Dramatizing their demand for a “Right to Return” to long lost homes, tens of thousands of Gaza Strip residents have mobilized for what were billed as peaceful marches along the Palestinian territory’s heavily fortified border fence with Israel.
Yet the protests, which have also included acts of violence by some demonstrators, have been met the past two weeks with live fire from Israeli forces deployed along the border.
As both sides gird for a third round Friday, the marches’ toll has risen to 31 people killed and more than 1,000 wounded, sparking outrage at the highest number of Palestinian casualties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the 2014 war between Israel and the hard-line Hamas movement that rules Gaza.
The wisdom of using live ammunition against civilians, both on moral and tactical grounds, has been the focus of debate internationally, but to a lesser extent among Israelis, whose concern for their own security and aversion to a Palestinian “Return” overshadows what compassion they may feel.
With the exception of members of Israel’s human rights community, left-wing Meretz party, and the Arab-Israeli political parties who have angrily protested the use of lethal force, most Israelis seem to have fallen in line behind the government stance that the country has responded appropriately in the face of a threat to breach its border.
In Tel Aviv, at an airy cafe, a group of retired men, some old enough that they fought for Israel’s independence in 1948, hold court each morning on the issues of the day at the same round table.
Recently the mass demonstrations demanding the Palestinians’ return to the homes their families lost when Israel was founded have been the subject of their discussion, and the men’s reactions echo those heard around the country:
“The people in Gaza know it’s dangerous to go close to the fence, they’ve been warned by the Israeli army that doing so endangers their own life. They know there will be live ammunition,” says Gadi Cohen, 82.
Most of the Palestinian demonstrators have been non-violent. But among them have been what the Israeli authorities refer to as violent, armed, Hamas-aligned “instigators,” and Israeli soldiers have opened fire.
Yet among those killed has also been a Palestinian journalist, and other journalists have been among the injured. That has added to criticism from human rights groups in Israel, Gaza, and abroad, that those being shot at appeared to be civilians not taking part in the violence, and that the open-fire policy is unlawful.
Israeli military officials reply that the violence has included the throwing of Molotov cocktails and explosive devices, and that they are abiding by rules of engagement. Other protesters, they say, have used thick black smoke from burning tires as cover to try to cut the fence and cross into Israel.
‘Hamas has been very clever’
The protests were originally the work of Gazans at the grassroots level who planned for a series of weekly marches leading up to May 15th, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, an event Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, Arabic for “Disaster.”
The marches would highlight not just the demand for the “Right of Return,” but the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where more than two million Palestinians, 70 percent of whom are from refugee families, live with shortages of everything from medical supplies and electricity to food and housing. But the protests have been at least partly co-opted and, some report, wholly organized now by Hamas, which has been engaged in bitter infighting with the Fatah faction that governs in the West Bank.
Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, says that by entering the picture Hamas, which is known for championing armed struggle, has created a near impossible situation for Israel.
“Hamas has been very clever,” he says. “They have deliberately mixed in to put Israel in a very difficult position by creating a win-win situation for themselves. If Israel shoots people, that’s good for them, and if Israel lets them cut through the fence, that’s also good for them.”
The role of Israel’s longtime foe in the clashes has seemed to harden public opinion. According to Israel, 12 of the 31 killed were Hamas activists.
Professor Rynhold sums up Israeli public opinion as: “Hamas deliberately did this; the ratio of terrorists to civilians [harmed] is better by miles than American actions in Iraq or anywhere else; so the [Israeli military] is clearly doing something right.”
Rynhold says Israelis acknowledge there are lots of wounded people, but would say, “They knew what they were getting into.”
Is there another way?
But he notes that some ask whether Israel could have avoided being goaded into this supposed Hamas “trap” again. Could the army employ a different strategy to disperse the protesters who did not pose an immediate threat to its soldiers – especially considering the army has imposed a buffer zone that extends hundreds of feet inside Gaza?
“Most Israelis are frustrated. They don’t want these clashes,” says Ben-Dror Yemini, a columnist for the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot. “If Hamas said it would live peacefully alongside Israel, they would welcome them.”
Mr. Yemini’s newly published book, “Industry of Lies: Media, Academia, and the Israeli-Arab Conflict,” argues that Hamas’s actions need to be seen in the context of the global phenomenon of Jihadist ideologies.
“This is not an issue of left vs. right,” he says. “Are there arguments in the United States about American responses to ISIS or the Taliban? Likewise there is little argument here about how we in Israel respond to Hamas.”
Amira Halperin, a researcher at Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, argues that the government messaging on Hamas’s role helps Israelis tune out compassion.
“Most people in the Israeli street want the government to take action against Hamas and do as much as it can to hurt Hamas.... Most are consuming Israeli media where they don’t learn about Palestinian life and their struggles,” says Halperin, author of “The Use of New Media by the Palestinian Diaspora in the United Kingdom.”
Criticism from within
There are critical voices as well within Israel, but among the Zionist political parties, only the left-wing Meretz party has spoken out and called for an investigation into the army’s response to the Gaza demonstrations. Tamar Zandberg, the new leader of Meretz, posted in social media, “We must not allow a ‘trigger-happy’ policy to lead to the loss of innocent lives.”
“You should not be allowed to fire live ammunition toward unarmed people. Period,” Mossi Raz, a Meretz lawmaker says. “If someone comes to the fence armed, then they can be shot at, but this is not what happened in most of the incidents.
“In Israel there are a large group of people who believe in the importance of human rights,” Raz says. “And the most important right is the right to live.”
Gershon Baskin, a columnist and political activist who favors a “two-states-for-two-peoples” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says Israelis have a sense of empathy and compassion for Gazans whose lives they know are difficult, but they say, “this is about Hamas.”
“My response is that it’s not justified. You don’t shoot unarmed people,” Mr. Baskin argues. “There is non-lethal ammunition at a lower caliber that can be used … you can use lethal force when there is a physical threat to the soldiers.”
He warns there is a danger of the number of dead surging and the situation then getting out of control, with a conflict moving beyond Gaza to the West Bank.
Baskin, founder and co-chair of the think tank, Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives, says several Palestinians have reached out to him in recent days, asking what slogans and gestures might be used that could appeal to the Israeli public.
“Perhaps more people asking that question will emerge,” he says. “That would be refreshing.”