The justifications given for the deaths of Palestinian protesters just don't add up.
Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip. 1st of June, 2018. Israeli tear gas canisters fall towards Palestinian protesters and medics during clashes with Israeli security forces along the Israel-Gaza border (Photo: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo
Over the past ten weeks, tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza have participated in the "March of Return", mass nonviolent demonstrations to protest Israel's illegal siege. Throughout, Israel has responded with violent force.
As of the 7th of June, Israeli forces had killed more than 110 Palestinians in the course of the protests, including 14 children, and injured more than 3,700 with live ammunition. In order to brutalise the people of Gaza into submission while minimising the international criticism that accompanies lethal force, Israeli snipers deployed along Gaza's perimeter fence methodically shot the legs of Palestinian demonstrators. "The aim", reports the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, was "to leave as many young people as possible with permanent disabilities". To this end, the snipers used expanding bullets that "pulverised" bones and left exit wounds the size of a fist. According to the Secretary-General of UNRWA, the United Nations agency providing education and healthcare for refugees in Gaza, "many" of those shot will suffer "life-long disabilities". Mission accomplished.
In order to legitimise its resort to overwhelming force, Israel has sought to cast doubt on the popular character of the demonstrations in Gaza and to present them as a threat to its security. A number of myths about the Gaza protests have consequently gained widespread traction. They bear as tenuous a relation to reality as Israel's insistence back in the 1980s that the overwhelmingly nonviolent First Intifada comprised a "campaign of terror" by "mobs", or, more recently, its repeated denials that the Israeli military deployed white phosphorus in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.
No one is suggesting that Palestinian forces have never engaged in violent forms of resisting Israel's protracted, illegal siege – which has made Gaza "unliveable", according to UN officials. But the current protests are overwhelmingly nonviolent, and have been met with murderous force.
Here are some of the most prominent myths about these recent protests, and why they're not true.
THE DEMONSTRATIONS IN GAZA ARE VIOLENT
The Government of Israel claims that the Gaza demonstrations have featured "violent mass incidents" that were "exceptional in their scope and the extent of threat they posed". These violent incidents allegedly included the throwing of grenades and explosive devices, as well as the firing of live ammunition at Israeli soldiers. But such claims are either un-evidenced, implausible or blown so out of proportion as to misrepresent what transpired.
First, credible observers report that, while a minority of demonstrators threw stones and flaming bottles toward out-of-reach Israeli soldiers, the demonstrations "have largely involved sit-ins, concerts, sports games, speeches and other peaceful activities". An American journalist in Gaza found that, even among those demonstrators who approached the fence, "[t]here were no guns, no grenades, no rockets". Fieldworkers for the respected Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza "did not witness weapons or armed persons even dressed in civilian clothes among the demonstrators", while Amnesty International informed us that, as of the 8th of June, it had "not seen evidence of the use of firearms by Palestinians against Israeli soldiers during the protests". This would explain why Israeli soldiers felt able to stand around in plain sight of the protesters while taking pot-shots into the crowd. Armed security personnel in civilian clothes were present at the protest tents – but not near the fence – in order to guard the high-profile political figures in attendance, obstruct intelligence-gathering by collaborators and maintain public order. Although a couple of isolated violent incidents occurred far away from the perimeter fence, none of the numerous witnesses we contacted had seen even a single "armed protester" or any armed individual approaching the perimeter fence.
Second, Israel has presented no credible evidence of armed protesters or armed attacks. Even a veteran Israeli military correspondent noted that "[n]either we nor the international media received images and firsthand testimonies illustrating the danger and the threat to the snipers and other IDF [Israeli military] forces deployed along the fence". The same correspondent mocked Israel's refusal to permit journalists to approach the Gaza fence, instead positioning them "at a safe distance... where they were in no danger of being hit by a rock or by a marble fired from a sling or, God forbid, inhaling teargas".
The connection between the underwhelming threat which confronted Israeli soldiers and the military's failure to provide reporters with compelling propaganda material appears not to have occurred to him. Did he expect the IDF to send him a photo of a "marble fired from a sling"?
Inasmuch as Israeli forces were equipped with sophisticated surveillance equipment, including "footage from drones hovering" overhead, and insofar as Israel claimed to use lethal force only against "those who are with weapons", the lack of evidence of these alleged explosives and live ammunition is surely cause for wonder. What "evidence" Israel has provided only underlined the absence of a military presence at the demonstrations. Witness, for instance, the images and footage of what Israel termed "grenades" and "improvised explosive devices", but which were in fact homemade firecrackers, familiar to Gazan teenagers who sometimes set them off at weddings and parties, which make a loud noise and little else.
On a related point, Israel has claimed that protesters breaking through the Gaza fence would have killed Israeli civilians in the border communities. But if the protesters intended to kill Israeli civilians, isn't it odd that, according to all credible accounts, they were unarmed? Or were the protesters intending to commit mass murder with slingshots? For its part, the Israeli military is under no illusions about the purpose of the demonstrations. The protests are driven by "the situation and the distress in Gaza", a senior officer with the IDF Southern Command explained, "rather than Hamas's military ambitions". The "purpose of all these events", he added, "is to publicise" this "harsh situation".
Mahmoud al-Zahar, a leading Hamas politician, has been quoted as saying that the peaceful demonstrations in Gaza were "bolstered by a military force and by security agencies". This has been construed to be an admission that Hamas is "deliberately using peaceful civilians at the protests as cover and cannon fodder for their military operations". But what Zahar actually meant was that the nonviolent demonstrations depend on protection from Hamas's military deterrent. In the absence of an armed force in Gaza, Israeli soldiers would have simply crossed the fence, destroyed the tents and arrested hundreds of demonstrators. Other Hamas figures have made the same argument in recent weeks, distinguishing between "nonviolent" resistance as pursued by Hamas and the "peaceful" strategy of the Palestinian Authority – which they associate with passivity and surrender.
Third, if the Gaza protests comprised "violent mass incidents" which were "exceptional in their scope and... threat", how is it that – after fully ten weeks of demonstrations, in the course of which more than 110 Palestinian demonstrators were killed – only one Israeli soldier reported "light injuries" after being "struck by a rock"?
Hamas have issued strict orders that none of its members were to bring any weapons to the demonstrations. Even as Israel shot upwards of 3,700 people with live ammunition, from the inception of the Great March on the 30th of March until its climax on the 14th of May, not a single "rocket" was fired in response. Had Hamas intended to kill Israeli snipers, it could have done so from a mile away with its own sniper unit, rather than – as Israel alleges – smuggling armed militants among the crowds. Indeed, Hamas has released footage showing that Israeli snipers were within range of its forces. If only one Israeli soldier reported an injury, this is almost certainly because Hamas made a decision not to retaliate in order to keep the popular protests going.
HAMAS MANIPULATED DEMONSTRATORS INTO RUSHING THE PERIMETER FENCE
As a Gaza resident informed Amira Hass, the respected Israeli journalist who lived for a sustained period of time in Gaza, Hamas "can't force us to come and endanger ourselves". "The people of Gaza," another Israeli journalist with experience in the area pointed out, "are not robots." One of the two writers of this article personally knows Hamas members who were urged repeatedly to join the protests – and not to run to the fence – but who decided to stay at home. Other Hamas members were begged by parents, superior officers and party leaders to stay at home because they were valuable targets for the Israeli military (for instance, Moaaz and Abdul-Salam Haniyeh, two sons of senior political leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh), but they attended the march regardless and even approached the fence against the advice and orders of virtually everyone around them.
It has been reported that "clerics and leaders of militant factions" falsely claimed that the "fence had already been breached" in order to encourage protesters to rush it. But as an explanation for the demonstrations, this lacks credibility: protesters could verify whether or not the fence had been breached with their own eyes, since the protest tents were located uphill from it. It was also alleged that "organisers urged protesters over loudspeakers to burst through the fence, telling them Israeli soldiers were fleeing their positions, even as they were reinforcing them". But if this incident indeed took place, it was wholly unrepresentative. As a rule, Hamas and the organising committee have strained to distance themselves from efforts to breach the fence, in order to avoid giving Israel a pretext to attack the tent encampments.
In general, the suggestion that a significant proportion of the 45,000 protesters (Israel's official estimate) who assembled near Gaza's perimeter fence on the 14th of May did so out of ignorance or compulsion lacks not only evidence, but basic plausibility. "Everyone in the Gaza Strip knows," Hass reported, that "the hospitals are way over capacity and that the medical teams are unable to treat all the wounded." Nor would survivors of Israel's many "operations" in Gaza have been surprised by the IDF's resort to lethal force. Is it credible that Hamas could coerce thousands of people to gallop to their death and incur crippling injuries?
At the outset of the First Intifada, Israel alleged that the nonviolent uprising had been "carefully orchestrated" by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and was a product of PLO "incitement", rather than genuine dissatisfaction. Israel's representative to the UN, one Benjamin Netanyahu, had previously described the occupation as the most "benign military administration in history". In response, the permanent observer of the Arab League pointed out the strange irrelevance of Israel's argument: "there has been a continuous insistence on the part of Israel to describe the demonstrations that are taking place... as if they were not spontaneous but incited. I do not know what the distinction is. The fact is that, if they were incited, the response [i.e. the popular demonstrations by Palestinians] has been total, universal, continuous and sustained."
By the same token, the mass demonstrations in Gaza cannot be explained away as having been stage-managed by Hamas. If so many people in Gaza are willing to risk death, it is because life in Gaza has become impossible. "There is no real life in Gaza," one protester, a 37-year-old human rights researcher and mother of four, lamented. "The whole place is clinically dead. The younger generations are crushed by the hopelessness and death everywhere. The protests have given us all a spark of hope. They are our attempt to cry out to the world that it must wake up, that there are people here fighting for their most basic rights... We deserve to live, too."
IT'S OK TO TARGET DEMONSTRATORS BECAUSE THEY'RE ORGANISED BY HAMAS
Hamas supports the demonstrations, and Hamas members have been exhorted by their leadership to attend without any weapons. But as a matter of fact, the protest campaign originated in Gazan civil society, while just two of the 19 organising committee members are representatives of Hamas. (The remainder comprise civil society activists as well as representatives from other political factions.)
It's weird to spend decades urging Hamas to forsake violence and embrace peaceful protest, only to justify the slaughter of unarmed protesters on the grounds that they were organised by, or were members of, Hamas. Is it really to be expected that Hamas should disarm so as to make it easier for Israel to kill them? It appears that, politically, Hamas is damned whatever it does.
Under international law, meanwhile, the extent of Hamas's role in organising the demonstrations is irrelevant. The people of Gaza have a right to peacefully protest, whereas Israel is not entitled to extrajudicially execute an individual merely because s/he is a member of Hamas.
A statement by Salah Bardawil, leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, has been widely quoted in order to discredit the Gaza demonstrations. In a television interview, Bardawil claimed that 50 of the more than 60 people killed on the 14th of May were Hamas members. This claim has been used to justify the massive deaths Israel inflicted on that day. However, the critical context to Bardawil's statement was omitted while the moral inferences drawn from it were bizarre.
First, Bardawil had an interest in exaggerating the number of Hamas fatalities. In the wake of Operation Cast Lead (2008-9), both Hamas and Israel inflated the number of Hamas militants killed, each for their own purposes: Israel to deflect international outrage and Hamas to accrue domestic political credit for participating in the resistance. Bardawil's claim and Israel's exploitation of it reprised this. As Amira Hass noted in Ha’aretz, Bardawil was responding to criticism that "Hamas was sending people to their death at the fence while watching safely from home". He inflated the number of Hamas members killed in order to defend Hamas from this charge. Bardawil's "statement was meant more for the public in Gaza", a protest organiser observed, "in order to promote his party's image".
Second, Bardawil either got the numbers wrong or else used the term "Hamas affiliate" loosely to refer not simply to Hamas members, but also to those who support Hamas. By such capacious criteria, much of Gaza's population might be reckoned "Hamas affiliates". The official Hamas figure, according to Amira Hass, is that 42 people linked to Hamas were among the approximately 120 people killed since the protests began on the 30th of March. More than half of these 42 were "unarmed rank-and-file protesters". In addition, about 20 members of Hamas's military wing were killed "not near the protests, but under circumstances that still must be clarified".
Third, as described above, it is no secret that Hamas has supported and participated in the Gaza demonstrations. In the interests of unity and in line with the nonviolent strategy, Hamas instructed party members who joined the protests to leave their weapons at home, remove their military uniforms and participate in the marches as civilians with no Hamas insignia or flag.
Fourth, the over-representation of Hamas members among the fatalities is no surprise, since from the first day of the demonstrations Israel deliberately targeted them. Ten of the 15 demonstrators killed on the 30th of March were affiliated with Hamas, including at least five from elite units of the Qassam Brigades (Hamas's military wing). Even Israel did not allege that any demonstrators on the 30th of March used firearms. Hamas concluded that Israel made use of facial recognition technology to aid selective targeting and advised its participating members to leave their phones at home and mask their faces. It ought to be recalled, in this connection, that Israeli forces did not fire upon the protestors indiscriminately. Rather, the more than 110 protesters killed, and more than 3,700 shot with live ammunition, were picked off one-by-one. A Human Rights Watch senior official described how the massacre unfolded: "This is about individual snipers safely ensconced hundreds of feet, even farther, away, targeting individual protesters and executing them one at a time."
"It's not a barrage of fire," a journalist for The Nation reported from the ground. "It is methodical, patient, precise. A single shot rings out and someone falls. You wait a few minutes. The crosshairs settle on the next target. Another shot, another body drops. Again and again and again. It goes on for hours."
Fifth, as we noted above, membership of Hamas – the ruling authority in Gaza whose political party was democratically elected in 2006 – is no justification for extrajudicial execution. It is not a crime if a nonviolent protester also happens to be a member of Hamas.
ISRAEL CAN'T ALLOW HAMAS TO GOVERN BECAUSE HAMAS WANTS TO DESTROY ISRAEL
Hamas's 1988 Charter, which contains antisemitic passages and which looks forward to the "obliterat[ion]" of Israel, is often cited as proof that the movement is dedicated to Israel’s destruction.
But that document has long since ceased to guide Hamas's political conduct. After it won elections in 2006, the incoming Hamas administration wrote to US President George W. Bush, expressing its willingness to accept "a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders" in the context of an extended ceasefire, and to the Middle East Quartet, emphasising that it had been elected to pursue "a negotiated settlement with Israel". Hamas leaders repeatedly declared their "support" for "a Palestinian state on [the] 1967 borders", joined a national unity government on a platform that implicitly recognised Israel and pledged to adhere to any agreement reached between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the State of Israel that passed a popular referendum.
Hamas has also consistently offered Israel a long-term truce, accompanied by an end to the Gaza siege, a proposal it reiterated at the outset of the current demonstrations. Rather than encourage these developments, Israel and the international community imposed devastating financial sanctions which forced Gaza – and Hamas – into what the then-UN Special Rapporteur for the Middle East Peace Process termed "survival mode".
"[W]e have not given them any options but confrontation," argued a former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service. Constructive engagement might "start the long trajectory that would ultimately lead to... mutual [co-]existence", he said. Since Israel has responded to Hamas's many overtures with flat rejection, the prospect of a modus vivendi must remain an open question. What is clear, however, is that diplomatic possibilities for compromise with Hamas exist which have yet to be pursued.
In sum, here is what actually happened in Gaza the past ten weeks: On the 30th of March, Palestinian civil society organisations came together to organise a nonviolent protest against the "unliveable" conditions in Gaza; Hamas subsequently joined the undertaking, which came to embrace a broad swathe of Gazan society; tens of thousands of people participated in overwhelmingly nonviolent protests, which included "sit-ins, concerts, sports games, speeches and other peaceful activities"; the demonstrations remained overwhelmingly "peaceful", even as Israeli snipers carried out a "murderous assault" against "unarmed protesters". Despite Israel's provocations, Hamas ordered its members to leave their weapons at home and exerted strenuous effort to keep the protests peaceful in order to deny Israel a pretext for repression; Israel provided no credible evidence of armed protesters, while local and international human rights workers "did not witness weapons or armed persons" at the demonstrations; the overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations peaked on the 14th of May, when Israeli forces systematically shot more than 1,300 demonstrators with live ammunition and killed more than 60.
In short, as the veteran Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery observed, "Masses of unarmed human beings, men, women and children, braved the Israeli sharpshooters. They did not draw weapons... They stood exposed to the sharpshooters and were killed."
In the face of Israel's onslaught, and as the international community have looked on with indifference, the people of Gaza exhibited near superhuman courage and restraint. No amount of lies can efface this ineffaceable truth.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip. He is a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden, and was a Field Researcher and Public Relations Officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights.
Jamie Stern-Weiner is a dual British-Israeli national and the editor of Moment of Truth: Tackling Israel-Palestine’s Toughest Questions (OR Books, 2018).