Last Friday, approximately 30,000 Palestinians approached the Gaza border fence as part of the so called “Great March of Return”. With Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, claiming that the events “mark[ed] the beginning of a new phase in the Palestinian national struggle on the road to liberation and return” and emphasising that “our people can’t give up one inch of the land of Palestine”, the vast majority kept a distance of 500 metres from the border fence. However, some attempted to place IEDs and throw firebombs and several hundred threw stones, rolled burning tyres and approached the fence. Four explosives were subsequently found alongside the fence, and in one incident, two Hamas operatives fired at Israel Defence Force (IDF) soldiers. Throughout the day 17 people were killed and approximately 1,500 were wounded by IDF fire and tear gas.
The blame game over the casualties started almost immediately. Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas asked for the UN to provide protection for Palestinian demonstrators. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the events as an “organised riot, being used as a platform for carrying out terrorist attacks and launching a mass assault on the border fence and breaching it” which “no sovereign state would permit.”. While UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the EU called for an independent and transparent investigation into the deaths and injuries, the IDF published the names of 11 of the dead, detailing their membership and roles in Hamas’ military wing or other jihadi organisations.
Within Israel, politicians were broadly supportive of the IDF. Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he didn’t “understand the chorus of hypocrites calling for a commission of inquiry” arguing that “they think Hamas organised the Woodstock Festival and we need to give them flowers”. Zionist Union Chairperson Avi Gabbay and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid also publically offered their support.
The main domestic political criticism came from Tamar Zandberg, Chairperson of the left-wing Mertetz party. She called for “an independent Israeli investigation, including examining the rules of engagement and military and diplomatic preparedness for the events” and warned that “we must not allow a ‘trigger-happy’ policy to lead to the loss of innocent lives”.
As the debate unfolded, Daniel Reisner, the former head of the Judge Advocate General’s Office’s Rules of Warfare Department argued that international law isn’t clear relating to attempts by mass numbers of people to cross a border fence. Writing in Yediot Ahronot, he stated that “when a lone and unarmed individual crosses the border fence, it is obvious that the law forbids shooting in his direction. But…when tens of thousands try to cross the border, the commander in the field has to take into account the possibility that if he doesn’t permit the use of live gunfire, civilians communities are liable to be overrun by a large number of people”.
Reisner also details that under such circumstances, gunfire used for deterrence purposes is likely to be deemed legally justified. However, even then “there is a broad range of possible ways of using live gunfire, and the first option is not necessarily to shoot to kill” and that “the commander will have to prove that he made judicious use of live fire under the circumstances that unfolded, and that the objective was not to kill but rather to prevent thousands of people from crossing the border.” In this, Reisner concluded, Israel’s line of argument “is reinforced by the fact that Hamas announced that five of the people who were killed were members of Hamas”.
As the legal, diplomatic and media debates continue, it is also important to consider the strategic context within which the so-called “Great March of Return” occurred.
Gaza’s humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate with unemployment figures above 40 per cent and basic infrastructure problems relating to water, energy, and sewage. And this was before the US cut back UNRWA funding, with the organisation recently claiming it was suffering from a £320m funding shortfall.
Reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, which was due to alleviate some of the crisis, has been an abject failure. Beset by arguments over Hamas demilitarisation, the absence of PA sanctions relief, and the failed assassination attempt against PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, it is now firmly off the table.
Coupled with this is Israel’s technological success in foiling Hamas’ tunnels, which has left the terror group facing the dilemma of what to do next. In the choice between “use them [the tunnels] or lose them” it seems Hamas may have chosen the latter.
When these trends meet several recent “successful” infiltration attempts by Gazans into Israel, one can begin to better understand why both Hamas and Israel acted in the way they did.
In any event, the Palestinian demand for Gazans to “return” to Israel has no chance of being accepted. A consensus exists within both Israel and the international community that any return of refugees and their descendants should be to a future Palestinian state rather than to Israel. And as Einat Wilf tweeted “As long as 80 per cent of Gaza’s residents, almost all of whom were born in Gaza, view Gaza as a temporary place until they ‘take back’ Israel, they will never build their future there.”
Yet the fact that Gaza has returned to the international agenda will be considered by a victory by Hamas, even though the numbers of protestors were significantly below their expectations of 80,000. Having been deprived of other “resistance” options vis-à-vis Israel, Hamas will likely continue with the weekly marches. An important future component will be the number of marchers, as well as potential casualties. As 15 May approaches – when Nakba Day, Ramadan and the relocation of the American Embassy all coincide – both will likely increase. This, in turn may limit Israel’s ability to respond.
Lost in the debate is the pressing need to resolve the Strip’s failing infrastructure. Suggestions proffered by some Israeli officials – such as building an artificial island off Gaza’s coast – have too-often fallen victim to domestic coalitional politics or perceived lack of urgency. And while international donors recently did discuss some ideas, implementation is made significantly harder by continued Hamas control over Gaza, the failure of Palestinian reconciliation and the continued PA boycott of the US Administration.