With more than 30 unarmed Palestinians killed in less than two weeks, Israel is struggling to justify its policy of shooting at “March of Return” protesters near the Gaza border.
Israel warned that it would not allow protesters to approach its security fence, which is inside Gaza, but video footage appears to show Palestinians being shot despite posing no danger to Israeli forces.
“This isn’t a security threat and any sensible person knows this isn’t a military confrontation but a conscious battle, aimed at bringing the suffocating siege on Gaza to an end,” Ronni Shaked, a research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University, wrote in Ynetnews.com
“The battle for public opinion depends on the military response to the protests and it’s a shame the [Israeli military] is using aggressive measures which have left 32 people dead and hundreds wounded so far. These numbers could rise in the coming weeks and have damaging consequences on public opinion and lead to international protests.”
Shaked said Israeli attempts to spin events to its favour failed.
“Ridiculous diplomatic activities — like the appeal made by the coordinator of government activities in the territories to the head of the World Health Organisation over the tyre burning, which might cause ‘an ecological catastrophe that would harm the health of the residents and will cause unprecedented air pollution,’ or the Israeli ambassador’s appeal to the UN Security Council secretary-general over Hamas’s use of women and children in the protests — fail to create a battle over public opinion in the international arena. The announcement that tyres won’t be allowed into the strip is another petty and childish move,” he wrote.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) branded the Israeli shootings as unlawful and calculated.
“Israeli soldiers were not merely using excessive force but were apparently acting on orders that all but ensured a bloody military response to the Palestinian demonstrations,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The result was foreseeable deaths and injuries of demonstrators on the other side of a border who posed no imminent threat to life.”
Israel said some protesters threw rocks and Molotov cocktails but HRW said there was no evidence that Palestinian acts of violence had seriously threatened Israeli soldiers.
HRW rejected the apparent Israeli assumption that entering an Israeli-declared “no-go zone” is enough to warrant being killed. The rights group dismissed the Israeli claim of killing known terrorists. “By making such claims, the military appears to be trying to justify otherwise unlawful killings in a law enforcement situation based on alleged past activity,” HRW said in a statement.
The UN human rights office accused Israeli forces of using “excessive force” and France condemned Israel’s “indiscriminate fire” in Gaza. The chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, expressed “grave concern” over the shootings and the European Union called for an investigation, which Israel rejected.
Among those killed was a Palestinian journalist who Israel claimed was a Hamas militant. Five other journalists were reportedly wounded on the same day, drawing condemnations by media advocacy groups.
“The Committee to Protect Journalists today condemned comments by Israel’s defence minister over the weekend that appear to justify the killing of Palestinian journalist Yaser Murtaja in Gaza and called on authorities to hold to account anyone who shot journalists with live ammunition,” read a statement by the group.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) accused the Israeli military of the “deliberate shooting” of journalists in Gaza. “Palestinian photographer [Yaser] Murtaja was wearing a vest marked “Press”: he was obviously the victim of an intentional shot,” said Christophe Deloire, RSF’s secretary-general, on Twitter. “RSF condemns absolutely the deliberate shooting of journalists by the Israeli army.”
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) dismissed the charge that Murtaja was a Hamas militant, saying its files show that he was detained and beaten by the security forces of the Islamist group in 2015.
“It is clear that having murdered a journalist the Israeli defence minister is more interested in spouting propaganda and engaging in a cover-up than in carrying out a thorough and transparent investigation and bringing Yaser’s killers to justice,” IFJ general secretary Anthony Bellanger said in a statement.
Despite the international outcry, the Israeli government appears to be digging its heels.
“We will not allow, here on the Gaza border, them to hurt us. We will hurt them,” warned Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s coalition partners are known for taking a hardline against Gaza.
“Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has turned down many proposals for a peaceful solution to Gaza’s predicament, for fear of seeming weak in the eyes of his right-wing supporters,” wrote the Economist.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said “there are no naive people in the Gaza Strip.”
“Everyone’s connected to Hamas, everyone gets a salary from Hamas and all the activists trying to challenge us and breach the border are Hamas military-wing activists,” Lieberman told Israel’s public radio.
Lieberman also courted controversy by praising an Israeli sniper who was seen, in leaked footage that went viral on social media, wounding a Palestinian last December.
Israel confirmed the automaticity of the footage, which included the sound of Israeli rejoicing after the shooting. Lieberman criticised the soldier who filmed the incident.
Domestically, Israel’s actions have faced little criticism but internationally the Palestinian side appears to be holding sway.
“The Palestinian aim was to raise international consciousness and to put the Palestinian issue back on the international and Israeli agenda. It succeeded,” Shlomo Brom, a retired brigadier-general at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, told the New York Times.
Mamoon Alabbasi is Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor of The Arab Weekly. You can follow him on Twitter @MamoonAlabbasi
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.