Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
At times Friday, the television images of Palestinian protesters strung across the gently undulating fields abutting Gaza’s border fence with Israel appeared as many a medieval battlefield might.
Human waves moving forward, slingshots in the hands of some, the tide turning as one fell, crowds parting as rough hands hurriedly carted another victim from the confrontation.
But these are no coincidental casualties – a calculated plan is unfolding.
Hamas has called Palestinians to a weeks-long protest, due to culminate as the US embassy in Israel relocates to Jerusalem in mid-May – a move embodying President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize the city as Israel’s capital. Given that Palestinians oppose this move, the timing of the protest is not likely a coincidence.
Like so many battles of yesteryear, both sides arrive to this current field of conflict carrying a weight of historic grievances, armed with today’s political imperatives.
Hamas is tapping into Palestinian’s deepest emotion – the right to return to land that was lost to Israel generations ago – and current sentiments that Trump’s Mideast peace project is tilting against them.
Israeli officials are convinced Hamas is challenging the status quo of Gaza’s limits and is ready to throw down civilian lives to achieve it. For Israelis, there exists a deep-seated fear that Palestinians and Arabs will become emboldened and flood over fences and walls in numbers too great for a civilized army, even one with America’s moral support, to confront.
In public statements before the confrontation, Israeli officials said an attack on the border fence is an attack on Israel’s sovereignty and pulled no punches on what a response could look like.
To make their message clear, the Israel Defense Forces’ Arabic website posted a video of a young man being shot in the leg; it was accompanied by the caption: “This is what will happen to you if you try to get close to our border.”
The fact that Israelis see these messages as warnings and Palestinians understand them as threats shows how deeply entrenched divisions are. Nonetheless, Hamas has called its supporters forward to demonstrate a right of return, fully aware of the situation they are creating in doing so.
It is hard to ignore the calculation on Hamas’s part that some of their protesters would get killed; even harder as they acknowledged to CNN that a good many would be their valuable fighters. And indeed, Friday saw at least 17 Palestinian deaths.
In New York, UN Secretary General António Guterres called for an independent investigation into the clashes while Security Council members have condemned the killing of Palestinian citizens. A statement was blocked by the US, according to two UN diplomats who talked to CNN.
Meanwhile the European Union has called for a transparent investigation.
This rush to international judgment brings back memories of an interview I had with Hamas’s political leader, Khaled Meshaal, during the 2014 Gaza war.
As the Palestinian death toll climbed, there was a growing perception among many international observers that Meshaal and his cohorts were willing to see Palestinians killed if it led to more calls for Israel to end its bombing campaign.
When I met Meshaal in 2014, he denied he was sacrificing Gazans for his own objectives. At that time, more than 2,000 Palestinians, according to UN estimates, had been killed under Israeli bombardment following an escalation of tensions as Hamas fired rockets toward Israeli civilians.
He told me that Hamas does not seek international sympathy through its own victims. Today, that notion is increasingly questioned amid criticism that the group is once again sacrificing civilians for political gain.
Now Hamas’s leaders indicate another agenda in their protest – not just the right of return.
On Friday, Hamas’s spokesman said the confrontation was also a message to the US President over his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, calling it “a strong blow to Trump and his administration.”
Since that announcement in December last year, Palestinian negotiators have refused to meet Trump’s peace envoys, most notably shunning a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence during his visit to the region in January.
Even if Hamas didn’t have the intent, it certainly will have the opportunity to turn the Gaza protest into a timely outcry over Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In doing so, it would stand to score political points against its rivals in Fatah, the Palestinian nationalist party.
Hamas may also be achieving another aim: isolating the US and Israel from European support, as indeed early indications from the UN and the European Union show is happening.
Already, the middle of May is set to be a trying time for Trump in the region and in his relations with Europe’s leading nations. Just days before the embassy is expected to open in Jerusalem, he must decide whether to sign a new sanctions waiver on Iran, something Europeans support and his new national security adviser and potential incoming Secretary of State are likely to oppose.
Hamas will likely have an interest in this too, as it has recently been reaffirming old ties with Iran and will see these sanctions as yet another means to isolate Trump from European support – adding more incentive for confrontational protests in Gaza.
What’s happening now in the undulating grass fields abutting the fence at Gaza’s border will in the coming weeks likely be a growing overseas concern for Trump.