Chaos erupted along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip on March 30 as the Hamas-sponsored “March of Return” descended into violent confrontations that left at least 16 Palestinians dead and hundreds injured. The incident was the first in a series of planned protests along the frontier over the next six weeks, culminating with the May 15 commemoration by Palestinians of the so-called Nakba (catastrophe) of Israel’s creation on Nakba Day.
While much of the international community denounced Jerusalem’s response to the storming of its border by a group estimated at 20,000 to 40,000 people — with some calling the reaction “disproportionate” — Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman warned on April 1 that the military would employ even tougher measures if the unrest continued. The defense chief also said that 90 percent of the protesters were Hamas officials or “activists” — accompanied by their families, including children — who were paid to sow disorder. The Israel Defense Force (IDF) asserted that at least 10 of the 16 individuals killed in the clash were members of Palestinian terror groups, with Hamas acknowledging that among the dead were five fighters from its ranks.
Many analysts were astonished by the widespread expressions of shock generated by the predictable outcome of an initiative spearheaded by a group dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state and considered a terrorist organization by the United States. Since assuming power in the Gaza Strip just over a decade ago, Hamas has fought three major conflicts with Israel — the most recent being the 50-day confrontation in the summer of 2014 — interspersed by the unprovoked firing of thousands of rockets at Israeli cities; the construction of a network of subterranean attack tunnels stretching into Israeli territory; and the kidnapping of numerous Israeli soldiers and civilians. This, as Hamas has reigned over Gaza with an iron fist, often using its “subjects” as a collective human shield and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on its war machine that could have gone toward alleviating the humanitarian plight in the enclave.
Yet, when another round of hostilities breaks out, so, too, does a familiar international chorus of refrains, ranging from “independent investigations” and “restraint by both sides” to accusations that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians. And this by actors that seemingly should be capable of recognizing the certainty that terrorist-run territories invariably produce terrorism.
And that, as a tragic corollary, people are going to die.
“Hamas’ purpose was to see much more bloodshed and to inflame the whole area,” said Maj. Gen. (ret.) Israel Ziv, formerly the head of the IDF’s Operations Directorate. “Also, the Arab world has forgotten about Gaza and the Palestinians in general. The events of [March 30] were geared mostly toward getting attention because Hamas is in a desperate situation.
“Hamas’ purpose was to see much more bloodshed and to inflame the whole area.” — Maj. Gen. (ret.) Israel Ziv
“The question of whether Israel acted correctly must be viewed in this context,” he told The Media Line, “and in this case there were casualties, but things could have been much worse. It is unfortunate that deaths occurred, but the incident was contained. Overall, it was the right deployment [of force by Israel].”
Ziv, who commanded the Israeli army’s Gaza Division, believes that the Palestinian enclave represents a Catch-22 situation for Jerusalem, in which its desire to improve the humanitarian situation there is tempered by the imperative of restraining Hamas. “Strategically, Israel is handling things militarily, and this is not comprehensive as it does not change the conditions on the ground. Hamas, as a government, does very little and is unwilling to go further. So the big question is whether Israel should assume more responsibility over the Strip. If not, little can be done and it may be that another round or two of escalation will be required to change the circumstances.”
But because Hamas currently is not interested in engaging Israel in a full-blown conflict, its leaders reverted to “popular resistance” which it knows can harm the Jewish state diplomatically. And with reason, because history shows that no matter the circumstances, the Israeli military’s actions — including unavoidable mistakes under frenzied conditions — are more apt to garner international headlines than Hamas’ instigation of crises.
Indeed, much of the focus in the aftermath of the fighting is on a video that purports to show an unarmed Palestinian being shot in the back while retreating from the border fence. Threats now abound to take Israel to the International Criminal Court over an incident for which no verifiable evidence has been presented. Moreover, given the number of Palestinians killed, Jerusalem has come under heavy criticism for tactics that it argues would be employed — without any afterthought — by every other country in the world under similar circumstances.
“Generally speaking, using live fire in such a complex arena is not illegal in and of itself, although it has to be used very carefully and only against legitimate targets,” Col. (res.) Liron A. Libman, previously the head of the IDF’s International Law Department, told The Media Line. “Also, there are rockets regularly fired on Israel and, a few weeks ago, an [improvised explosive device] that was planted along the border injured four soldiers. So the protest on [March 30] cannot be viewed as a normal demonstration whereby police use regular riot control measures.
“The fact that people were killed is troubling,” he continued, “but that is not evidence that Israel broke international law. Each and every occurrence must be investigated to determine whether the rules of engagement were followed.”
On the flip side, Libman stressed that Hamas, as an organization that controls territory, “has an obligation to keep its citizens out of harm’s way and should therefore have prevented people from approaching the border fence. It does look as though Hamas was attempting to benefit from putting civilians on the front lines.”
Recently, the White House convened a roundtable discussion on the situation in Gaza, attended by Israeli officials and counterparts from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, among other regional Arab countries. According to reports, American representatives made clear during the meeting that President Donald Trump views Hamas’ control of the Gaza Strip as one of the most serious impediments not only to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking but also to the basic delivery of humanitarian aid to the enclave and its eventual reconstruction.
The U.S. administration therefore supported the recent failed reconciliation attempt between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, a pact that might have restored President Mahmoud Abbas’ control over Gaza. But Abbas refused to send a delegation to the White House for the Gaza talks, instead choosing to uphold a boycott of American officials that he imposed in the wake of Washington’s recognition in December of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Accordingly, the prospect of political change in the Gaza Strip will remain exceedingly low for the foreseeable future. And as long as it is run by Hamas, the status quo can be expected to persist even as the international community expresses bewilderment and outrage with every new episode of violence.