Israel

Massacre at Gaza

Print edition : May 11, 2018

Palestinians evacuate an injured protester, on on April 13, when several thousand Gazans gathered for a third consecutive Friday of mass protests along the border with Israel. Photo: THOMAS COEX/AFP

Palestinian protesters run for cover from teargas fired by Israeli soldiers on Gaza’s border with Israel near Khan Younis, on April 6. Photo: Adel Hana/AP

Israeli security forces shoot at unarmed, peaceful Palestinian protesters on the Gaza-Israel border, killing nearly 40 of them. Israel’s leaders try to legitimise the killings by calling the victims “terrorists”.

PALESTINIANS commemorate “Land Day” on March 30 every year to remember the Naqba (catastrophe) that led to their displacement from their ancestral land. On that day, 42 years ago, Israeli security personnel had shot and killed six Palestinians who were protesting against the illegal seizure of their land. The incident, in which Palestinians were forcibly evicted from their properties and land, had taken place on territory that was within the geographical confines of Israel. Since then, the date has had a special significance for Palestinians, symbolising their steadfast opposition to Israeli occupation.

The Palestinian “Naqba” itself was ignited by the massacre of more than 100 Palestinians in Deir Yassin in April 1948. Palestinians are observing the 70th anniversary of “the Naqba” along with “Land Day”, among the two most important dates in their calendar.

Since the founding of the Jewish state, more and more Palestinian land has been systematically gobbled up. The speed of the illegal acquisition has only accelerated since the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine. A fillip has been given to Israeli aggrandisement since the Donald Trump administration assumed office. Along with the colonisation of Palestinian land, Israel’s aim is the destruction of Gaza. As it is, Israelis have succeeded in making the Gaza Strip a living hell for the 1.9 million people living there, more than 1.3 million of whom are refugees driven out from Israel. The people of Gaza are squeezed in a strip of land that measures only 140 square miles.

Palestinians in Israel and in the occupied territories staged rallies on “Land Day” on March 30. But this time, fed up with the Israeli blockade and the indifference of the international community, they staged peaceful protests, which they called “The Great March of Return”, along the heavily guarded border fence with Israel. Around 30,000 unarmed protesters refused to heed Israeli warnings that they would be shot at if they protested near the fenced Israeli border.

The demonstrations were organised by civil society groups, and many of the protesters came with their families. Some protesters burnt tyres and occasionally threw a Molotov cocktail or stones along the border fence. Israeli security forces responded with live ammunition and deployed army snipers to target both the young and the old. No shots were fired from the Palestinian side.

In cold blood

Graphic images have emerged of Israeli snipers killing Palestinian protesters in cold blood. Footage of Israeli soldiers shooting at fleeing Palestinians belied the government’s claim that its soldiers were acting in self-defence. Eighteen Palestinians were killed during the initial Land Day protests. Israel tried to justify the killings by blaming the Hamas government in Gaza. Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman described Israeli soldiers as “heroes who deserve to be commended”. The Israeli government claimed that the Hamas leadership was behind the “organised riots” along the border fence and was using it as a cover to “carry out attacks” against Israel.

Palestinians were not cowed down by wanton cruelties perpetrated on them by the Israeli occupation, and thousands of them returned to the border fence on April 6 to protest. The Israeli army retaliated in its time-tested fashion of opening fire on unarmed protesters, this time killing seven and injuring around 700. More than 15 of the injured were said to be in a critical condition. In all, until the second week of April, more than 37 Palestinians, including three children, were killed and 3,000 were injured. Palestinians plan to continue the demonstrations until May 15, the date commemorating the ethnic cleansing of their land and the creation of the apartheid state of Israel. According to medical authorities in Gaza and the World Health Organisation, nearly 350 injured persons may be incapacitated, even permanently.

Lieberman issued a warning that the rules of engagement for the Israeli army remained unchanged and promised “a reaction of the harshest kind” like the one witnessed on March 30. On April 8, he outdid himself by saying that “there are no innocent people in the Gaza Strip”.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, responding to criticisms from Israeli peace groups, said that the security forces were doing their “holy work” and described the protesters “as terrorists”. The head of the foreign affairs cell of the ruling Likud Party, Eli Hazan, claimed that all the 30,000 people protesting “were legitimate targets” of the Israeli security forces. Solidarity rallies with the people of Gaza and the occupied territories were held in several West Bank towns, including Ramallah, and in many cities in the United States and Europe.

Journalists among those shot at

Among the injured were 16 medical professionals and journalists. Nine journalists covering the protests were shot at by Israeli security forces, and one of them, the Palestinian photojournalist Yasser Murtaja, died. Most of the journalists were wearing flak jackets with the word “Press” prominently displayed on the back. Murtaja had recently received a $12,000 grant from the U.S. State Department in appreciation of his professional work. Another journalist, Ahmed Muhammad Abu Hussain, who was shot at in northern Gaza, was in a critical condition. He was also wearing a jacket with the word “Press” displayed prominently.

Lieberman defended the security forces’ action by stating that Murtaja was a Hamas sympathiser. The Israeli media said the allegation was baseless. “Wonderful Gaza journalist, Yasser Murtaja, was assaulted by Hamas in 2015, vetted by the U.S. govt. for aid, killed when reporting by an Israeli sniper, then smeared by Defence Minister Lieberman,” wrote Jan Egeland, the Norwegian diplomat who helped broker the Oslo Accords, on his Twitter account. Meanwhile, the Israeli authorities confirmed as authentic the video that showed Israeli soldiers cheering as snipers shot at unarmed Palestinian demonstrators.

Most of the Palestinians who were protesting, according to reports from the ground, were in fact critical of both the Hamas and Fatah leaderships. Palestinians want the two parties to reconcile their positions and put up a united front against the Israeli occupation. The Fatah leadership, which runs the West Bank, has become increasingly unpopular even as the promise of genuine Palestinian statehood looks bleak. The recent spate of killings was the worst Gaza has witnessed since the 2014 Israeli army attack on the enclave, which claimed the lives of over 1,400 Gazans, including a large number of children. Israel has not been held accountable by the international community either for the 2014 killings or for the 2008 invasion of Gaza, which caused even more civilian casualties.

Leading international political figures criticised the brutal Israeli response to the Palestinians’ protests. In the United Kingdom, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn criticised “the silence from international powers” on “the illegal and inhumane actions” of Israel. He demanded that the British government support the call by the United Nations for an independent international inquiry into reports that Israeli soldiers fired “live ammunition into crowds of unarmed civilians”.

Very few mainstream politicians in Europe dared to criticise Israel. There were a few exceptions like the French politician Jean-Luc Melenchon. Even legitimate criticism of Israel is considered anti-Semitism in the highly charged politics of Europe, where the sceptre of racism looms.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, in a letter to his fellow lawmakers, urged the Trump administration to take steps “to improve the economic and humanitarian conditions in Gaza in the light of the recent violence of the Gaza-Israel border”. Sanders, while blaming Hamas for allegedly encouraging the protesters, said that despite Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, “its continuing control of Gaza’s air, sea and northern, eastern and southern borders, and its restrictions on the freedom of movement of the people, legitimate goods and equipment, in and out of Gaza, have made the humanitarian situation worse”. Another Liberal Democratic politician, Elizabeth Warren, while expressing her “deep concerns” over the civilian deaths, said that Israeli defence forces “should exercise restraint and respect the rights of the Palestinian people to peacefully protest”.

Double standards

Far fewer people have been killed in the alleged poison attack in the Syrian city of Douma than in occupied Palestine. But the U.S. and its two North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies did not think twice before targeting Syria with missiles and bombs. There are obviously double standards at play in international politics. Despite the serial disregard for international law shown by the government of Israel, it enjoys absolute impunity.

“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,” Eric Goldstein, a deputy director of the Human Rights Watch (HRW), Middle East and Africa Division, said. The HRW has confirmed that no firearms were used by the Palestinian demonstrators and also that there was no truth to the Israeli army’s “claim of threatened firearm use at the demonstrations”. The role of the Western media in covering the recent protests was pathetic. Most of their outlets preferred to describe the peaceful protests as “a clash” between Palestinians and Israelis along the Gaza border. The U.N. warned that the use of live fire against unarmed civilians constituted wilful killing and was a grave violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Under the convention, an occupying power has the legal responsibility to protect the lives of those living under occupation. Any grave breach of this convention constitutes a war crime. In its 70-year history, Israel has been a repeat offender in this aspect and has gone scot-free.

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