The Israel Defense Forces consider “only” 16 casualties a “very significant achievement.”
“Just imagine what could have happened. Picture the outcome if they would have burst through the fence, even at a single point, and begun marching into Israel. It would have ended in a bloodbath. . . . We would have no choice but to employ enormous force, and that would have resulted in dozens, if not hundreds, of casualties. The images would have been a huge victory for the Palestinians.”
— Senior Israeli defense official, speaking anonymously
The March 30 Great March of Return to the Gaza border fence was nothing more than Act 1 of an unfolding drama, a dress rehearsal or possibly a pilot for what one can expect to see in the very near future. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are now preparing for April 17, Palestinian Prisoners Day, also the eve of Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, and for May 15, Nakba Day, also the day after the United States is expected to open its new embassy in Jerusalem. Further complicating matters, the latter event coincides with the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The Great March of Return was initiated and orchestrated by Hamas in an attempt to change the rules of the game, create a new balance of power and send a message to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people is far from over. Hamas is alive and kicking, and it is marching as well.
Hamas is in the process of losing its tunnels as a weapon. The IDF and Egypt have also successfully prevented the group from smuggling into Gaza rockets, missiles and other arms that could break the balance of power. Facing the most threatening dead end ever, Hamas found a way to reinvent itself: a popular, mass march by tens of thousands of people, all heading to the Israeli border at the Erez checkpoint, where they would trample the fence, break the Israeli siege and move on toward Jerusalem or at least to the southern town of Ashkelon. Images of IDF tanks and helicopters firing at civilians marching for their freedom would be Israel’s worst imaginable nightmare.
That is why the IDF has decided not to let that happen.
The IDF prepared for 100,000 marchers on March 30. That Hamas only managed to rally 35,000, according to the official Israeli estimate, is seen as a failure by the movement, already in a daunting state of crisis. It was thought that women and children would be at the forefront of the demonstrations, shielding others who would attempt to break through the fence and hide explosive devices or otherwise attack IDF troops. As the event neared, official Israeli spokespeople, including Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot issued a stern warning to Hamas’ leaders. The IDF stationed more than 100 snipers along the fence, with strict rules of engagement. The objectives were to conclude the event with a minimum number of casualties, make every effort to avoid shooting women and children and prevent any damage to the fence.