The protests moved into their sixth week, ending finally with a massive spate of deaths. Thousands have been wounded and dozens killed in the clashes, people who can objectively be described as made up not only of militants, but of civilian protesters as well.
A raft of policy failures on both sides has occurred, and worse, the attitudes of both sides towards the carnage and protests has polarized to the point that reconciliation seems improbable.
This conflict is as complex and nuanced as it is old. It is a split over the rights of inhabitation of the land, religion and national identity, and the development of two political camps influenced by the internationalization of a conflict that only involves about 1/10th of 1 percent of the world’s people. Some people from outside these countries who have little knowledge or stake in the consequences sink deep roots and send large amounts of money and political support to their “side” of this issue, all making it no closer to being solved.
Meanwhile the residents of Israel find themselves more and more spiteful, with the ‘political right’ not willing to sacrifice their control over the security apparatus and grant full sovereignty to people in land that most Israelis never wanted to be responsible for, the formerly Jordanian West Bank, and the formerly Egyptian Gaza Strip. Since the end of the last intifada and the deaths they brought, resolution of the conflict lost its urgency, as it has become less a struggle for peace anymore, than a struggle for stability, and a war of who is right. The BDS movement, and the use of the word “Palestine” as a state, to describe Gaza and the West Bank, have become markers of group identity, and no longer further anyone’s causes.
The Palestinian people find themselves on the opposite side, forever in limbo and without a real and full-fledged state, their economy, stability and lives suffering because of the uncertainty surrounding the future of their claim to statehood. Poverty, closed borders, political stagnation after a decade with no elections, violence, and death, together breed more of the above making and endless cycle where protest has become the only way left to express their indignation in a place where the future is never bright.
The two sides have reached a deep impasse, exacerbated by decades of rightist leaders who put short term gains and ideology ahead of long term implementation of a deal to finalize the two state solution agreed to. Both sides deserve ample blame for this failure, and the current state with two decade plus serving decrepit leaders who have no creativity, will, or conceivable future as a part of the new states that would emerge from a deal have made this harder.
Without a final implementation of the two state solution, which remains the only humane and viable solution allowing for the preservation of the two peoples, there are a number of other clear mistakes that have been made that if rectified could have deeply mitigated the consequences of the events these past weeks.
Many have decried the revocation of the live fire policy for use against protesters, and while Israelis perceive a deep threat from infiltration, and see lethal protection of their sovereign border to be justified, live fire reactively used against unarmed civilian crossers is a practice that is hard to find anywhere in the world outside of such states as North Korea. Even outside of the protests, this is standard practice for the Gaza crossing, and has been used against those people crossing by stealth, though not necessarily posing a threat, before. This change was a mistake, and as a matter of principle diminishes the value of human life.
The Israelis, firstly, if their fear was a mass crossing of hundreds or thousands of “infiltrators” crossing into Israel and then killing civilians or taking hostages to be later released for thousands of Palestinian prisoners, committed a grave mistake by not initially fortifying the perimeter fence with Gaza. The Israelis have received significant international political and social criticism over the years for creating the West Bank wall, a looming, tall and inarguably secure wall, in sections, consisting of pyramidal barbed wire fencing, and anti-vehicle ditch, a middle fence with electronic sensors, and in others of a wall up to 26m tall. This wall should have been more closely replicated on the much smaller Gaza perimeter.
Gaza has represented a clearer and more volatile threat than has the West Bank for more than 10 years, since the first Gaza siege, and the election of the Hamas government. The fact that no permanent and sturdy fence was built, above ground, when the IDF has spent years and over a billion US dollars constructing an underground wall to combat underground tunnels, shows an utter lack of forethought.
These protests had been planned for months, and a reactive strategy led to the response being live sniper fire, instead of heavy reinforcement or replacement of the existing fences, fences which the IDF feared could be cut down in minutes, and by hand.
The Hamas government is also to blame for stoking the anger of the people and distracting from the fact that there have been no elections in over a decade, in the lead up to the planned elections this year in which Hamas may lose power. Hamas, as with Netanyahu’s party, both on the political right, stand to benefit from fear and conflict, and refocusing the people’s anger on external enemies rather than at their own inability to solve the conflicts that stand between them. Hamas’ largest mistake is its dishonesty with the Gazan population and world about the aim and scope of itself, and of the protests.
As civilians were being killed, Hamas representatives poured out cries of grief over the willful murder of their civilians, but when some Gazans questioned why Hamas wasn’t sending its own militant wings to protest the fence, they publicly changed the story, claiming that on last Monday’s protests, 50 out of the 62 deaths that occurred were actually militants from Hamas’ wing, and that in fact the other 12 peaceful protesters died to conceal acts of militancy. The truth likely lies in between regarding the number, but matters little. Hamas, as they often have, muddled the lines between militants and civilians, and made the civilians they encouraged to demonstrate open targets in their aim to obfuscate their true goals.
The entire premise of the demonstrations was in memoriam for those lost in the land protests, but considering the death toll from this protest far exceeded those original deaths, the protest now seems more for the land in Israel that Palestinians claim is theirs. History and claims aside, Israel has existed for 70 years, and there is no realistic premise on earth which would cause the modern state of Israel to grant Palestinians any right of return to any claimed land, what would amount to an act of self-sacrifice by the state. The idea of a “right of return” is predicated on Hamas’ aim to drive the Jews into the sea, with reiteration only last week by Hamas leadership that the ultimate goal is reclaiming the entire state and demolishing Israel by force. This goal is not only unrealistic and criminal, it is an aim that will only end with blood and the annihilation of one or both sides. Hamas’ 10 plus years of dictatorial rule has not moderated is ideology, and the Palestinians of both territories should understand that the goal of the destruction or their neighbor has and will continue to destroy their own people than any other ideology they can adhere to.
Those who value humanity around the world do indeed need to push for a solution, but the democratization of the Palestinian government, and the end of the election of groups on both sides of the border who proudly disavow negotiation attempts and call for genocide. This must be part and parcel of any push for an agreement that the Israelis would ever make relinquishing control of the West Banks security and ending the blockade of Gaza.
Israelis should also moderate their oversensitivity over criticism of the policies of their actions and government. There has been such a polarization of this conflict that it often seems that there is no middle ground in supporting Israel without blindly accepting the decisions its government and military make, regardless of who the prime minister is and what party they belong to. One can support a free democratic and Jewish Israel which has a right to defend its borders, even while questioning the methods used to do so. There is even a debate within Israel itself over the use of live fire, and the silencing of international criticism of this policy in circles who otherwise support the state means that the government’s ability to undertake introspection has been replaced by a reflexive defensiveness, and this will lead to mistakes being made, and perhaps the violation of the core beliefs of the state of Israel and even the Jewish people as a whole.
This issue is as intractable as it is costly, for both sides, and thoughtful debate over the steps that are made towards a resolution, keeping in minds the nuances and complexities of two peoples that ultimately strive for peace, stability, and a homeland, is the only thing that will drive this conflict away from its current cycle of stagnation, followed by twice a decade flareups, endlessly repeating until one side makes a mistake that is irrevocable.
Staff writer: Ari B
Updated: January 24, 2019