I talked to an American friend yesterday. She is well-educated and interested in current events, and she was concerned about what was going on at the border with Gaza. She read me an AP news account that was in her local paper (probably this one) which explained in the second paragraph that
Israeli troops opened fire from across the border, killing at least nine Palestinians and wounding 491 others in the second mass border protest in eight days. The deaths brought to at least 31 the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli fire since last week.
What is the picture that this evokes?
If I didn’t know better, I would see a bunch of people peacefully holding signs, singing “we shall overcome,” when suddenly a machine gun opens up and mows them down at random, men women and children. The article mentions that “the area was engulfed by thick black smoke from protesters setting tires on fire,” but it is only in the ninth paragraph that we are told that “the [Israeli] military said” that the “protesters” threw firebombs and explosive devices under cover of the smoke, and that “several attempts to cross the fence were thwarted.”
Let’s analyze some of this.
Are they “protesters” and if so, what are they protesting? Some of them are civilians who are sympathetic with Hamas, or who are young people with nothing more exciting to do, who have taken the free buses provided by Hamas to eat the free lunch provided there. Participants are encouraged to try to break through the border fence, and Hamas is paying them from $200 to $500 if they are injured, and $3000 to families of anyone who is killed.
The civilians are generally not the ones who are getting shot. Most of those who did are members of the al-Qassam brigades or other military organizations associated with Hamas or other terrorist factions, who a trying to damage or penetrate the border fence, or injure or kill Israeli troops on the other side.
Here is a description from an article by Nahum Barnea, an Israeli journalist who is a bitter enemy of Israel’s present government, and anything but a right-winger:
[IDF officer at the scene:] “There were armed cells among the protestors that wanted to break through the fence to set it on fire, to kidnap soldiers and perhaps break into one of the kibbutzim. There are several people within the crowd, members of Hamas’ elite Nukhba force, who are hiding guns, knives, explosives under their clothes. Their intention was to turn into a fighting force.”
Nineteen or 20 Palestinians were killed on the first Friday, I said.
“One-third of the dead are armed terrorists,” one of the officers said. “Another 40 percent are members of the organizations, including a Nukhba company commander. Most of the others were identified as key instigators. The first person who was killed was a farmer. It was a misidentification by a tank.”
The orders received from the General Staff are clear. A soldier is allowed to fire in three cases: If he is in a life-threatening situation, if he detects damage to state infrastructure [the border fence] and if he spots key instigators. In the last case, he must receive approval from a commander. First, he fires into the air, and only then he shoots towards the person’s body.
“Let’s assume that 400 people had broken through the border fence,” one of the officers said. “We would have had to stop them with fire. At least 50 of them would have been killed. It would have been a strategic event. They would have had to retaliate. We would have had to retaliate. In fact, we are preventing war through our surgical activity.
People in Gaza have much to be unhappy about. Media sympathetic to Hamas usually blame Israel, citing its “blockade” of Gaza. But the blockade is very selective, and does not prevent Gaza from importing food, medical supplies and even construction materials intended to rebuild homes and infrastructure damaged in recent wars. Hamas taxes all imports heavily, and appropriates what it wants for its own purposes. Cement and rebar imported for construction of buildings, for example, is diverted to use in attack tunnels dug under the border to Israel, which are intended to infiltrate terrorists and to kidnap Israelis.
The biggest problems for Gaza residents today are the lack of electricity, mostly because of a dispute with the Palestinian Authority, and the availability of clean water and sewage treatment facilities. International donors have provided money and equipment, but resources are consistently diverted to Hamas for military purposes.
But these are not the things they are protesting. The protest is called “The Great March of Return,” and it is on behalf of a “right of return” of the descendents of Arab refugees from the 1948 war to land that has been under Israel’s control since then. Rhetoric is very aggressive. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya said that the event marks the beginning of their return to “all of Palestine,” especially Jerusalem, which they say US President Trump had no business recognizing as the capital of Israel.
As everyone knows, the “return” of the millions who claim refugee status would be the end of the Jewish state (and probably the start of a civil war that would rival the one in Syria). In other words, what they are protesting is the very existence of Israel on land that they want for themselves.
I told my friend that Israel had few options. Could they fail to defend the border, close to Israeli communities (as close as 100 meters in some cases)? Palestinian terrorists have on countless occasions showed that they are capable of horrific violence, even slitting the throats of babies in their cribs.
Some commentators have gone as far as to accuse Israel of deliberately “massacring” Palestinians. What they don’t explain is what advantage Israel would gain by doing so. Israel is extremely conscious (too much so, in my opinion) of maintaining an image of a progressive, humane society, and would consider mass or indiscriminate killing of Palestinians a public relations disaster as well as a moral one. The view that IDF soldiers in general would seize an opportunity to kill Palestinians out of sheer hatred – which is apparently assumed by those who suggest that there has been a “massacre” – is a manifestation of the campaign of demonization that Israel and the IDF have been subjected to, and even of a pervasive anti-Jewish worldview.
Hamas, on the other hand, benefits greatly from civilian casualties, which support its narrative of victimization and provide its supporters with fodder for “lawfare” against the IDF and diplomatic sanctions against Israel.
I have recently read several articles which argue that the situation is very complicated and we shouldn’t place all the responsibility on either side. I agree that it is complicated. There are numerous players with influence here, including Israel and Hamas of course, but also the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, and notably Iran, which is financing Hamas and sees violence in Gaza as in its interest.
But it isn’t complicated in a moral sense. I have no problem saying that one side is defending itself against invasion, and the other is committing an act of aggression while at the same time victimizing its own people.
It’s a shame that important parts of the American media don’t get this – or don’t want its consumers to get it.
* For those too young to remember, see Kent State Massacre.