In the year-long ritual of bloodshed between Israeli soldiers and the hemmed-in Palestinians of the Gaza Strip, Saturday was billed as an epic showdown.
Hamas, the Islamist militant group that runs the blockaded coastal enclave and has brought tens of thousands to the border with Israel most Fridays for a year, vowed to bring a million besieged Palestinians out to demand the right of refugees to return to ancestral lands inside Israel. The Israel Defense Forces said the actual number was 40,000, while Hamas claimed it was in the hundreds of thousands.
With 11 days left to go before Israeli elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu built a wall of tanks along parts of the border, called up some reserves and beefed up the already formidable Southern Command — which has shot and killed more than 200 Gazans in the last year — with thousands of extra soldiers.
Israeli soldiers killed four and shot another 64, saying they were throwing explosive devices and trying to breach the border fence.
But even as Israeli TV reporters donned flak vests and armchair generals whispered of war — the fourth in a decade — the real action was a few kilometres away at the Blue Beach Resort on the idyllic Mediterranean shore of this impoverished strip of 2 million Palestinians.
From there, and in the smoky offices of senior Hamas leaders, Egyptian intelligence officers brokered an unofficial back room deal between the sides that averted what one Hamas official called “mass casualties.”
Indeed, after dire predictions that dozens or more would be killed by Israeli snipers, as they were in May 2018 when the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem, Hamas deployed mid-level officials to keep young men from approaching the fence, and dialled down the level of scattered violence.
“What really affects life here is what happens in the background,” said Matthias Schmale, the Gaza chief for UNRWA, the UN relief agency, who was not involved in the discussions. “What Hamas is interested in right now is its own survival, and if there’s a deal that wins them some time, they will take it.”
The details remained veiled, but people briefed on the discussions said they hinged on whether Israel would approve a European-funded 161KV power line to Gaza, widen a fishing corridor and allow more exports of vegetables into Israel.
Israel has enforced a land, sea and air blockade of Gaza since 2007, which has destroyed its economy, weakened Hamas and impoverished its residents. Hamas has pledged to use the protests to “break the siege.”
The brinkmanship did more than underline the theatricality of the “Great Return March,” now a fixture of how Hamas and the Israeli government apply pressure on each other. It also showed the oddly symbiotic relationship between the Israeli prime minister — who was partly pushed into an early election because of his inability to find an effective answer to Hamas’ belligerence — and the Hamas leadership, who are hoping to pressure Mr Netanyahu enough to win some concessions, but not enough to spark a war. The Israeli government is in the same dilemma, seeking to avoid an inconclusive ground operation ahead of elections, but under pressure to bring about a lasting calm.
Mr Netanyahu did not acknowledge the indirect negotiations, thanking instead the military for the “massive deployment which helped bring about the calm.” His allies accuse him of caving in to blackmail.
The concessions Mr Netanyahu has made so far, which have included allowing Qatar to pay $15m in cash salaries each month to Hamas’ civilian employees, who have not received full salaries in years, and pay for fuel to double electricity to 8 hours a day, have not dented unemployment or food insecurity.
Instead, the data shows that Gaza is entering a dangerous phase of economic collapse, said Omar Shaban, the director of PalThink for Strategic Studies, prompting rare street protests that Hamas responded to with mass arrests and violence in the past two weeks.
“People here certainly feel that despite the amount of bloodshed at the border, Hamas has not made a fundamental improvement in their lives,” he said. “The situation here is getting worse, and they are signalling to Hamas that they hold them responsible.”
That has made Hamas’ manoeuvring increasingly dangerous. It has ratcheted up the pressure on Mr Netanyahu in the past year with more than 1,200 rocket launches, killing one Israeli civilian, intermittent gunfire, which killed one soldier, and so-called incendiary balloons, which have caused more than 2,000 fires. Israel has shot thousands of Palestinians in the legs during the same time, and killed nearly 200
But while both sides have tried to keep escalations limited to the politically necessary, it has raised the spectre of an inadvertent war. In the past month, an unprovoked missile attack nearly killed an Israeli family of seven, and two more missiles headed towards Tel Aviv before missing.
“Neither side may want a war, but we could be driven into one very easily,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of politics at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. “Imagine if one of those missiles lands in a (Israeli) school, or a kindergarten?”
For Gaza’s youth, who chafe under nearly 70 per cent unemployment, the protests serve another purpose — the dignity of protest, compared to the ennui of daily lives trapped in the Strip. Gazans are rarely allowed into Israel, usually only for medical emergencies.
This Saturday, Yassar Abu Abdalla hobbled to the protests, after having been shot in the leg last May. The 25-year acknowledged that his sacrifice may have achieved nothing material, but pointed to the Israeli snipers a few hundred meters away and shouted. “Always remember, there is a Palestine,” he yelled. “I exist, and I am not going away.”