No doubt, the event was impressive, not least because the Israeli Air Force knocked out al-Aqsa’s broadcasting site in November during the largest flare up to date since the 2014 campaign. Hamas proved that it could broadcast live despite the site’s destruction, just as the event itself showed no small measure of organizational efficiency.
Women and men were separated by a cordon of Hamas officials in military dress and yellow vests. Green flags were plentiful and the deep podium was impressively adorned. The speeches and the skits – one of which featured an Israeli soldier cowering under his guards – were well-orchestrated. In short, the event proceeded like clockwork, even Swiss, in its precision.
Yet, the event teaches very little about the popularity of Hamas as events in Tahrir Square in Cairo reminded us. The massive crowds that assembled there before and during former Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi’s reign seemed to reflect the popular will and demonstrate that the demonstrators had won hands down against the Egyptian military and the “deep” state supporting it – the legal, economic and clerical bureaucracies that have run Egypt since 1952.
The decisive military comeback reflected by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s assumption of the presidency and the imprisonment of Morsi demonstrated the dangers of drawing political conclusions from crowds in leading squares.
The problem largely boils down to simple arithmetic. The dimensions of Tahrir Square could only hold a maximum of 350,000 people (I calculated this with the help of Google maps). Even with overflowing nearby streets, the crowd never exceeded half-a-million demonstrators – approximately 1% of the adult population of Egypt. In retrospect, most of the 99% who didn’t demonstrate, over the long term, failed to support “the revolution.” The proof is that during the showdown, the Muslim Brotherhood could not mobilize large numbers to oppose the military counter-revolution.
The same can be said regarding Hamas.
To begin with, Hamas refrained from holding its commemoration in Gaza’s largest square – the Square of the Unknown Soldier – choosing instead the smaller “Sahat al-Katiba al-Khudara” near the Islamic University, a Hamas stronghold, with 21,000 square meters, compared to over 60,000 sqm for the former.
Specialists in traffic flow – usually engineers by training – point to a two-person-by-square-meter measure as the high end threshold of crowd safety. A density exceeding that can only be achieved by professional troops in military formation.
Now, compare these pictures with the photos of the event. Clearly, the number of those participating in the commemoration event could not have exceeded 42,000 – less than 3% of Gaza’s adult population. (Note also the deep podium that reduces the number of square meters left for the demonstrators considerably).
The number attending also explains why Hamas chose the smaller square. The shadow (and real) Hamas government has on its payroll 51,000 military and civilian employees, many of whom are beneficiaries of the $30 million in cash from Qatar distributed in Gaza. They were bound to show up having not been paid (half) of their salaries since May (40% on the payroll) and June of last year for the remainder, according to official announcements. Hamas has not paid full salaries since early 2014, after Sisi closed down most of the smuggling tunnels.
Rest assured that these employees returned part of the money they received to Hamas to organize the event. These employees, as reluctant as they might have been to part with precious cash, no doubt realized that Qatar provided these funds because of Hamas’s feud with the Palestinian Authority, as part of the feud closer to home between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, rather than on humanitarian grounds. There are far needier Gazans than Hamas employees.
The crucial question is whether the organization will privilege meeting the needs of its bureaucracy, and thus be allowed to be “tamed” to keep the peace, or stick to the path of aggression it renewed in April 2018, with the March of Return processions.
The answer lies probably in the middle with Qatar – which wants a tamer, but independent Hamas – and Iran, which wants bloodshed on Israel’s southern front. The problem is that Hamas needs the financial aid of both.