press could any longer describe the marchers as non-violent. Israel’s spokesmen and supporters took every occasion to remind people of these varied weapons, of Hamas’s use of human shields, of all the non-lethal methods used by Israel to halt the marchers intent on breaching the border.They stayed on message; they did not apologize; they had the forthright and eloquent Nikki Haley at the U.N. in their corner, asking “who among us would accept this type of activity on your border? No country in this chamber would act with more restraint than Israel has.”

Hamas has now thrown off its brief pretense of non-violence, and reverted to type. Having failed with its violent “non-violent” march, it is now back to doing what comes naturally: hurling rockets and mortars at Israeli civilians, and despite severe shortages, refusing the medical aid that the Israelis have offered; and promising that no matter how long it takes, the Zionists will eventually be destroyed.

It’s the mixture as before. More defeat, more misery. Will Hamas ever decide to consider the well-being of the people it rules over? Decide not to use them as human shields? Decide not to refuse medical and other essential aid that Israel offers them? Decide not to divert so much of the foreign aid it receives on buying weaponry, and building tunnels into Israel?

Don’t be silly.

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