An edition version of this article was published in The Age – 18 May 2018
The loss of 60 Palestinian lives along the Israel-Gaza border on Monday was indeed tragic and heartbreaking.
Yet these deaths were not the result of anything resembling a peaceful protest, despite claims to the contrary, nor the result of either the difficult and worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza nor the opening of the new US Embassy in Jerusalem.
Instead, they were yet another product of the dysfunctional, self-defeating, frequently corrupt and often divided Palestinian leadership which has cost the Palestinian people so much.
Hamas, the internationally-designated Islamist terror group which has rules Gaza with an iron fist for 11 years has become increasingly isolated internationally. It is also been locked in a very bitter political struggle with the Palestinian Authority (PA), which rules the West Bank and has far more international recognition.
Furthermore, Hamas’ traditional methods of gaining attention both internationally and on the Palestinian street – launching suicide bombings and rocket attacks, or creating terror tunnels targeting Israel – have been closed off by Israeli counter-measures.
So to regain international influence, and to score points against the PA in Palestinian opinion, Hamas has been sponsoring mass demonstrations along the border called the “Great March of Return” since late March.
While for propaganda purposes Hamas says the March involves only “peaceful protest”, in Arabic its admits this is untrue. Speaking to Al-Jazeera on Sunday, Hamas political bureau spokesperson Mahmoud al-Zahar declared, “When we talk about ‘peaceful resistance’ we are deceiving the public. This is peaceful resistance bolstered by a military force and by security agencies.”
And indeed, Monday’s events involved several shooting attacks on Israeli forces, numerous pipe bombs and IEDs placed along the Gaza fence, several grenades attacks, kites with incendiary devices which set at least 23 fires inside Israel, and uncounted Molotov cocktail, slingshot and giant catapult attacks on Israel soldiers. Furthermore, social media instructions to demonstrators suggested they “bring a knife, a dagger or a gun” but “keep it under your clothes.”
Finally, demonstrators were given maps that showed the Israeli villages within one or two kilometers of the border, with instructions to head for them if a breakthrough occurred.
Given all these circumstances, Israelis forces were always going to have to use significant force to prevent breaches of the border fence and protect nearby communities. There were reportedly at least 12 major breakthrough attempts on Monday.
These breakthrough efforts were an attempted invasion. Hamas leaders repeatedly said the goal of the “March” was to eliminate the Gaza border with Israel, allow Palestinians to “return” to homes inside Israel their ancestors lost when Israel was created in 1948, and eliminate Israel.
Those who say Israel should have found non-lethal means to counter the invasion attempts – and Israeli forces extensively employed teargas, rubber bullets, warning shots and other riot-control measures before resorting to live fire – frankly cannot offer any plausible way this could have worked, given that large unarmed masses were interspersed with the armed, and many of the armed were concealing their weapons.
Moreover, it now seems likely most of those killed were Hamas activists or militants. Hamas official Salah Bardawil, in an interview with the Palestinian Baladna news outlet on May 16, stated “In the last rounds of confrontations, if 62 people were martyred, fifty of the martyrs were Hamas and 12 from the people.”
So sixty Palestinians are dead, but Hamas attained its goal. It garnered international attention to the Palestinian cause and to itself, put itself at the forefront of Palestinian debate, and got Israel condemned internationally. The dead Palestinians are martyrs to Hamas’ continued destructive rule over Gaza.
Yet some like Brendan Ciaran Browne in his article “World must call out Israel over law breaches” (May 16, 2018) think we should reward Hamas for its cynical tactics.
He blames the international development sector for encouraging Palestinians to develop ‘resilience’, rather than “holding Israel accountable for its multiple breaches of international law and its involvement in the destruction of Palestinian society.”
Like many others, Browne completely fails to seriously consider the role of Hamas. The terrorist group is inciting and paying its young women and men to put themselves in the firing line as human shields or commit violent acts on the border. It is preventing its citizens from having basic services like power and fuel, and is siphoning international aid to build rockets and terror tunnels. It is not only refusing to recognise Israel but attempting to sabotage any efforts to return to the negotiations.
Browne is right that the Palestinian need and deserve a better situation – preferably a genuine two-state resolution giving them real self-determination. Yet he ignores that Israel has already offered Palestinians a state in Gaza and the overwhelming majority of the West Bank, with a capital in east Jerusalem on three occasions – 2000, 2001, 2008. The Palestinian leadership proved unwilling or unable to either accept or even make a reasonable counter-offer.
It is wilful blindness to react to recent events by rewarding this leadership that is making a better life for Palestinian impossible – acting as a rubber stamp for whatever they do and blaming Israel alone for all lack of progress toward real peace, no matter how destructive and counter-productive the policies of Hamas and the PA. Such a stance does the Palestinian people – who deserve better – no favours.
Dr. Tzvi Fleischer is Editor of the Australia/Israel Review at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), and has a PhD in International Politics from Monash University.