September 18, 2019

Killing 16 in Gaza to Save Thousands

It was as easy to figure out Israel’s two main objectives in Gaza last week as it was hard to meet these objectives. Amid a decision by Hamas to arrange mass protest near the Gaza-Israeli border, Israel’s aim was 1) To prevent protesters from crossing the border into Israel — at all cost; and 2) To do this in a way that prevents bloodshed.

Israel’s No. 1 goal was achieved as no Palestinian entered, and there was no mass attempt to cross the border. Israel made the point: Crossing the line (of the border) is crossing a line (Israel’s red line). Israel will make this point again if necessary because no country can allow people whose intentions are spiteful to cross its border unharmed.

Was Israel’s No. 2 goal achieved? That is a good question for which there is no answer acceptable to all observers. Sixteen Gazans were killed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) near the border. Palestinian leaders called it butchery. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called it terrorism. Left-wing Meretz party leader Tamar Zandberg proposed that Israel investigate the shootings. European Union diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini called for an “independent” investigation into the use of live ammunition by Israel.

Of course, every loss of life is a cause for disappointment. And, indeed, 16 people killed is a lot, compared to no people killed. But 16 killed is also a few, compared to 200 people killed, or 2,000 people killed.

If you ask Israel’s military chiefs about last week’s outcome, this is what they’d tell you. IDF needed to kill 16 to prevent the killing of 200, maybe more. IDF needed to kill the 16 to make it clear that Israel will not be tolerant of any attempt to cross its border. An IDF senior officer would tell you this: Had IDF not killed 16, the leadership of Hamas might conclude that it can up the ante and test Israel, and this would force IDF to kill many more under much tenser circumstances. An IDF senior officer would tell you this: By killing 16 — most of which were Hamas operatives —many lives were saved.

If you truly care about saving Palestinian lives, you ought to be pleased with the relatively low number of Palestinians killed last week.

Were all 16 deaths necessary? No one can guarantee that. The Palestinians, by deciding to stage demonstrations that will gain them nothing, knew that it is rare in such events to have everything go as planned. They knew that in such events, a so-called “strategic corporal” — be it a low-ranking soldier, or a hot-headed activist, or a confused officer — can begin an avalanche of events that ends with bloodshed without ever intending to do it. They know that controlling many thousands of demonstrators is difficult, and that supervising the actions of thousands of soldiers is also difficult. When the situation is tense; when the soldier is tired; when there’s smoke and confusion; when the two main objectives — preventing crossing and refraining from bloodshed — somewhat contradict; when all this happens, mistakes should be expected. Mistakes should be taken into account.

It is possible that the leaders of the Palestinian protesters took them into account. In fact, it is likely that they wanted mistakes to happen, as their only hope to achieve anything by staging demonstrations is by relying on these mistakes. If there is an incident of questionable killing, it will serve those calling for investigations, calling for restraint, delegitimizing Israel’s means of defense, delegitimizing Israel’s right to control its border.

If you want to know why Israel is so pleased with the Donald Trump administration, consider what happened in Gaza last week and the president’s response to it. Finally, a U.S. administration that will not buy into the notion of “strong is always wrong.” Finally, an administration that sees through the propaganda and understands that calling for restraint is akin to robing Israel of its means of defense.

Calling for restraint is also the recipe for much more bloodshed, because hesitation on the part of Israel could easily lead to miscalculation by Hamas. And miscalculation could mean more people testing Israel’s resolve. And more people testing Israel’s resolve means less room for maneuvering, less time for response, fewer options other than using live ammunition.

Under no circumstances could Israel let tens of thousands of Gazans march into its territory.  So, if you truly care about saving Palestinian lives, you ought to be pleased with the relatively low number of Palestinians killed last week. You ought to hope that this sent a message clear enough to those thinking about next week’s demonstrations.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at