Many, if not most calamities that make global news, both natural and man-made, are somehow unexpected. What is striking about the deaths, mostly from Israeli sniper fire, of more than 60 Palestinians* along the Gaza border on 14 May is that they were so predictable and, even if the death toll exceeded most expectations, predicted.
For weeks, a bloody climax to more than two months of unarmed mass protests had been foreseen around Nakba Day (15 May), when Palestinians commemorate the forced flight of more than 700,000 refugees from their homes in the war that established the state of Israel in 1948. Hamas even suggested ambitiously that the protesters would be able to breach the border. Yet nothing was done to prevent the carnage, including by the US, which timed the inflammatory move of its embassy to Jerusalem for the day before.
For Israel, or at least for its governing coalition, the answer is simple: it’s all Hamas’s fault. In one sense at least, this is true. Hamas did not conceive the idea of the “Great Return March”, but it adopted and organised it, from renting space for the tents at sites along the border to hiring buses to ferry protesters.
On a visit to the border zone of the Bureij refugee camp with others on 14 May, when it was one of several flashpoints, plain-clothes Hamas security officials only allowed us to stay after examining – and photographing – our official, Hamas-issued press permits, perhaps to ensure that we were not spies. No doubt, too, Hamas could have prevented the protests if it wanted, but it has, belatedly, discovered that protests are a more effective way of attracting international attention than rocket fire.
The Israeli intelligence services are sophisticated enough to know this is not all about Hamas. Israel’s military stated on 15 May that it had identified 24 among the dead who had known “terror backgrounds” – meaning that they were militant members of Gaza factions, principally Hamas. Yet whether the figures are accurate or not, Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, who emphasised the unarmed nature of the protest (except for stones, Molotov cocktails and flaming kites that had not at the time of writing injured a single Israeli), acknowledged at a rare press conference on 10 May the participation of members of his own Qassam brigades by praising them for also abstaining from gunfire.
Moreover, Israel’s figures are a tacit admission that over half of those killed were not militants of any kind. Anybody who has spoken to the demonstrators – including many of the unemployed youth, who risk their lives and limbs at the border – knows their motivation is as much about the despair generated by an 11-year blockade, which has destroyed Gaza’s economy, as it is about the refugees’ dream of returning to their ancestral homes. (The UN last year deemed Gaza “unliveable”.)
One can also cite the presence of whole Palestinian families – three generations of them – who back Fatah, Hamas’s secular rival, which is supporting the protests as well. On this issue at least, there is inter-factional unity, the lack of which has infuriated Palestinians for more than a decade.
But what of Israel itself? There is first the question of the military’s methods. This has been raised by eminent Israeli jurisprudentialists, including Yuval Shany, an international law professor at Hebrew University, who said that for Israel’s actions to remain legal, non-lethal crowd control measures rather than live ammunition should be used to contain the demonstrations. And it is hard not to wonder whether a combination of water cannon, tear gas, and the arrest of demonstrators through the border could not have been as effective as the repeated slaughter.
Beyond this, there is also a larger question: is the only reason that Israel maintains its punitive blockade of Gaza – and denies movement to all but a tiny minority of its people – to prevent Hamas taking some of the credit for its relaxation? That is no doubt a factor. But the policy of blockading and imprisoning Gaza, of which the lethal shooting at those attempting a “breakout” is such a powerful symbol, is the outcome of a long policy of separating it from the West Bank and Israel itself. Gaza, which once enjoyed a relatively flourishing industry, depended on both for its export trade.
Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli defence minister, dislikes the term “humanitarian crisis”. But there has been no shortage of warnings, both private and public, from the heads of his own military, that the crisis in Gaza – with 44 per cent unemployment, undrinkable water, a mere four hours of electricity a day, raw sewage pouring into the sea – would, in the ringing words of the head of Israeli military intelligence, Herzl Halevi, eventually “blow up” in Israel’s direction. That it has done so now without, so far, claiming an Israeli life, should make Israel’s politicians ponder whether the time has come to lift the siege. But so far it hasn’t.
In truth, there is little prospect of the crisis being ended without serious international pressure on Israel to lift the blockade. On 15 May, in the Bureij refugee camp, bulldozers were building up the sandy berm from which the demonstrators took cover in between forays to the border the previous day. No one yet knows whether the protests will continue, subside or even escalate into war. But for all the international outcry over the carnage on 14 May, it would be wrong to anticipate significant intervention from the European Union (let alone the US, whose Middle East policy is increasingly driven by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu). The comparable outcry over more than 2,000 Palestinian deaths during Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza in 2014 brought no lasting international reprisals.
One of the Arabic leaflets dropped by Israeli military drones, urging Gazans to stay away from the border, declared: “Save your lives and work to build your future.” Keeping out of the line of fire will no doubt ensure the first. But without determined international help, there is no sign that it will achieve the second.
Donald Macintyre is the former Jerusalem correspondent of the Independent and the author of “Gaza: Preparing for Dawn” (Oneworld)
This article appears in the 16 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war