The Israeli army has killed 44 Palestinians, and injured hundreds more, after Israeli Defence Force (IDF) snipers opened fire on demonstrations on Israel’s border with the Palestinian territory of Gaza, on Fridays between 30 March and 27 April.
One protestor, 18-year-old Abdel Fattah Abdel Nabi, was shot in the back as he turned to flee IDF fire. Another victim was Gazan journalist Yaser Murtaja, killed by a bullet to the abdomen underneath his bullet-proof vest clearly marking him out as a member of the press.
While the bulk of both demonstrations have been peaceful and unarmed, some Palestinians have thrown rocks and molotov cocktails. The 6 April demonstration saw large-scale burning of tires by Palestinian demonstrators. There is no suggestion however that there was any immediate or significant threat to any IDF positions along the border, which had been heavily reinforced in the days and weeks leading up to the demonstration. The IDF has not reported any casualties.
Hamas, the clerical-fascist paramilitary party which rules Gaza, has said five of those killed on 30 March were members of its military wing. Israel claims 10 were.
The fundamental dynamic of the situation is clear: a heavily-armed and sophisticated military power using deadly force against largely peaceful protesters. Anyone who believes in universal human rights and basic freedoms — freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, the right to self-determination — must unreservedly and unconditionally condemn this brutality. The IDF’s use of live rounds against demonstrations has become an increasingly common practice.
Around 30,000 Palestinians participated in the 30 March protest, with around 20,000 on 6 April.
The demonstrations are “Marches for Return”, a planned series of events leading up to 15 May, the day the Palestinians memorialise the “Nakba” (Catastrophe) — the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes by the fledgling state of Israel around the war immediately following its foundation.
The march was conceived by the organisers, at least in significant part, as demanding the full-scale “right of return” — the right of all those Palestinians who were expelled or fled in 1948, and their descendants, to reclaim their land and houses from the Israelis now living there.
Workers’ Liberty has opposed the “right of return” slogan, conceived of as a demand to reverse the history of Israel’s creation in 1948. We have argued that a two-states settlement, eventually with free movement and open borders between them, are a better means of securing justice for the Palestinians, including the refugees, on a consistently-democratic basis that guarantees rights for both national groups in the region.
Whatever one’s attitude to the precise demands of the march, the IDF’s murderous response was not justifiable.
In an interview in the Israeli-Palestinian leftist website 972, Hasan al-Kurd, one of the organisers of the march, responded to a question about the possibility of Israeli retaliating to the march with deadly force: “Of course that’s a possibility, unfortunately. But what other options do we have? The situation in Gaza has become unbearable and we absolutely can’t live in Gaza any more — that’s what prompted us to plan this march and that’s why we anticipate so many people to attend the protest.”
Al-Kurd said the organisers wanted the demonstration to be peaceful: “We want families. We want to send a message that we want to live in peace — with the Israelis. We’re against stone throwing or even burning tires. We will make sure the protest doesn’t escalate to violence — at least from our end.”
His words now have a particularly tragic resonance. Even if one concludes that the instances of the throwing of stones and molotov cocktails (or even the tire burning) which did take place show that the organisers failed in their aspiration to keep the demonstration peaceful, there is no sense in which the IDF’s response is proportionate or justifiable.
Although, according to al-Kurd, only two of the demonstrations’ organising committee were Hamas affiliates, its authoritarian political control within Gaza means it cannot but have had a key role in shaping the demonstrations.
Although Hamas revised its charter last year to suggest the possibility of some accommodation with Israel, it also has a new leader, Yahya Sinwar, keen to take action to consolidate his position.
At a protest in Khan Younis on 6 April, Sinwar said the world should “wait for our great move, when we breach the border and pray at al-Aqsa”. Sinwar’s predecessor as Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, addressed protesters after the 30 March demonstration, saying, “we will not concede a single inch of the land of Palestine and do not recognise the Israeli entity.”
Despite the changes to its charter, Haniyeh’s statement reflects Hamas’s historic programme for the destruction of Israel and the creation of a theocratic Islamic state in the whole of historic Palestine.
Hamas’s role does not, of course, justify the brutality of the IDF’s response. Even if taken on its own terms, the IDF narrative that the demonstrators were consciously marching for the destruction of Israel and its replacement with an Islamic state, does not justify deadly and manifestly disproportionate actions.
The Israeli military establishment cannot see into the minds and hearts of tens of thousands of Palestinians. Many participants in the marches will surely have been motivated by a basic desire to protest against the strangulation of Gaza, and for basic rights of freer movement in the here-and-now.
While Israel no longer operates direct military control of Gaza, it has continued a blockade that has strangled economic and social life for its residents.
The Egyptian state also blockades the Rafah crossing; al-Kurd described Egypt as “part of the siege”. Israel has repeatedly launched aerial assaults on Gaza; its “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014 is estimated to have killed over 2,000 Palestinians. Its relationship to the Palestinians is that of a colonial power to a colonised people. Racist discrimination against Arabs within Israel’s borders is rife.
None of that is answered simply by pointing to Hamas. Hamas is an unquestionably a reactionary force, which frequently exercises its power in Gaza through violent authoritarianism. The rockets launched at Israeli towns near the Gaza border, such as Sderot, by fighters linked to Hamas and other Islamist factions are reactionary attacks designed to hit the civilian population. But Hamas, even with the backing of its regional-imperialist ally Iran, is calculably not in a position to launch the war of invasion and conquest against Israel that figures on the Israeli right tacitly suggest the “March for Return” heralds.
It is the brutalisation of the Palestinians by Israel that has created the conditions in which Hamas’s militant Islamic chauvinism can take hold, as what seems to many the best and most immediate defence and response to unbearable conditions of existence. The Israeli state’s ongoing refusal to entertain the possibility of direct negotiations with Hamas are an obstacle to peace; its insistence that any expression of self-organisation, or demands for basic rights, by Gazans are merely a cat’s paw for the programme of Hamas serves only to aid Hamas in consolidating its power. Indeed, one dynamic behind the demonstrations is an attempt by Hamas to boost its own standing within Gaza, by appearing to take action against Israel and, in doing so, deflect discontent with its own rule. A September 2017 opinion poll conducted by the Palestine Centre for Policy and Survey Research showed Hamas’s support within Gaza standing at just 31%. By its actions, Israel has surely guaranteed that this support will surge.
There is also discontent within Israel. The police have recommended the indictment of hard-right Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for corruption.
Increasingly, Netanyahu appears to be attempting to become an Israeli analogue of both Trump and Putin, running an authoritarian, virulently chauvinist regime. He has recently accused the New Israel Fund, a liberal NGO, of being part of a plot by George Soros, the billionaire Hungarian-Jewish philanthropist. Soros conspiracy theories are a stock-in-trade of the antisemitic far-right. Donations to the New Israel Fund surged after Netanyahu’s comments, with over NIS250,000 pouring in.
A strong internationalist movement within Israel itself, challenging its government’s colonial and racist policies, is vital for the future freedom and security of Israeli themselves. As Marx put it, when discussing Britain’s historic relationship to Ireland, “a nation that oppresses another forges its own chains.”
Socialists and internationalists throughout the world must stand in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and against all acts of brutality and violence by the Israeli military. Every Palestinian murdered by the IDF expresses and perpetuates the poison of colonialism.
Only a settlement based on the immediate establishment of a viably independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, and an end to the occupation regime of military checkpoints and border walls, can provide the basis for future peace and closer federation.