As in many other Palestinian protests that take place in the occupied territories, most protesters were unarmed and nonviolent. Families picnicked in the shadow of the Israeli border and flew Palestinian flags. But like so many other Palestinian protests, this one ended in tears.
“I took my grandchildren. We went to a peaceful demonstration,” Fayik Sabbagh told The Washington Post. “We went there to tell them this is our land, but what we found was different.”
Israeli authorities claimed they opened fire in response to some protesters who had encroached near the fence, burning tires and hurling stones or molotov cocktails. Footage that emerged from the chaotic scene suggested Israeli soldiers targeted unarmed protesters, including some who were running away and were shot from a distance by snipers.
The killings marked the worst day of violence in Gaza since the 2014 war between the Islamist group Hamas and the Israeli military, in which the United Nations said at least 1,462 Palestinian civilians died. And the aftermath of the protests underscored both the desperate futility of the Palestinian struggle and the relative impunity with which Israel can snuff out Palestinian lives.
The right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered neither sympathy nor remorse. “Israel is acting determinedly and decisively to protect its sovereignty and the security of its citizens,” Netanyahu said. Officials described the protest as a "camouflage" for Hamas infiltrators supposedly launching an attack across the fortified border. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman rebuffed international calls for an investigation, saying that “under no circumstances” would there be an inquiry into the incident and opining that the Israeli soldiers manning the fence “deserve a commendation.”
On Saturday, the IDF even boasted that its troops had maintained total control of the situation down to the number of bullets fired. But the Israeli military soon deleted the tweet as more footage surfaced of panicked Palestinians being gunned down while trying to flee.
“These are the predictable outcomes of a manifestly illegal command: Israeli soldiers shooting live ammunition at unarmed Palestinian protesters,” said Amit Gilutz, a spokesman for B’Tselem, a Jerusalem-based leftist organization that monitors human rights abuses in the occupied territories. “What is predictable, too, is that no one — from the snipers on the ground to top officials whose policies have turned Gaza into a giant prison — is likely to be ever held accountable.”
The Israeli leadership had reason to feel comfortable in its defiance. The most vocal criticism from abroad came from Iran and Turkey; censure from either country is more likely a source of relish for Netanyahu than unease. And at the United Nations, the Trump administration blocked the Security Council from issuing a statement that called for an “independent and transparent investigation” and affirmed the Palestinians’ right to peaceful protest.
Indeed, the Trump administration has helped stoke Palestinian outrage. Across the occupied territories, Palestinian factions have called for protests every day until May 15, “the day after the anniversary of Israel’s independence in 1948, known to Palestinians as the ‘Nakba,’ or catastrophe,” as my colleagues reported. It also happens that the White House has chosen that date to open its new embassy in Jerusalem, a move that reinforced the Palestinian view that Washington can no longer be trusted as a fair broker in the long-stalled peace process.
Nor can the Palestinians look for much help from their neighbors. As we’ve discussed in this space, some of the region’s key powers — most notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia — have moved closer to Israel in recent years. It has become clear that while the stateless Palestinians garner tremendous sympathy from citizens across the Arab world, their plight is a tiresome nuisance for some Arab leaders, who are more keen to crack down on Islamist parties at home or confront Iranian influence abroad.
The violence Friday should also be seen as another episode in the long-running power struggle between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas. Attempts at reconciliation between the two factions have faltered, and the two sides themselves have grown weaker. Abbas, the lost shepherd of an all-but-dead peace process, has little chance of making progress and perhaps even less credibility, while Hamas has been squeezed by both Israel and Egypt and has seen its sources of outside funding dry up.
All the while, the ongoing blockade and restrictions imposed on Gaza have made conditions more difficult for the Palestinians who live there. “I want to be shot,” one 22-year-old protester told my colleagues on Friday. “I don’t want this life.”
Israel’s heavy-handed response to the protest may now prove to be a propaganda coup for Hamas — and a warning sign of further bloodshed to come. “If there isn’t a major escalation of violence — especially with Palestinian leaders in utter desperation playing with fire and Israel immediately resorting to deadly force against unarmed demonstrators — it will be a political miracle,” commentator Hussein Ibish wrote in the National, a newspaper based in Abu Dhabi. “But the ‘holy land’ rarely delivers such miracles.”
A typo in an earlier version of this article incorrectly dated the anniversary of the "Nakba" as an event in March. It is in May.
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