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memri
May 18, 2018 No.
7476

The 'Great Return March' Campaign: An Initiative Sponsored By Hamas, Whose Goal Was To Breach The Border Fence, Penetrate Israeli Territory

An examination of statements coming out of Gaza about the "Great Return March" campaign, by Hamas officials, by campaign organizers, and by participants and supporters of the campaign, reveal that it was not  merely a popular civilian campaign but was fully supported by Hamas, and that its goal was to breach the border fence in order to penetrate Israeli territory and march on Israeli communities. Since it began, on Land Day (March 30, 2018), Hamas officials have paid visits to the camps along the border where the marchers congregate, to express their support and encouragement. Hamas officials noted that movement members had participated in the marches and that they comprised the majority of fatalities. Mahmoud Al-Zahhar even emphasized that the march was not a form of peaceful resistance.

Organizers of the campaign, such as Ahmad Abu Ratima, one of its prominent spokesmen, noted on more than one occasion that the goal of the march was to breach the border and advance on Israeli communities in the area, even at the cost of Palestinian lives. Throughout the campaign, Gazan social media users posted maps showing the routes and the distances from parts of the Gaza Strip to the Israeli Gaza Border communities.  Reports mentioned that special units had been established for the purpose of penetrating Israeli territory, such as the Fence-Cutting Unit and the Border-Storming Unit. Although the campaign organizers stressed that  the marches would be peaceful, some Gazan social media users called to fight the "infidels" in these communities and to murder them.

This report reviews statements by Gazans regarding the character and goals of the Great Return March campaign.

Hamas Officials: 50 Of The Fatalities Were Hamas Members; This Is Not Peaceful Resistance

Hamas officials have admitted on several occasions that the movement took an active part in the marches. Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar said that movement members "took off their military uniforms and put their weapons aside. They temporarily abandoned the means of armed struggle" and joined the marches.[1] Hamas political bureau member Saleh Bardawil said that, of the 62 people killed in clashes along the Gaza border on May 14, fifty were movement members.[2] Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahhar said that calling the campaign "peaceful resistance" was to "deceive the public". He said: "When you are in possession of weapons that were able to withstand the occupation in the wars of 2006, 2008, 2012, and 2014... When you have weapons that are being wielded by men who were able to prevent the strongest army in the region from entering the Gaza Strip for 51 days, and were able to capture or kill soldiers of that army – is this really 'peaceful resistance'? This is not peaceful resistance. Has the option [of armed struggle] diminished? No. On the contrary, it is growing and developing. That's clear. So when we talk about 'peaceful resistance,' we are deceiving the public. This is a peaceful resistance bolstered by a military force and by security agencies, and enjoying tremendous popular support. As for [Fatah's] 'peaceful resistance,' it consists of rallies, demonstrations, protests, pleas, and requests, in order to improve the terms of the negotiations, or to enable talks with the Israeli enemy. This deception does not fool the Palestinian public."[3]

Campaign Organizer Ahmad Abu Ratima: The Goal Is To Breach The Border, Even At The Cost Of Lives; We Can Reach Sderot In Ten Minutes

Activist Ahmad Abu Ratima, one of the organizers and spokesman of the Return March campaign, explicitly wrote on his Facebook page about the plan for a mass infiltration, first of the Israeli communities outside the Gaza border and then into the depth of Israel, even at the cost of Palestinian lives: "If the Gazan Palestinians manage to recruit 100,000 non-violent protesters, and the other areas manage to recruit tens of thousands, the occupation will be hard put to deal with these mass marches. Even if some people are killed during the actual breaching [of the border]... but thanks to [their sacrifice] the Palestinians manage to cross the separation fence and reach their land that was occupied in 1948, it will be a reasonable price to pay. Thousands of victims have fallen in the wars without [achieving] any political results... This time, deaths will be justified and will be for the sake of making a significant national achievement."[4]

According to the Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily, Abu Ratima wrote on the Return March Whatsapp group that the breaching of the border "will be especially painful for the occupation and will have significant international resonance," and added: "Within ten minutes, all the returning [marchers] will be in the very heart of the settlement of Sderot, and then the weapons of the occupation will be completely useless. The [Palestinian] processions will blend with the settlers in the heart of our occupied cities... This will be a deadly blow to the occupier, and he will no doubt succumb."

TheAl-Quds Al-Arabi article mentioned Palestinian attempts to breach the border fence, writing: "In the past few days, the plan to breach the Gaza [border] fence as part of 'Day of Advance' has met with some success, when youths managed to breach the border at several points after cutting through the barbed wire."[5]


Poster captioned "May 14, 2018: [Border] Breach Day" (source: twitter.com/LayalZaqout 6, May 13, 2018)

On May 13, ahead of the demonstrations planned for Nakba Day (May 14) – dubbed "[Border] Breach Day" on social media – the official Facebook page of Great Return March posted a message saying: "Urgent advice for [Border] Breach Day: Always remember that our marches are non-violent and use only non-violent means. The returning [marchers] must enter [the Israeli territories] in large groups numbering dozens, hundreds or even thousands, and surprise the [Israeli] soldiers by coming from unexpected [directions]. They must make sure to remain in large groups, numbering thousands, and reach the nearest inhabited location inside our occupied 1948 territories. [Once] there, they must stage a sit-in among the Israeli residents. Be careful not to return to Gaza after successfully breaching [the border], and not to disperse, so as to prevent the occupation soldiers from confronting single people... The presence of the returning marchers in inhabited locations will detract from the occupation soldiers' ability to harm you, and will provide you with [a source of] food and water. Bulldozers must  come and remove the barbed wire the minute the millions [cross the border] and stream [into Israel]. All residents of Gaza must come out and join the returning [marchers].

"Be careful not to cause damage or kill soldiers or Israelis, so as not to provide [them] with an excuse for [committing] acts of massacre..."[6]

It should be noted that Dr. 'Issam 'Adwan, the head of Hamas's refugee department, tweeted on February 10, 2018, several weeks before the start of the Great Return March campaign: "I call on the residents of my village, Barbara,[7] to put their affairs in order in preparation for returning to Barbara in the next few weeks. #GreatReturnMarch."[8]

Gazans On Social Media Post Maps For Marchers Breaching The Border, Showing Routes, Distances To Israeli Communities

The social media pages of the Great Return March and its supporters in Gaza posted maps and aerial photos showing the routes and distances from various parts of the Gaza Strip to the Israeli Gaza Border communities. Some of the posts were accompanied by explicit calls to infiltrate these communities by various routes.

The official Facebook page of the Great Return March campaign posted an aerial photo showing the distance between Gaza and the Israeli kibbutz Kisuffim, with the text: "From the separation fence to Kisuffim: 38 minutes."[9]


Maps posted on the official Facebook page of the Great Return March campaign

A Gazan posted the maps below, and wrote: "[These maps] have been distributed to youths for breaching the border tomorrow. They show the routes to the settlements in the inner occupied territories [i.e., the 1948 territories]." Another user responded: "I am against all these publications [revealing our plans], because now the enemy will take the necessary precautions."[10]


Photo captioned "The May 14 Storming [of the Border]"

Another Gazan, on Twitter, likewise posted maps of the Gaza Border communities, and wrote: "To anyone who succeeds in entering our occupied soil: There is a fat fish waiting for us very close by: the settlement of Be'eri, located 4-4.5 kilometers from eastern Gaza (north of the Al-Bureij [refugee] camp). It is considered to be one of the richest settlements, and houses some 900 settlers. It can be reached by motorcycle within three or four minutes, and at a quick run in 15-20 minutes." In another tweet he wrote: "To all the resisting youths who know no fear: All the settlements are close by. If the fence is breached, put your faith in Allah and do not be afraid..." [11]


Map showing distances to Israeli communities close to the Gaza border

Muhammad Al-Bursh of Gaza tweeted: "People and residents of Gaza! With Allah's help, afternoon prayers will be held in the Gaza Border settlements of Nativ Ha-Asara, Erez, Sderot, Nir Am [and] Mefalsim. We will meet in the Return Camp north of Jebalia, and set out from there." The tweet was accompanied by an aerial photo of the communities. In another tweet the same day, Al-Bursh wrote, paraphrasing directives which, according to Muslim tradition, were conveyed by the Prophet Muhammad and by the Caliph Abu Bakr to their troops before setting out to battle: "During your sacred advance tomorrow, I direct you not to kill children, women or very elderly people. Do not burn date trees or uproot fruit trees."[12]


Muhammad Al-Bursh's tweets

Calls On Social Media For Clashes With Israelis After Penetrating Their Communities

Some posts, posters and leaflets published on social media called to clash with Israelis after breaching the fence and entering their communities. 'Emad 'Aql, of Gaza, tweeted: "[The Israeli town of] Sderot is only 700 meters east of [the Palestinian town of] Beit Hanoun in nothern Gaza. The headquarters of the Israeli army is there, and houses about 800 pigs. [The town] can be reached in two minutes on motorcycles or in five-eight minutes at a brisk run." He urged: "Murder, slaughter, burn and never show them any mercy."[13]


'Emad 'Aql's tweet

A Gazan Facebook user posted an image of a masked fighter brandishing a knife, with the text: "Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, east of Rafah, is only 300 meters from the border. It has turkey pens, a football field and a pool, [although] it houses only 15 famlies. Pounce on them with knives."[14]

The "Palestine Unites Us" Facebook page posted a leaflet in Arabic and Hebrew by "the Palestinian resistance in Gaza." Addressing the Israeli residents of the Gaza Border communities, it tells them to evacuate their homes, saying: "Your only way to survive is to go back to your country of origin, for we are returning"; "Oh Jew, you do not belong here... [you have] no state here, only fear and terror."[15]


The leaflet posted on the Palestine Unites Us Facebook page

A poster announcing the "March of Millions for Return and for Breaking the Siege," posted on Twitter, said:  "To the rebels advancing on the soil of the homeland... we remind you of your Prophet's directives: set forth and fight for the sake of Allah against the infidels who [renounce] Allah, [but] do not commit treachery or excess, mutilate bodies or kill children or monks... [the text is taken from a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad]."[16] 

The "Border-Storming" And "Fence-Cutting" Units

Posts and videos on social media claimed that special units had been established to breach the border fence, including the Border-Storming Unit and the Fence-Cutting Unit. A Facebook page dedicated to the former unit features reports and videos about its activity. One post said, "Youths have cut some of the barbed wire east of Al-Bureij in central Gaza," and was accompanied by photos documenting this.[17] Another post said: "The Fence-Cutting Unit announces that it is fully prepared to cut the barbed wire and remove it from the entire length of the Gaza border."[18]

The page also featured a poster captioned "Cut [the Fence], Remove It and Break Forth!" [19]

Footage of the Fence-Cutting Unit was even aired on television. In footage aired April 27 on Hamas's Al-Aqsa TV, masked members of the unit stood brandishing wire cutters and chanting: "Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of Muhammad has begun to return." One of the members proclaimed: "Oh sons of our rebellious Palestinian people! Oh men who are steadfast on the land of Palestine, from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea! Today is the day of the march toward our occupied and robbed Palestinian lands. Today, we cut the Zionist enemy's main barbed-wire fence on the Gaza border, east of the Jebalia refugee camp. Allah willing, today we shall enter our occupied lands, and ignite a revolution against the Zionist enemy, in order to proclaim, loud and clear, that this enemy is destined for perdition, and that what was taken by force will be regained by force alone. We are about to liberate our blessed Palestinian land, which was plundered from us by the enemy by force, and from which the enemy will be driven out by force alone. We have called this Friday 'The Friday of the Rebel Youth.' We are the Fence Cutters' Unit... We are walking on the path of Allah. We want to raise the banner. May Islam regain its glory. May the Al-Aqsa Mosque regain its purity. Let our blood be shed. We, the rebel youth of the Gaza Strip, east of the Jebalia refugee camp, convey a message to the settlers along the border of the Gaza Strip: Leave immediately, before it is too late! The Palestinian revolution will not cease until victory or martyrdom!"[20]

To view a MEMRI TV clip of these statements, click below:

Footage of the Border-Breaching Unit, which was aired on Al-Jazeera Mubashir, among other outlets, showed masked operatives reaching the barbed wire on motorcycles and cutting it.[21]


Screenshot from the video of the Border-Breaching Unit

Numerous other videos of Gazans cutting the fence were posted on social media.[22] To view a MEMRI TV clip of some of these videos, click below:

 

[5] Al-Quds Al-Arabi  (London), May 7, 2018.

[6] Facebook.com/maseera2018, May 13, 2018.

[7] A Palestinian village that lay 20 kilometers north of Gaza.

[8] Twitter.com/drissamadwan, February 10, 2018.

[9] Facebook.com/maseera2018, May 12, 2018.

[10] Facebook.com/a7laqadr6, May 13, 2018.

[11] Twitter.com/_Ahmed_Ahmed, May 13, 2018.

[12] Twitter.com/m_borsh22, May 13, 2018.

[13] Twitter.com/emad_aql, May 13, 2018.

[14] Facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=178910852933821&set=pob.100024447224551&type=3&theater, May 14, 2018.

[15] Facebook.com/landpalestin, May 14, 2018.

[16] Twitter.com/FpQ5vWvFoy5OFNp, May 12, 2018.

[17] Facebook.com/selek2018, May 14, 2018.

[18] Facebook.com/selek2018, May 10, 2018.

[19] Facebook.com/selek2018, May 13, 2018.

[21] Facebook.com/selek2018, May 13, 2018.