Israel is a modern miracle. In its 70 years of existence, it has become a global leader in almost every facet of human endeavour. Its scientists are world-renowned; its cultural life is envied across the planet. It is a vibrant, thriving democracy, where no one is above the law (including presidents) and the jurisprudence of its Supreme Court is admired worldwide. But however true all that may be, it is also sometimes irrelevant.
The border with Gaza has been the scene of violent clashes for six weeks. The so-called Great Return March, a series of protests along the border, may in conception have been non-violent, but that has not been the case in practice. The involvement of Hamas meant the demonstrations could never be anything other than violent. The rocks and Molotov cocktails are almost the least of it.
Hamas was clear all along when the climax would be, with the conjunction of the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem on 14 May and “Nakba Day” on 15 May, the Palestinians’ annual protest against the creation of Israel.
Hamas’s leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, was also clear about the aim of the protests: “We will take down the border and we will tear out their hearts from their bodies.” And a leaflet from Hamas to Gaza protesters instructed them to “please in accordance with the demand to bring a knife or a gun, to hide them under clothes and not use them except when there is need to capture soldiers or residents of Israel. It is requested not to kill them but to hand them over to the resistance forces, as this is an important bargaining chip of which Israel is afraid.”
Hamas offered stipends to the families of protesters killed or injured, just as it has always done to terrorists’ families.
Yes, plainly many – perhaps the majority – of those present were unarmed. But don’t fall for the lie that this was just some harmless peaceful protest. We now know from Hamas’ own claims, for example, that 50 of the 62 killed were Hamas terrorists.
I will defend Israel’s right to defend itself to my dying days. I will point out, as the diplomat Abba Eban said decades ago, that the Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. I will argue that talk of a peace process is meaningless when one side wants to eliminate the other; Hamas is committed by charter to the extermination of every Jew from the face of the Earth. And I will highlight the shameless anti-Semitism of those who target Israel for sanctions and boycott but have nothing to say about China, Russia and the myriad other nations which, on any objective evidence, are far more deserving of censure.
Sometimes, as a passionate Zionist, I despair.
We know what Hamas wants. It wants pictures around the world of Israel gunning down Palestinians. It wants the world to look on in horror and demand a response. So why does Israel give it what it wants? Where is the sense in that?
On 14 May, at the very moment senior Israeli and American figures were celebrating the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, Israeli soldiers were killing over 60 Palestinians.
I know that many of them were armed and their intentions murderous. I know that Israel cannot allow the border to be breached. I realise that Hamas’s cynicism in its willingness to shed Palestinian blood knows no limits. And I am aware that the Palestinians were warned what would happen.
But even if you ignore any of the moral or legal issues in firing live ammunition, killing more than 60 people and injuring thousands more, where is the strategic thinking from Israel? Where is the thinking about where this road leads?
I am sometimes called a hard-core supporter of Israel. It’s meant as an insult but it is a badge I wear with pride. But even I have to ask a simple question: what is this for? There are other ways of dealing with crowds – with rioters, even with armed rioters – than firing live rounds and shooting to kill.
Every round fired and every Palestinian killed makes things worse for Israel.
Put simply, Israel walked straight into the propaganda trap laid for it, shooting at thousands of people when not one of them was shooting at Israel.
This is the very definition of asymmetric warfare, with Israel acting entirely militarily – shooting an invading enemy – and the Palestinians turning their relative lack of firepower to their advantage, luring Israel into creating the images that play into the Palestinian narrative of the state as a brutal oppressor.
Yes, on one level it’s possible to see the Israeli rationale. Israel stopped any breach of the border and the likely murders that would have followed. There are Israelis living in towns less than a mile from the Gaza border. Their right to live in safety should be inviolate, and no Israeli government could ever treat that as anything other than its priority. And Jewish history teaches Israelis not to take lessons from outsiders as to how to protect Israeli lives.
But with the method used, one has to ask: at what cost?
The pictures from 14 May will surely become yet another defining image in the conflict – and Israel will be the loser from any consequent change in the parameters of the debate.
Israel’s Eurovision triumph – driven by a popular vote across Europe – showed that the chattering class’s knee-jerk anti-Israel attitude is not widely shared. This was – understandably – celebrated, not just within Israel but by friends of Israel everywhere.
Most people know little and care less about the Middle East. They may have an idea that Israel is a beacon of tolerance; at the recent British LGBT Awards, Tel Aviv won top LGBT+ destination. They may see the country as under attack from Islamist terrorists. And they may empathise.
But such empathy can disappear overnight. When one of the world’s most advanced armies is seen firing on – and killing – what looks like unarmed protesters, it is difficult to see how it will not.
Stephen Pollard is editor of the Jewish Chronicle
This article appears in the 16 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war