Palestinian blood continued to pour along the border fence with Gaza on May 14, 2018, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding.
Israeli soldiers wounded more than 2,700 Palestinian protesters and killed dozens more with rifle fire on Monday. At least five children were killed, including an 8-month-old baby girl who died after inhaling tear gas fired by Israeli soldiers. Today, a few hundred Palestinians have defiantly returned to protest near the Gaza fence after yesterday’s carnage. Early reports indicate that there has already been one death and dozens of injuries from live ammunition and gas inhalation, while casualties have been reported during separate protests in the West Bank.
For more than a month, Israeli soldiers have been shooting and killing unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza, using high-powered sniper rifles and live ammunition.
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Palestinians have been shot while kneeling for prayer. They have been shot in the back. Children have been targeted and killed. Journalists, clearly marked as such, have been shot, killed and maimed. Thousands have been injured, and some have had to amputate their limbs to survive their injuries.
No evidence has been presented showing that Palestinians have posed a threat to the Israeli snipers pulling the triggers. The Israeli soldiers are positioned hundreds of yards away, perched behind a hill, wearing full battle gear. They are comfortably shooting at the Palestinians through sniper scopes, from a safe distance from which they are in no danger.
What’s more, the justifications that the Israeli government has given to defend this practice do not even attempt to deny these facts. Statements such as Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s claim that “anyone who approaches the fence is putting his life in jeopardy” instead seek to justify the firing of live ammunition against unarmed protesters who pose no legitimate threat.
Intentionally Imposed Humiliation
Norman Finkelstein, one of the leading scholars of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has pointed out that the Palestinians who are being shot by Israeli snipers are “civilians peacefully protesting their forced incarceration” in the Gaza Strip, which has been subject to a cruel and inhumane blockade since the Israeli army withdrew from it in 2005.
Many point to the withdrawal as proof that Gaza is not occupied, yet Israel still controls the land, air and sea surrounding Gaza, as well as its electricity and water. It subjects Gaza to a suffocating blockade, leading to shortages of basic necessities. Nearly all of Gaza’s inhabitants are prevented from leaving, caged within what dissident intellectual Noam Chomsky describes as “the world’s largest open-air prison,” and what former Israeli National Security Council head Giora Eiland called “a huge concentration camp.”
People who grow up in Gaza have their entire lives controlled by a hostile, exterior force. As the Bertha Justice Network, a global human rights group, has pointed out, the “choking closure of the Gaza Strip … [is] intentionally imposing a state of unsustainable hardship and humiliation on the 2 million Palestinians residing in Gaza.”
Gaza is kept within a continual state of siege, intermittently broken up by Israeli aggressions. This practice, which the Israeli military has described as “mowing the lawn,” entails periodically chopping down Palestinian lives as one would blades of grass, keeping the population crushed and demoralized.
The humanitarian effects of all of this are devastating.
Gaza is a “constant humanitarian emergency,” according to the UN Secretary General. The UN has predicted that “Gaza will become unlivable by 2020.” Ninety-seven percent of its water is contaminated and undrinkable. Only four hours of electricity are available per day. Unemployment runs rampant and its infrastructure is collapsing. The director of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem said in a recent statement that Gaza residents, most of whom have “never had a chance to leave the small patch of land” have “lived their lives without any political rights, devoid of any hope for a reasonable future, totally subject to the decisions and policies of the Israeli government.”
This forced incarceration is what the Palestinians are currently protesting.
The protests were planned to culminate today, May 15, the day referred to by Palestinians as the “Nakba,” Arabic for “catastrophe,” which denotes the time when Palestinians were forced from their homes at gunpoint — many innocent civilians being massacred — so that the state of Israel could be established.
The protests have been dubbed “The Great March of Return,” meant to reaffirm the Palestinians’ internationally recognized right of return, the right to go back to the homes and the land they were expelled from in what is now Israel.
While Israel has tried to delegitimize the protests by claiming they are the providence of Hamas, journalist Robert Mackey explains instead that, “While Hamas officials had promoted plans for the march and encouraged members to take part, it began on the Facebook page of [Ahmad Abu] Artema, a political independent whose family is originally from the city of Ramle, now in central Israel.”
It began with a question: “What would happen “if 200,000 Palestinians headed peacefully to cross the border [into their ancestral home, now called Israel], while raising a poster that says they only want to go back to their land?” This was the idea that set the whole process in motion, explains Enas Fares Ghannam, a Palestinian translator and writer.
A call was set out for “all Palestinian refugees to peacefully gather … by the Israeli border to call for their rights,” Ghannam adds. As part of this act of civil disobedience, “Palestinian refugees living in Gaza will set up tents near the border and move gradually — and peacefully — closer.”
The Palestinians came un-armed, and while most of the demonstrators stayed close to the tents, others began moving closer.
Killings Approved in Advance
But just as the protests were planned in advance, Israel too planned its response.
Israel immediately declared that the protests were “violent riots,” the actual facts being irrelevant. It deployed 100 snipers to the demarcation fence, in order to “block mass infiltration” and “damage to the barrier.” The orders were to “use a lot of force” — a stark admission that the use of disproportional force was approved by the highest Israeli authorities in advance.
Israeli officials further made their intended policy clear: The soldiers were to shoot at people who approached the fence, regardless of whether they were unarmed and peaceful.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Arabic spokesman posted a video on Twitter of a man being shot in the leg, with the caption: “This is the least that will be faced by anyone trying to cross the security fence.” The Israeli Defense Minister underscored this point by making it known that “Anyone who approaches the border puts his life in jeopardy.”
Therefore, according to a statement by the Bertha Justice Network published by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a US-based social justice and legal advocacy organization, the “killings and injuries were ordered and approved in advance by the highest Israeli political and military echelons.” Human Rights Watch commented that “The high number of deaths and injuries was the foreseeable consequence of granting soldiers leeway to use lethal force outside of life-threatening situations in violation of international norms.”
The numbers alone speak for themselves.
Since March 30, at least 112 Palestinians have been killed. A staggering 12,271 have been wounded, including 3,598 by live ammunition — more injuries than during Israel’s entire 51-day military campaign in Gaza in 2014. At least 24 had their limbs amputated. The Israeli casualties? Zero. Injuries? A single “lightly hurt” soldier. “That’s called a massacre,” wrote Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, “There’s no other word for it.”
Back in 2017, John Kerry, the former Secretary of State, asked what Israel would do “If you see 40,000 kids marching up to the wall everyday with signs saying ‘give us our rights?'”
On March 30, 2018, the world found out.
One unarmed 19-year-old was killed by sniper fire after being shot from behind. He was running away from the direction of the fence, with his back turned to the snipers.
Others were shot at distances of hundreds of yards from the fence.
One “instigator,” as Israel calls its victims, was shot in the leg during prayer while kneeling on the ground.
Another was shot while throwing a rock. Multiple consecutive shots can be heard afterwards firing on those coming to his aid.
Video evidence of the gathering shows groups of unarmed civilians protesting peacefully, congregating much like any other gathering — only to be shot at, repeated and consecutive sniper fire ringing through the air, without any provocation beforehand.
The Killing Fields of Gaza
B’Tselem has documented evidence showing a systematic policy whereby people coming within 300 meters of the fence are shot. Some are shot even while standing at this distance.
Journalists have also been targeted on what can only be described as a systematic scale.
One Palestinian journalist was shot and killed while wearing a jacket clearly marked “PRESS.” Another died of his wounds weeks after the fact. Six other journalists were shot with live fire and wounded, others were injured by gas canisters and tear gas. All were clearly identifiable as journalists.
An Israeli general, Brigadier-General Zvika Fogel, has admitted that the shooting of unarmed children is a deliberate policy — the result of specific instructions.
“I know how these orders are given,” he says, referring to the snipers. “I know how many authorizations he needs before he receives an authorization to open fire. It is not the whim of one or the other sniper who identifies the small body of a child now and decides he’ll shoot. Someone marks the target for him very well and tells him exactly why one has to shoot and what the threat is from that individual. And to my great sorrow, sometimes when you shoot at a small body and you intended to hit his arm or shoulder, it goes even higher.” He reiterates that the soldiers “receive very accurate instructions about whom to shoot.”
Indeed, according to a tweet posted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), none of the army’s actions have been “carried out uncontrolled.” Instead, “everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed.”
Of those who were injured, Amnesty has documented hundreds that have been hit with hunting bullets that “expand and mushroom inside the body,” leading to “further complications, infections and some form of physical disability, such as paralysis or amputation.”
“The nature of these injuries shows that Israeli soldiers are using high-velocity military weapons designed to cause maximum harm to Palestinian protesters that do not pose imminent threat to them,” Amnesty said. These are “deliberate attempts to kill and maim.”
As human rights organizations continued documenting the true extent of the brutality, the US informed the world of its response.
“We do believe the Israelis have the right to defend themselves,” new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said of the protests. “And we’re fully supportive of that.”
Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, who is tasked with overseeing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, said Hamas was “inciting violence against Israel” and “encouraging a hostile march.” Trump apparently could not even be bothered with such trifles, and reportedly did not even mention the subject in a recent call to Prime Minister Netanyahu.
The US did, however, have time to protect the Israeli actions and guarantee they would continue.
After the first day of the protests, the US blocked a United Nations Security Council statement supporting the Palestinians’ “right to peaceful protest” that called for an investigation into the killings. The very next week, the US doubled down and blocked it again, giving Israel the green light to continue once more.
The US further inflamed the situation on Monday by officially moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the holy city that contains important religious sites for Muslims, Christians and Jews.
There has been a broad international consensus that the fate of the disputed city would be decided through negotiations, yet the unilateral US decision effectively normalizes Israeli control of the city, scuttling any hope that remained for a peace settlement.
Palestinians responded by increasing their protests near the Gaza fence, which ended in a day of carnage as Israel killed at least 58 unarmed demonstrators in the span of 10 hours alone. In the aftermath, the US blocked another UN Security Council statement expressing “sorrow and outrage” at the mass killings while calling again for an investigation.
No one can tell what lives might have been saved if the investigations had been allowed to go through.
Deadly Double Standards
As always, there are official justifications.
One common refrain is to simply scream “Hamas.” Haaretz contributor Torkel Brekke commented that Israeli officials are trying to portray Gaza as populated entirely by Hamas by suggesting “everything is organized by Hamas, protesters are Hamas operatives, therefore everybody is a legitimate target.”
Members of Hamas did participate in the march. B’Tselem, however, argues that the Israeli government’s tendency to claim that the threat of attacks from Hamas legitimizes Israeli state violence is an immoral effort to deflect attention from the Israeli government’s decision to “use live and potentially lethal fire against unarmed demonstrators who are endangering no one.” “Blaming Hamas,” they write, “as if it were Hamas operatives who shot the demonstrators, is baseless.”
After being shot at by the Israeli snipers, some Palestinians did begin throwing stones, throwing Molotov cocktails, burning tires and attempting to fly burning kites into Israel in retaliation.
Israeli officials immediately seized upon these facts to argue that the protests have been violent and thereby justify Israeli state violence against the protesters. But in the face of the continuous deadly violence that the Israeli government is inflicting on the protesters, the stones, incendiaries, tires and kites can only be described as desperate efforts at self-defense.
The burning tires produce a smokescreen to protect from sniper fire, the stones are mainly symbolic and the kites are meant to burn the Israeli crops that some protesters see as funding the bullets raining down upon them. One kite-maker told The New York Times, “In the beginning we protested peacefully. But when the peaceful resistance is exposed to live fire and violence, it has the right to use simple violent means like hurling stones and burning their farmland. This is self-defense.”
Under international law, it is indeed the right of an occupied people to engage in violent resistance against an occupying force. In contrast, there is nothing in international law that justifies an occupier using violence to suppress those struggling underneath them for their right of self-determination.
However, the fact still remains that, as Human Rights Watch has documented, none of the Palestinians’ efforts at self-defense “posed a grave threat to the well-protected soldiers,” including the Molotov cocktails, as the UN observes. There still has been “no evidence of any protester using firearms.”
The reality is that well-fortified and protected snipers are shooting from hundreds of yards away, and it is unarmed protesters posing them no threat who are being gunned-down systematically.
Imagine what the response would be if Hamas assembled snipers on the border with Israel and shot and killed unarmed Israeli protesters. Doing so would be portrayed as the ultimate proof that Hamas is a terrorist organization. The fact that the Israeli military’s killing of Palestinian protesters isn’t considered terrorism betrays the vicious double standard held by those shaping the policies and narratives in this situation: Israelis and Americans are seen as human beings. Palestinians are not.