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Why are they storming the fence, and what can we do about it?

End the siege, negotiate with Hamas, tolerate unarmed demonstrations. There are many other ways Israel can deal with the reality in Gaza.

A group of Palestinian women demonstrate during a protest on the Gaza border, May 14, 2018. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

A group of Palestinian women demonstrate during a protest on the Gaza border, May 14, 2018. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

Over the past few days, I have spoken to a number of Israelis on both the right and the left who have some serious, fundamental questions about what is happening in Gaza. This article is meant to try and answer some of those questions.

What do you want us to do?

First of all, end the siege. The protests and killing in Gaza did not start yesterday, and they won’t end tomorrow. People there live in the world’s largest open-air prison, in a territory that the UN has said will soon become uninhabitable. Israel prevents Gazans from exporting goods to Palestinians in the West Bank and to Israel itself, or even to work in Israel — Gaza’s main source of income for decades — when Israel still directly controlled the Strip and prevented its economic development.

Gaza’s residents live with hardly any electricity, with almost no running water, with skyrocketing unemployment rates. Meanwhile, they are unable to reunite with their relatives in the West Bank or travel abroad to study. Israel systematically destroys farmers’ crops near the border (yes, just like the burning kites protesters send over the border, only on a much larger scale), prevents fishermen from traveling out to sea, instead killing them and confiscating their boats.

Israel also severely restricts the possibility of bringing building materials into the Gaza Strip, making it difficult to rehabilitate the Strip following the 2014 war, while preventing residents there from establishing 3G cellular and Internet infrastructure.

Yes, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas also share responsibility for the situation. But Israel effectively controls the region, and it can change the situation dramatically, if only it lifted the siege.

It can be done safely. The defense establishment offers tools to remove the blockade in such a way that will not allow weapons into the Gaza Strip. European countries are willing to invest money to develop a system that checks everything coming out of Gaza, in order to make sure that no explosives are brought into Israel. The crossings are still under Israeli control, with all that entails in terms of security. Giving people the opportunity to work, export goods, and travel abroad will only do good for both the Palestinians and Israel. As long as this does not happen, the desperate residents of Gaza will struggle and be prepared to die, at least to give their families hope for another future.

Palestinian protesters seen during clashes with Israeli forces near the Gaza-Israel border, Rafah, May 14, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Palestinian protesters seen during clashes with Israeli forces near the Gaza-Israel border, Rafah, May 14, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

But why are they storming the fence? Why are they flying burning kites? Why do they place explosives?

Because what choice do they have? For years Palestinians have been trying to end the occupation and siege in different ways. There were years of terror attacks and rockets fired from Gaza at Israeli civilians (yes, targeting civilians on either side is illegitimate). This led to war and destruction, which is the same reason there were also long periods without rocket fire (not a single rocket has been fired at Israel for the past two months). But Israel insists on maintaining the blockade.

Again and again there have been proposals put forth by Hamas for a ceasefire, a hudna, a long-term agreement. And yet, Israel has refused them all, including one just last week. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank chooses to cooperate with Israel on security matters, suppressing any form of resistance. Meanwhile, it sees no sign of an end to the occupation or the beginning of negotiations with the Netanyahu government.

Medics evacuate a Palestinian protester who was shot by Israeli snipers during protests inside the Gaza Strip, May 14, 2018. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

Medics evacuate a Palestinian protester who was shot by Israeli snipers during protests inside the Gaza Strip, May 14, 2018. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

And now Gazans have been holding mass, popular demonstrations, in which the vast majority of protesters were completely unarmed, and during which not a single Israeli was wounded. Yet Israel insists on viewing them as “terrorists,” justifying the killing of dozens of Palestinians the wounding of thousands of others. What other choice do they have?

The IDF warned that those who approach the fence will be killed. Therefore, they are responsible.

The notion that “I told you I was going to kill you, so it is your fault” does not relieve the shooter of guilt. The fact is that Palestinians in Gaza (and not only Hamas, since the protests are supported by all factions as well as non-affiliated citizens) have tried to protest the siege in all kinds of ways. Now tens of thousands have built tent encampments, organized picnics, put on shows, lectures, musical events, and nonviolent marches toward the fence. The vast majority of them put only themselves at risk. And even then we sentence them to death, turning popular protest movement into more dangerous than rocket fire.

Palestinian protesters demonstrate and burn tires near the border with Israel in the Gaza Strip, as seen from the Israeli side of the border, April 13, 2018. (Sliman Khader/Flash90)

Palestinian protesters demonstrate and burn tires near the border with Israel in the Gaza Strip, as seen from the Israeli side of the border, April 13, 2018. (Sliman Khader/Flash90)

If we let them cross, they will slaughter Israelis.

Over the past month and a half, there have been a number of cases in which Palestinians have crossed the fence. Not a single Israeli was harmed. In some cases, the Palestinians crossed over, celebrated, and ran back into Gaza once the army approached. In other cases, those who crossed were apprehended by soldiers without anyone being hurt. There were also cases in which people were shot and killed. These are individuals, and past experience shows that their attempts can be stopped, and that even the police and the Israel Prison Service are prepared to offer support to the army in order to carry out mass arrests. Killing cannot be the first response to someone who has crossed the fence, especially if he or she is unarmed.

But we need to shoot them for deterrence to prevent thousands from crossing.

First of all, no form of deterrence will work as long as the siege is in place and people have no hope. Second, the fact is that many of those who were killed these past weeks were shot down at a distance from the fence. They were either unarmed, running away from the fence, or in wheelchairs. They were young people or journalists. The claim of deterrence does not apply to them. Even the army has avoided providing honest answers about the number killed.

The army has other tools in its arsenal. It is possible to arrest someone who does not pose a danger. As Sahar Vardi wrote, the army has been doing it for decades in protests in the West Bank, using sponge-tipped and rubber bullets, the “Skunk,” and other means. Arrests can also be carried out using drones, cameras, riot police, and soldiers. The problem in Gaza is government policy, a top-down order according to which anyone who approaches the fence is to be killed. This is not a matter of fate, it is policy, and policy can be changed.

A Palestinian demonstrator is wounded in his shoulder during the Great March of Return protests on the Gaza-Israel border, May 4, 2018. (Palestinian medics carry a demonstrator on a stretcher during the Great March of Return protests, May 4, 2018. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

A Palestinian demonstrator is wounded in his shoulder during the Great March of Return protests on the Gaza-Israel border, May 4, 2018. (Palestinian medics carry a demonstrator on a stretcher during the Great March of Return protests, May 4, 2018. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

To reinforce this argument, I would like to use the following video, which Israel’s Foreign Ministry released as proof that the demonstrations in Gaza are dangerous. If you watch the video, it’s really scary. Arabs with machetes yelling about the murder of Jews. But let’s look past the immediate fear and see what is happening here:

1. This is a very small group of people, no more than 20. Not the thousands or the hundreds who we have been told to fear.

2. Most of them are unarmed.

Palestinian protesters during clashes with Israeli forces along the border with the Gaza strip east of Gaza City on May 11, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Palestinian protesters during clashes with Israeli forces along the border with the Gaza strip east of Gaza City on May 11, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

3. They do not really storm Israel. It is clear to them, apparently, that the army will soon appear, and that it is not a good idea to be around when that happens. So they celebrate and shout and curse.

4. Indeed, in a very short time, an army jeep arrives and they all flee back into Gaza.

In another scenario, one can imagine snipers stationed in the area shooting these people to death, before telling us they killed dangerous terrorists who crossed the fence. And we would buy it. But this video, which is intended to frighten us, shows how easy it is to solve the issue of infiltration without resorting to lethal fire.

But they are all members of Hamas!

On Wednesday, a top Hamas official said that 50 of those killed on Monday were members of the group. But even if this is true, discovering in retrospect that a large part of those killed were members of Hamas – a fact unknown to army at the time of the shootings – does not matter in the slightest when asking whether or not they should have been shot. If a Hamas member reached the border area while unarmed and did not pose a threat to anyone, then there is no reason to kill him.

We have a number of solutions for the situation in Gaza. Negotiations with Hamas, tolerance for nonviolent demonstrations, and non-lethal responses to protests. We have a choice, there is another way, and that’s what makes the killings so terrible.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Firentis

      Your proposals sound like the ideas for “economic peace” that Bibi and Bennett push forward. When they do so you correctly point out that economic progress does not resolve underlying political/ideological disputes.

      As long as Hamas runs Gaza that territory will be used as a staging point for attacks on Israel. Hamas’ ideology of rejecting any permanent peace with Israel is intact and unchanging. Strengthening Hamas means increasing the threat to Israelis in the next inevitable confrontation.

      Since Hamas completely controls the territory (as seen by its ability to instantly stop these attempts to breach the border) any and all of its residents should be suspected of being in its service. Opening up Gaza means facilitating Hamas attacks on Israel and Israelis. Hamas was building rockets and tunnels to be able to attack Israelis. Israel found technical solutions to those. Letting Hamas-directed masses breach the border means granting Hamas easy access to Israel for future attacks.

      As for the argument that no Israelis have been harmed. It is true and a testament to the professionalism and vigilance of the IDF, not the lack of intention to harm Israelis. The idea of “arresting” tens of thousands of people raised on a steady diet of hating Israel and Israelis and of seeing both martyrdom and killing Israelis as a valorous goal is fanciful.

      So, as of now, there is no alternative except to use any means necessary to ensure that there is no breach of the border and that includes shooting anyone that tries to violate Israel’s sovereignty.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        As they say in gangster movies, not so fast, buster.

        “Since Hamas completely controls the territory”

        Patently false. More of the tales Israelis tell themselves while ignoring reality on the ground. As Haggai notes:

        “People [in Gaza] live in the world’s largest open-air prison, in a territory that the UN has said will soon become uninhabitable. Israel prevents Gazans from exporting goods to Palestinians in the West Bank and to Israel itself, or even to work in Israel — Gaza’s main source of income for decades — when Israel still directly controlled the Strip and prevented its economic development.
        Gaza’s residents live with hardly any electricity, with almost no running water, with skyrocketing unemployment rates. Meanwhile, they are unable to reunite with their relatives in the West Bank or travel abroad to study. Israel systematically destroys farmers’ crops near the border (yes, just like the burning kites protesters send over the border, only on a much larger scale), prevents fishermen from traveling out to sea, instead killing them and confiscating their boats.”

        So who is it exactly who completely controls the territory? Think again.

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          Israel can mostly prevent Gazans from leaving although it has no control over the Egyptian border. Israel is in a state of war with Hamas which rules Gaza and ensures that a Gaza ruled by Hamas does not flourish so as to not provide Hamas with the ability to threaten Israel’s security.

          Hamas controls everything that happens inside Gaza, which is how it can turn the demonstrations/riots/protests on and off at the drop of a hat as it did on Tuesday.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “state of war”

            It is not. The sheer causualty numbers utterly belie this. Hundreds dead and thousands wounded on one side. Zero wounded, zero dead on the other side. It is a shooting gallery, a massacre, a murderous (by choice not necessity) set of crowd control techniques, deliberately chosen over non-murderous techniques. The “we are at war” set of justifications will not fly. The numbers won’t add up. And the callous/narcissistic Israeli response at the ready that “that just shows how great our IDF is” won’t fly either. The civilian protesters of Gaza are not ineptly making “war” on you, and you know it.
            (As Amira Hass argues, what it does show is how brave are those protesters on the Gazan side, and how cowardly are those soldiers on the Israeli side. Maybe they’re mortally afraid of getting slapped by another 17 year old girl? The horror!)

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            There is a state of war between Israel which exists, and Hamas which doesn’t want it to exist. That Hamas sends its own people without firearms along with some civilians to breach the border is certainly a curious tactic but doesn’t change the underlying situation. And if they die in large numbers while trying to breach the border that is entirely on Hamas. Don’t approach the border and you won’t get shot. It is that simple.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            What is happening in Gaza is not “a state of war” and it is disingenuous or simple-minded to say it is. What is happening is a massacre and a crime.

            You inject another false propaganda note when you say “Hamas sends its own people.” This is much wider than “Hamas sending people.” You spout a canned talking point.

            Moving on, you then admit you actually know “state of war” is a ruse and you state the actual case when you say “people without firearms along with some civilians to breach the border is certainly a curious tactic.” Nothing “curious” or militarily inept about it, since it is not military, it is a planned civilian protest. And Israel’s *pretending* it is a war, *posing* as staging a military battle, constitutes a war crime.

            As for the claptrap about “Hamas doesn’t want it to exist,” the Israeli right does not want the Palestinians or a Palestinian state to exist either. Moderates on both sides accept that the other side has to exist. You are sneaking in the idea that this “we want to destroy you” thing on the right wing runs only in one direction. This is false. It is propaganda. Israel is every bit as much a terrorist as the other side is a terrorist. There is no legitimate exceptionalism on your side. Israel has worked to instill the propaganda idea that “Jews don’t do terror, Arabs do terror” but this is simply false.

            Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “raised on a steady diet of hating Israel and Israelis”

        Oh the irony. By the occupying overlord who put the Gazan people on an actual steady diet of caloric restriction based on coldly calculated minimum survival needs.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “there is no alternative except to use any means necessary to ensure that there is no breach of the border and that includes shooting anyone that tries to violate Israel’s sovereignty”

        But as Amjad Iraqi explains, “borders” and “sovereignty” is a constructed fiction of having it both ways:

        ‘These are disingenuous arguments. Israel’s blockade and control of Gaza stretches from its eastern and northern land crossings to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, with Egypt controlling the south. What it calls a “border” is actually a militarized network of naval ships, barbed wire, electronic barriers, lethal no-man zones, and surveillance systems that operate as the fence of an open-air prison. In legal terms, Israel retains “effective control” of the Strip (including people’s movement, its airspace, flow of goods, and other needs of daily life), and therefore remains its occupying power. … The thousands taking part in the March of Return are not “infiltrators” trying to breach a sovereign state, but displaced and disenfranchised “citizens” breaking out of a state-built ghetto. The army is not holding off “foreign invaders,” but is killing and suppressing its own native subjects.’
        https://972mag.com/the-myth-of-the-gaza-border/135392/

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          There is a border. On one side you have Israel. You can argue about what is on the other side – whether there is a state, an occupied territory, a terrorist entity, an unrecognized state, a liberated territory, or a disputed territory. But there is still a border between them. The only way to argue that there is no border is to either argue that there is no such country as Israel or that there is no such thing as borders because they are all constructed fiction. The former argument is vacuous. The latter one is theoretically valid but practically irrelevant since pretty much everything in human society is a constructed fiction.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Come on. You expect anyone to swallow this? This is more of the having it both ways fallacy. It has nothing to do with vacuous arguments about Israel not existing. Israel in fact has refused to define its borders. It pretends it has borders when that is convenient, but at one and the same time it erases any border when than is convenient. Having it both ways. No one is fooled.

            Reply to Comment
      • john

        “Since Hamas completely controls the territory (as seen by its ability to instantly stop these attempts to breach the border) any and all of its residents should be suspected of being in its service….As for the argument that no Israelis have been harmed. It is true and a testament to the professionalism and vigilance of the IDF, not the lack of intention to harm Israelis.”
        the case you make is contradictory, the other argument is easier: that the idf’s killing prevents border crossings, and hamas’ control prevents harm to soldiers. either way, all gazans aren’t in hamas, any more than all israelis are in jdl or lehava or im tirzu.

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          I don’t see the contradiction. Could you elaborate?

          All Gazans are not in Hamas. Hamas is in charge of all Gazans and of what happens in Gaza.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Even were this dishonest portrayal about who is in charge the actual case, military snipers cutting down civilians is still a war crime. It was a war crime in Bosnia and it is a war crime in Israel-Palestine. The differences between Slobodan Milosevich and Radtko Mladich on the one hand, and Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Leiberman on the other hand, are not as great or as decisive as you want to pretend.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Lewis from Afula

      My solution is a simple one,
      Israel cuts off Gaza’s water supply.
      Its 41 Degrees today. Within 72 hours, all the inhabiants of Gaza will be dead or moved out into Sinai.

      End of problem.

      Reply to Comment
      • john

        fire, lewis took your argument to its conclusion: because association or proximity with hamas is a capital offence, and all gazans are controlled by them anyway, kill em all & end the problem – ‘solved’.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Solomon

      Why do they need thousands of attack rockets and tunnels into Israel? Why don’t they agree to let the Palestinian authority control their weapons? What happened to all the billions they received over the years? What do they really want? (The whole of Israel)

      Reply to Comment
    4. Itshak Gordin Halevy

      A young Arab in Gaza set himself on fire today to protest against Hamas’s control over the population. Let Hamas fall like an overripe fruit

      Reply to Comment
    5. anan

      Can I ask a question to the author and all readers?
      Have you ever met a Palestinians who don’t want Israel to give large numbers of day work permits, work visas, student visas to Palestinians? This is one of the primary demands of Palestinians across the political spectrum. This is what I believe the 2018 Gaza horror is mostly about. Israel is refusing this Palestinian (Hamas, Fatah, PA, Barghouti) demand. As a result Gazans are walking over the border into Israel in large numbers to demand their right to:
      1) work in Israel
      2) study in Israel
      3) get a pathway to Israeli citizenship
      Palestinians believe that these are Palestinian rights that Israel cannot deny under divine laws of justice or under international law.

      The IDF is trying to stop tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians from crossing the border into Israel. At times this has degenerated into armed gunfights between Palestinians trying to get to Israel and the IDF.

      I am curious. Can we do a poll? What does everyone think:
      1) should Israel give Palestinians day work permits, longer term work permits, student visas?
      2) does Israel have the right to use force to prevent Palestinians from entering Israel to get jobs or go to Israeli schools?

      Reply to Comment

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