Demonstrators gathered along the border of the Gaza strip and Israel over the past three weeks. Israel’s army stationed tanks and more than 100 snipers on the border with the authorization to shoot. Unsurprisingly, bloodshed ensued.
The protests revolve around the Palestinian right of return, the paramount political issue to many Gazan refugees.
The issue of return dates back to the 1948 Palestinian exodus, or the Nakba, “catastrophe” in Arabic. The Arab-Israeli war saw the mass expulsion of over 700,000 Arabs, just after Israel declared its independence. Zionist militias often destroyed Muslim villages and forced its residents into an area that we now call the Gaza strip. Palestinians contend that their land was unfairly taken and that they have the right to return.
The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is key to understanding the larger conflict and demands of Palestinians. It contains a population of about two million compressed into just 125 square miles. These numbers yield a population density well over half of New York City’s; in Gaza City alone, the density exceeds NYC’s. An astonishing 75 percent of Gaza’s residents are refugees from the Nakba or their descendants. Almost 45 percent of Gazans are children and nearly half of adults are unemployed.
From the inside, Gaza operates like an open-air prison and has been likened to the world’s largest ghetto. Economic life is controlled almost entirely by Israel; it prohibits essential imports like cement and steel, administers most of the water, and handles electricity, which is available for approximately four hours per day. Israel’s water policy is criminal: they harvest from aquifers in Palestinian territory and sell it back to Gazan authorities. The Oslo Accords allocate to an Israeli four times as much water as the average Palestinian. Last year, a Palestinian Water Authority report found that 97 percent of Gaza’s drinking water is contaminated with salt or sewage.
Israel controls the borders via land, air, and sea, often preventing food aid and stipulating a strict trade blockade while operating a buffer zone that takes up 17 percent of Gaza and about one-third of its arable land. Its military even admitted to destroying Palestinian crops close to the border in 2015. It allows Gazan fishing boats to travel only three miles off of its own coast instead of the negotiated twenty.
This cruel occupation, along with a decade full of wars and atrocities, has motivated tens of thousands of Gazans to create a tent city and march along the border. Backed by video evidence, the protests were almost entirely peaceful. No Israeli militants were injured or even touched. To date, 35 Palestinians have died from gunshot wounds; thousands of others have been shot and seriously wounded by metal or rubber bullets: even more were injured by tear gas delivered via aerial drone.
Statements from Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman offered an unfettered view of the racial stigma Gazans face. “It has to be understood that there are no innocent people in Gaza,” Lieberman said. “Everyone is affiliated with Hamas. They are all paid by Hamas.” After social media users criticized Lieberman, the defense ministry claimed he meant to say “naive.”
Israel’s military reactively claimed that it only shot protesters who threw stones and molotovs or burned tires, despite little evidence. It is unclear whether the demonstrators knew that stone-throwing and tire-burning were punishable by death. Regardless, protesters and journalists alike documented footage implicating Israeli soldiers shooting harmless Palestinians.
In one video, a soldier shoots a young man in the middle of a group praying on their knees. In another, a soldier snipes a Palestinian running away from the border fence. Israeli forces shot at least six journalists covering the demonstrations. Photojournalist Yasser Murtaja, while clearly wearing a PRESS vest, died from his wounds. Reporters Without Borders, an organization that advocates for press freedom issues, called Israel’s targeting of Murtaja “deliberate.” A since-deleted tweet from an Israeli military spokesperson claimed, “Everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed.”
Lieberman continued, “We’ve seen dozens of cases where Hamas terrorists used ambulances, dressed up as Red Crescent personnel and disguised themselves as journalists. We won’t take any chances.” Apparently, this questionable assertion absolves Israel’s military of responsibility when it slaughters legitimate journalists.
Both sides are historically responsible for civilian casualties. The terrorism threat is real but minuscule. Gazan forces are attributed with somewhere around 30 civilian deaths and a couple thousand injuries since Hamas’s election about eleven years ago. Israeli forces surpassed those numbers in the past three weeks alone.
Over the years, non-governmental organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have accused Israel of purposefully executing a tactic known as collective punishment — a form of retribution where an entire ethnic group suffers for the crimes of a few perpetrators.
Israel uses a strategy colloquially known as “mowing the lawn.” Whenever they believe Hamas and the Gazan resistance need a trim, they vastly exaggerate Hamas’ danger or escalate the conflict to justify another military campaign, in which one side sheds the vast majority of blood. Guess who?
Operation Cast Lead is a perfect example. In 2008, After six months of a peaceful, negotiated ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, Israeli armed forces bombed a tunnel, killing six, that they alleged Hamas would use to kidnap soldiers. Hamas retaliated, and Israel had its war.
The brutality of Cast Lead was extraordinary. Israel’s air and ground forces killed at least 700 Palestinian civilians and injured 5,000 others. The bombing destroyed over 4,000 Gazan homes, leaving over 50,000 Palestinian refugees. Israel surprised the world by using a deadly chemical weapon known as white phosphorus—a similar crime for which the United States bombed Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.
In 2014, Israel commenced Operation Protective Edge in similar fashion. It began on the false pretense that Hamas ordered the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. These dead teenagers became martyrs and an excuse to mow the lawn.
During Protective Edge, an Israeli invasion and bombing of Gaza which lasted seven weeks, more than 2,000 Palestinians lost their lives—65 percent of whom the United Nations Human Rights Council proclaimed innocent—and 10,000 more were injured. 500 were children.
The bombing campaign pulverized Gaza City, with a population over 500,000, damaging one quarter of its housing, hundreds of industrial factories, farms, and mosques. In the end, the destruction would cost around $6 billion.
Hamas’ shooting of rockets into Israel should be condemned. Israel’s perpetual bombing of Gaza should be condemned. In war, the question of “who started it?” matters. Proportionality of the killed matters. Innocent deaths should be avoided at all costs.
At what point does resistance against a tyrannical occupation become acceptable? Only after taxation without representation?