Conflict between Israel and Gaza has intensified in recent weeks, since Gazans launched their “Great March of Return.”
Thousands of Palestinians have gathered every week since March 30th, near the security fence along the Gaza-Israel border to commemorate the Nakba (catastrophe), referring to the period in 1948 when 700,000 Palestinians were forced to flee their homes following the creation of the state of Israel. Since the beginning of the protests Israeli security forces have killed more than a hundred Palestinians in Gaza, although there have been no Israeli casualties.
Israel’s now eleven-year blockade against the Gaza Strip began when Hamas won the popular election there in 2007. Hamas has since controlled the territory. Since that time, a series of wars have flared up between Israel and Gaza. Each time, Israel has used a disproportionate level of force relative to the security threat posed, but it has faced few consequences from the international community. The most recent clashes are a continuation of this unfortunate historical state of affairs.
The protests reached a boiling point on May 14, when tens of thousands of Gazans staged protests along the security fence, and allegedly attempted to cross into Israel. Israeli forces fired live ammunition at the protesters, killing 62 people and injuring hundreds more. That same day, the U.S. celebrated the opening of its new embassy in Jerusalem, further aggravating the already tense situation between Israelis and Palestinians.
Israel alleges that its violent reaction to the protests constitutes self-defense and is necessary to prevent mass cross-border “infiltrations” of Gazans into Israeli territory. It also blames Hamas for instigating the protests and using them to perpetrate violence against Israel. The Israeli government claimed, “[T]hese violent disturbances were organized, coordinated and directed by Hamas, a terrorist organization engaged in armed conflict with Israel.” However, it appears that grassroots organizations, including a number of local NGOs, were the ones who organized the demonstrations via social media to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Nakba. It is possible of course that Hamas played a role, but the fact remains that the vast majority of protesters were ordinary citizens without any affiliation with the political party or militia.
Israel’s response again has been disproportionate to the threat posed by the protests. Although participants reported the presence of a few armed individuals, most of those protesting were either empty handed or merely threw rocks or makeshift firebombs, or flew kites containing flammable material. Under international law, such actions do not justify Israel’s use of live ammunition against protesters. Many of the demonstrators were youth contesting the dire economic situation in the Strip, where unemployment is a whopping 65 percent among young people, and Israel has severely restricted the movement of people and goods across its borders.
Much of the international community has condemned Israel’s actions. The Palestinian Authority implored the International Criminal Court (ICC) on May 22 to conduct a full investigation into Israel’s treatment of Palestinians since 2014. On May 18, the United Nations Human Rights Council agreed to carry out an investigation of the shootings by a vote of twenty-nine to two. Israel denounced the resolution as anti-Israeli “prejudice.”
However, apart from minor international wrist slapping, Israel is unlikely to face any major consequences for its unlawful actions. Its most important ally, the US, sided quickly in its favor in these most recent protests. A spokesman for the White House, Raj Shah, asserted, “[T]he responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas.” He added, “Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response and as the Secretary of State [Mike Pompeo] said, Israel has a right to defend itself.”
Israel announced in May — less than two weeks after its violent crackdown on Gazan protesters — plans to construct another 3,900 settler homes in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated on May 24, “[W]e are continuing the momentum to develop settlements in Judea and Samaria by authorizing thousands of new homes.” Earlier the same day, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman had made public that regional authorities would gather the following week to approve new housing projects in thirty Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank. The authorities are expected to grant final approval for 2,500 new houses and advance plans on another 1,400. The chief negotiator of the PLO, Saeb Erekat, claims that the announcement of new settlement activity is Israel’s response to Palestinians complain to the ICC. Erekat stated that Israel’s announcement is an effort to show that it “is above the laws of man, is above the UNSC, is above the ICC, [and] is above the UNHRC.”
Without a strong international body to impose consequences on Israel and without any significant pressure from major powers, such as the U.S., Israel is likely to continue with impunity its current policies against Palestinians for at least the near future.