Recent weeks have seen Gaza plagued with unrest, as civilians clash with the Israeli Defence Forces on the Gaza-Israeli border. This particular episode in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict started as a peaceful protest but has morphed into a large-scale confrontation in which live fire ammunition and Molotov cocktails are exchanged. The casualty count of the protesters has been amplified by the IDF’s use of live ammunition against those attempting to breach the border, or even moving within a 300m radius of it. Thus far, reportedly 118 Gazans have died since the protests began on 14th May.
The protest was initially billed the ‘The Great March of Return’; a march to highlight the Palestinian ‘right to return’ to Israel due to the perceived ‘expulsion’ of their ancestors during and following the First Arab-Israeli War. The schism in perceptions regarding the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict demonstrates the importance of narrative in explaining the true nature of the dispute. The Palestinians perceive themselves as freedom fighters, lawfully protesting against the Israeli ‘occupiers’ over land they regard rightfully theirs. On the opposing side of the spectrum, the Israelis consider their actions to be purely defensive; a necessity to safeguard their borders against the Hamas terrorists trying to eradicate the Jewish State.
Israeli authorities exploit the defensive action narrative in order to legitimise their use of force in responding to the attacks on the border. The Israelis argue that the protest is largely organised by Hamas, who took control of Gaza in 2007. Consequently, the protest is a by-product of a terrorist sponsored campaign, rather than an expression of the grievances of regular Gazans. The Israeli authorities reported that the Hamas leadership was employing financial incentives to encourage demonstrators to riot and that 80% of deaths represented armed combatants. But the use of live fire can be life-threatening for non-combatants too. There was a large uproar in the international community on Friday, caused by the death of a medic who was shot in the chest by Israeli forces as she attempted to administer medical assistance to an injured demonstrator.
Much distaste has also been provoked over the asymmetric nature of the confrontation. The stone-throwing techniques of the Gazans directed at heavily-armoured IDF does not seem to warrant the return of live fire ammunition. International Human Rights law dictates that “intentional lethal use of fire-arms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.” Many International Human Rights Groups conclude that breaching of the border does not fulfil this criterion. Thus, Israel has been criticised for using ‘excessive force’ in its response to the protestors.
Many civilians in Gaza are at the mercy of Hamas and their actions, who are responsible for improving infrastructure and public services in Gaza- though this is rarely a priority. In an effort to isolate Hamas, Israel have prohibited movement in and out of Gaza except in exceptional circumstances. This means ordinary civilians are denied freedom of movement and thus are essentially imprisoned in Gaza as the living standards continue to plummet. The accessibility of public health services is severely reduced due to the border blockade, on average Gazans receive only 3-6 hours of electricity a day and the unemployment rate stands at 44%.
Many Gazans- whose main concern is an improvement in their quality of life- are caught in the crossfire between Hamas and Israel. Subject to a life in limbo, their susceptibility to Hamas’ anti-Israel narrative is perhaps more understandable. It is necessary for Israeli to nuance the terrorist rhetoric and appreciate that not all Gazans are Hamas agents or sympathisers. This Israeli terrorist narrative is not useful in understanding the complexities of the confrontation, and severely hinders the possibility of establishing a ceasefire.
Article by Roisin Murray