Last week marked seventy years since the State of Israel was declared. For many, particularly Israelis and Jews living in diaspora, it marked a time for celebration. For Palestinians, though, it served as a painful reminder of the Nakba, and seventy years of occupation and displacement. Just as Zionism emphasises the importance of a Jewish right of return, Palestinians also share a desire for the descendants of those displaced by Israel’s establishment to return to land of their grandparents. It was this desire for a Palestinian right of return that has been leading tens of thousands of Gazans to protest by the coastal enclave’s border with Israel for a number of weeks, and seemingly come to a head on 14th May. On 14th May, approximately forty thousand Gazans again demonstrated by the border fence, with many attempting to enter Israel itself. The Israeli Army responded using a number of riot dispersal methods ranging from airborne teargas bombardments to live ammunition, resulting in approximately sixty Palestinian deaths, including a number of children. No Israelis were killed, but a house in nearby Sderot was hit by what appears to have been a random, un-aimed burst of heavy machinegun fire.
Thus far, reactions on all sides have been somewhat predictable. Israel and its advocates have vociferously protested about the fact that any other country would be tolerated if it had had to defend its border with lethal force, and decried Hamas for organising demonstrations that would endanger ordinary Gazans. Palestinians have – broadly speaking – insisted that the protests were peaceful, organised by grassroots activists in Gaza without links to Hamas, and decry Israeli intolerance of nonviolent anti-occupation resistance. While I can’t remember who exactly wrote it, someone suggested that the Palestine is the only nation under occupation where its inhabitants are expected to enforce the occupation themselves by staying from the border fence with Israel.
As always with contentious issues in Middle Eastern politics, there are nuances which have been overlooked by both sides, and the perpetuation of old clichés and paradigms does little more than feed tired narratives desperate to be refreshed. With regards to Israel and many Zionists, there seems to be a prevailing heavily blinkered approach to events leading up to and on 14th May. From a tactical perspective, the day was a victory. No Palestinians breached the border fence in a manner which posed a significant security threat, no Israeli lives were lost despite a number of the breachers reportedly being armed (pictures have surfaced of knives, pistols, and grenades), and a Hamas official had (albeit vaguely) claimed fifty of the dead as being members of his organisation. There is a certain degree of truth in these first two assertions. At the risk of sounding cold and reductionist, only 0.16% of the protesters had been killed, of whom 81% were apparently Hamas members. This would suggest very high levels of accuracy on the part of the Israeli Army sharpshooters deployed on the berms overlooking rioters, many of whom I suspect were members of special forces specifically sent to guard the border on that particular day. Perhaps Shin Bet and Israeli military intelligence officers were embedded with them identifying members of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s armed wings in the crowd, but I have no way of knowing this, which is also important to stress. Nevertheless, this is hardly the massacre of innocents it is widely portrayed as. While the IDF must be subject to the same levels of scrutiny as any other armed force, it is not a Ba’athist outfit which lends itself to indiscriminate bombings and massacres, and it would be a mistake to assume it is.
However, certain questions must be asked. Are Israel and its supporters aware, in any meaningful shape or form, that these protests and attempts at breaching the border fence are not a one-off reaction to America moving its embassy to Jerusalem, or a cheap attempt to undermine Israel confected by Hamas? Can Israel and its supporters realise that these protests and attempts at breaching the wall are a very real manifestation of a rejection of the two-state paradigm by Gazan Palestinians, and desire for a real right of return? Many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have only been resident in the coastal enclave for three to four generations, being the children and grandchildren of Arab refugees displaced from within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Elderly Gazans will remember Jaffa, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and the Negev Desert as home, not Beit Lahia, Rafah, or Jabaliya. If 2005’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was a laboratory for Israeli ambitions of unilaterally implementing a two state solution, then it miserably failed, and now Gazans – and not necessarily Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or other armed resistance factions – are increasingly vocally protesting against it. Willingly or unintentionally overlooking this serves no other problem than exasperating an already volatile situation, and Israeli policy-makers would do well to acknowledge this fact.
Reports have also surfaced describing young Gazan men arriving in local hospitals wounded from clashes with Israeli forces employing crowd dispersal tactics against them, being hastily treated, and immediately re-joining protests they knew were likely to be fired upon with live ammunition. Is this not suicidal behaviour, and if so, why is it happening? Suicide is most often the product of desperation, and in modern Middle Eastern military history, suicidal tactics have largely remained the preserve of a desperate force. Be it waves of child soldiers deployed to clear Iraqi minefields by Iranian commanders during the Iran-Iraq War, foreign fighters defending Mosul driving armoured vehicles laden with explosives at Iraqi forces when it was Islamic State’s final redoubt in late-2016, or Palestinians blowing themselves after having strapped bombs to themselves in the Second Intifada, these three case studies all support this argument. For the young Palestinians demonstrating, it is not their protest that is illegitimate. It is the State of Israel, its borders, and manner in which it confines them to one of the most overcrowded places in the world which lacks all legitimacy.
This is not the only cause of desperation in the coastal enclave, though. Successive conflicts with Israel since 2009 have wrecked the Strip’s infrastructure. There is a housing deficit of approximately 125,000 units, and overwhelming local shortage of building materials. Unless fortunate or wealthy enough to have access to a fuel-run electricity generator, Gazans can expect to access approximately two hours of electricity a day, and local sewage routinely remains unprocessed. With a significant youth bulge (66% of Gazans are under the age of 24), 60% unemployment levels, and a population density approximately 180% greater than London or Tel Aviv, it is not hard to understand why young Gazans are becoming increasingly desperate.
Israel is routinely and solely, but unfairly blamed for this dire situation. Between them, Hamas, Egypt, and the wealthy Gulf Arab states are just as much to blame for this. Hamas prefers to develop its defensive and offensive tunnel network with Gaza’s scarce building materials instead of building desperately needed infrastructure, while Egypt’s joint imposition of a blockade on the Strip is of arguable importance to national security, and the Gulf Arab states have seemingly abandoned Palestine in the face of greater perceived Iranian threats. Realistically, an economic upheaval including being able to export goods to Israel, and having access to a viable sea port are Gaza’s best prospects for a brighter and more prosperous future, but Israel cannot reasonably be expected to allow these this to happen as long as Hamas remains committed to its violent destruction. At an even more basic level, an easing of the joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza is unthinkable when there is even a small change that Hamas will exploit this to benefit its various military projects.
Key strategic points have also been overlooked, especially with regards to how Hamas seems to be increasingly embracing hybrid warfare as its preferred modus operandi against Israel. Hybrid warfare is somewhat of a nebulous term, but generally refers to the fusion of military and unarmed tactics and strategies against a given adversary, and has become particularly popularised in the aftermath of Russian military adventurism in Georgia, Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine. For example, information operations such as the spreading of disinformation, political subversion, and hacking are just three examples of hybrid warfare tactics. Hamas is no stranger to hybrid warfare, with one of its more bizarre but thoroughly unsettling attempts being a Hebrew-language rework of a classic Zohar Argov song with lyrics alluding to the killing of Israeli soldiers. While whether or not Hamas orchestrated recent demonstrations is open to discussion, there is no doubt whatsoever that they masterfully exploited them for their own ends. Since 2009, Hamas has been acutely aware of the propaganda value of a narrative centred on innocent Palestinians killed by the IDF, which they executed par-excellence over the past week. When news broke that an eight month-old baby girl had died as a result of Israel’s use of teargas to disperse demonstrators, it was impossible not to feel angry and distraught at this careless loss of clearly innocent life. It was only later, though, that an anonymous Gaza-based doctor told journalists in the local area that she had died because of a pre-existing medical condition exasperated by the teargas, rather than the gas in and of itself. Irrespective, the memories of headlines claiming Israel kills babies with teargas will remain.
Rather foolishly, Israel has played into Hamas’s hands by insisting on surrounding its response to these demonstrations with seemingly unnecessary levels of opacity. Journalists were deliberately prevented from reporting too close to the Israeli side of the border fence, leaving the IDF’s spokesmen and women as a primary source of information. Thus, no independent information was being made available from the Israeli side of events, quite literally. In contrast, swarms of journalists were broadcasting from the Gazan side of the fence, and one – particularly memorably – was filmed what appears to have been dodging bullets fired by Israeli marksmen (more likely warning than targeted shots fired with lethal intent). After this imbalance of impartial reportage had been established, a Hamas politburo member declared in a televised interview that fifty of sixty two fatalities had been “martyrs from Hamas”. Predictably, the IDF and Israeli politicians uncritically leapt on his comments in one of the most unashamed examples of confirmation bias I can ever remember seeing. At the same time, a fracture emerged, with a very noisy minority refusing to believe what the Hamas politburo member had said (since when do Israel right-wingers ever believe Hamas?), accusing their counterparts of extreme gullability. Definitions of what exactly he meant aside, I very much doubt that Hamas is as concerned with the truth as the divisions their lies spread in the enemy’s camp; another hallmark of hybrid warfare’s information operations.
At any rate, there no easy answers or solutions for this week’s occurrences. Israel performed remarkably well on a tactical level under extremely trying conditions, but has spectacularly failed to sidestep Hamas’s information operations efforts at great cost to its international standing. While mild diplomatic spats are affordable, sustaining countries such as Turkey and South Africa recalling their ambassadors from Tel Aviv may not be in the medium to long-term. More concerningly, though, the desperation prevalent in the Gaza Strip has not been dissipated. While these demonstrations may have aided with a momentary tension release, this is likely to have been short-lived. If the world has forgotten Gaza, demonstrations such as these very much put it back on the map. Now that a bloody precedent has been set, Hamas only needs to re-engineer such events to again enjoy the benefits it brings in delegitimising and isolating Israel.