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Letter from Jerusalem: The pressure-cooker called Gaza

A Palestinian woman protests at the Gaza border.

APRIL 12, 2018 – The high electric fence around the Gaza Strip is probably Israel’s most closely watched border.

It’s watched, of course, by the Israel Defense Forces, with constant military patrols, fortified observation posts, and day/night cameras in what otherwise would be blind spots. There are also efforts to monitor and block the tunnels being dug under the fence to send terrorists into Israel to kill and bring back hostages.

But the fence is also watched by much of the rest of world, as it’s a border that poses problems like none of Israel’s other frontiers, even that with Lebanon. These problems can easily become diplomatic and public relations nightmares owing to the fact that the Gaza Strip is part of the high-profile Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but also because it’s ruled by the hardline Islamic group Hamas and many of its residents live in poverty and squalor.

The IDF imposed a sea blockade and began to control its skies after terror groups, following the 2005 Israeli withdrawal, began using it to launch rockets and other projectiles rather than turn it into a productive enclave. This is why people say that Israel is still an “occupier” there – although to be fair, this school of thought would make Egypt an occupier, too, for the Egyptians sealed off their own border with Gaza, opening the sole crossing point at arbitrary intervals.

The Gazans dug their first tunnels beneath the Egyptian border to smuggle in goods. Eventually, these shipments contained weapons, including Iranian-made rockets with much longer range than those cobbled together in local machine shops. After pressure from Israel, the Egyptians undertook a major operation to find and destroy the tunnels.

There are several official crossing points between Israel and the Gaza Strip. One is mostly for people coming to Israel for work or medical treatment. The others have been mostly for the transfer in the opposite direction of food and other commodities, including construction materials and fuel.

Israeli authorities have often found explosives and weapons among these shipments. They also have noted relatively little reconstruction considering all the concrete and steel going into Gaza, leading to the conclusion that much of it is used instead in the construction of tunnels and preparation of rockets and other weapons.

This and rolling cycles of violence have led to crackdowns on the movement of goods and even the closing of crossing points: One has been sealed for years since Islamists attacked it. Right now, there’s just one crossing point for goods. Hence, the “open air prison” you often hear about.

Palestinians rioted at the Gaza border last week.

The world’s blame can realistically be spread among Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, usually with a heavy hand, as well as Egypt and Israel. But almost all of it is aimed only in one direction. Add to the mix the fact that Hamas and other Islamic groups are quite open about their intentions toward Israel – it must disappear, one way or the other – and it’s gotten to the point where many Israelis would love to saw off the enclave and let it drift out to sea to become someone else’s problem.

The recent violence along the border fence grew out of a grassroots protest planned by a group of Gazans.

The planners believed that bringing tens of thousands of fellow residents to tent cities near the border and then having them sing and chant and do whatever else protesters do – just without violence – would bring the world’s opprobriumcontempt down on Israel hard enough to make it relent on at least some of its closure policies. The choice of Fridays, however, raised the potential for violence, as Friday is the Muslim sabbath and a day on which imams regularly fire up the faithful with a fervor that is just as much political as it is pious (if not more so).

The protests would run for six weeks, leading up to what the Palestinians call Nakba Day. Nakba is Arabic for catastrophe, which is how they refer to Israel’s establishment, and Nakba Day is now marked each year on May 15, the Gregorian anniversary of the day after the State of Israel came into being.

It is being called the “the Great March of Return,” symbolizing the ironclad Palestinian demand that all living 1948 refugees and their descendants be allowed to settle in Israel, even if there’s a Palestinian state established alongside. The so-called right of return is something that outside powers trying to cajole the sides back to the negotiating table seem to overlook. Israel would never agree to it.

Eventually, Hamas and other hardline groups elbowed their way into the planning process. By the time the first March of Return took place on March 30, the armed groups made sure that their people, armed or not, would be among the crowds. According to the IDF, it didn’t take long for the first protesters to throw rocks and firebombs at the Israeli soldiers on the other side, and even to open fire and storm the fence. The soldiers, under orders to use crowd-dispersal techniques ranging from tear gas to live ammunition if the crowds came too close – orders made crystal clear to the Palestinians ahead of time – soon let loose.

The death toll among the protesters that day rose to around 15. Hamas proudly claimed that five belonged to one or another of its armed wings, while Israel put the number of members at 10. No Israeli casualties were reported.

No matter whose claims were right, it meant that at least five Palestinian civilians, probably unarmed, were among the dead, with hundreds more hurt, some seriously. Many appeared to be nowhere near the fence. With journalists on hand to record the clashes or distribute smartphone footage taken by protesters, respected people like UN Secretary-General António Guterres and even Pope Francis again spoke of disproportionate force by you-know-who.

For the following Friday, April 6, Gazans spent the week hauling in old tires, which they then set afire to create billows of black smoke to block the view of soldiers. Later in the afternoon, following Friday prayers, the more hardcore rebels showed up and approached the fence in several places. Surveillance videos show them either throwing firebombs or trying to breach the fence.

By nightfall, there were more dead and wounded, though the casualty count was lower – eight – than the previous week. It appears that at least some Palestinians knew this time Israel meant business. It also appears that the troops had been directed to keep their live fire to an absolute minimum. Immediately following what came to be known as “Tire Friday,” the Israeli authorities decided to halt the next shipment of tires into Gaza.

Clearly, like much of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the Gaza Strip is a no-win proposition for Israel. Just more so.

The enclave’s rulers are exceedingly frank: There can be no Israel. Rank and file Gazans are not likely to turn Hamas out of power anytime soon, whether out of genuine anti-Israel sentiment or fear of what would happen should they try to revolt or merely vote against it. (Elections aren’t in the cards as of now.) Even those who are willing to coexist with Israel – and there are probably many – can easily be manipulated to hate the Jewish state owing to their misery.

Because of the closures imposed on the territory, the term most frequently used for the Gaza Strip, besides open-air prison, is pressure cooker. Unless some form of compromise is reached that allows Gazans to live at least semi-normal lives – no one even dreams of a peace agreement with Hamas – it’s only natural that from time to time, the inevitable spike in pressure will cause a blowout, always in Israel’s face.

Lawrence Rifkin is a Jerusalem-based journalist. 

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