MAY 24, 2018, JERUSALEM – Much has been made in recent weeks about events along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, especially those of May 14, when more than 60 Palestinians were killed.
It’s not entirely unprecedented for Israeli soldiers to face off against civilians rushing a border fence.
On May 15, 2011, a few months after the beginning of Syria’s ongoing civil war, Syrian civilians trampled the border fence on the Golan Heights, ostensibly to mark 63 years since the nakba, what the Palestinians call the “catastrophe” of Israel’s creation. Four were shot and killed by IDF troops, and dozens more were wounded.
The border with Syria – or to be more exact, the ceasefire lines that emerged from the Yom Kippur War – had been Israel’s quietest frontier since the 1973 conflagration. But just three weeks later, on June 5, 2011, this time ostensibly to mark 44 years since the 1967 Six Day War, much larger crowds trampled the fence. The result was at least 20 dead, with scores more wounded.
The word “ostensibly” is important because while the dates may have coincided with those of historical events, many Middle East experts pointed to these episodes as attempts by Syrian leader Bashar Assad to deflect domestic attention from what was at the time a budding uprising he was already working with deadly diligence to contain.
It’s been much the same in the Gaza Strip: Living in misery? Look there, not here.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had backed away from what was supposed to be a unity agreement with Hamas that would bring much-needed funding, relief and governance to the enclave. And aside from headlines here and there, few people outside the region – and even within the region – seemed to care much anymore about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
It really doesn’t matter that the original idea to march on the Gaza Strip’s border fence on successive Fridays leading up to May 15 and Nakba Day came from a couple of rank and file Gazans who saw a non-violent wave of people posing a major dilemma for Israel while dramatizing the Palestinian demand for a right of return. And it doesn’t really matter that Hamas and other armed Islamist groups only later got in on the act by planting armed fighters among the crowds.
What matters is how it looked when, almost exactly seven years since the IDF killed those Syrians trampling the Golan Heights border fence, the death toll for a single day of confrontation along the Gaza fence passed 60, as if in the interim the Israeli military had learned nothing. What also matters is those split screens that showed the gleeful live shots at the opening of the new US Embassy in Jerusalem juxtaposed against scenes of the utter chaos taking place just 40 miles to the south.
Certainly, there are some Israelis who couldn’t care less about the fate of Gaza’s multitudes, much less the fate of those actively trying to do something they were warned not to do – because let’s face it, just one breach and you can have hundreds or even thousands of people wandering around Israeli population centers, at least some of them with terrible things in mind, and also the instruments to carry them out.
Yet many others were troubled by the death toll. After all, the IDF has non-lethal means of crowd control. There were even calls to bring in firefighting aircraft to douse the burning tires used to create the masks of black, choking smoke hiding those who made it to the fence and were cutting or even blasting their way through and at the same time exchanging live fire with Israeli troops. But for flame retardant to work and not disperse before hitting the ground, the aircraft have to fly at altitudes where they’re sitting ducks, even from small-caliber fire.
Then Hamas and Islamic Jihad came to the rescue by announcing that some 50 of the 62 people killed that day had been their operatives – meaning the vast majority of the dead had not been innocent civilians. Numerous reports surfaced saying that Hamas had exhorted people to rush the fence with knives and guns, claiming the barrier had already been breached and that the IDF was in retreat. Snapping out of their doldrums, people in Israel began questioning whether the fact that some of the dead or wounded over the weeks of marches had been young children wasn’t really just child abuse.
Clearly, the events on the border with the Gaza Strip played havoc with Israeli emotions. They also came at a time when Israel’s dotty but fun entry into the Eurovision Song Festival took home the grand prize, giving the week a truly manic edge.
Obviously, the events along the Gaza fence do not mean that some soldiers didn’t make poor and even punishable decisions. The head of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee also blamed the country’s public diplomacy array for being too slow, although he should know that whatever proof the IDF could muster as to what really went on had to be collated and interpreted. (Much of it consisted of footage from special-vision devices that cut through darkness and smoke; such footage requires serious analysis before it can be used for intelligence purposes, not to speak of clearing Israel’s name before the world.)
There is one heartening development – or non-development – in the story, and it is that Palestinians in the West Bank have for the most part failed to show solidarity with those in the Gaza Strip by staging marches or widespread rioting of their own. In addition, there remains the fact that the IDF has been able to prevent any breaches of the border fence.
The latter is of utmost importance if solely as a statement aimed at people across other borders who might wonder how the IDF would react to phalanxes of civilians (or at least people dressed like civilians) approaching fences no matter how bad it might make Israel look in the media. First and foremost, this means Syria, a country where anarchy is now giving way to a new and dangerous presence along Israel’s Golan frontier – the Islamic Republic of Iran.
When it comes to Iran or its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, the absolute last thing on Israel’s mind will be appearances.
Lawrence Rifkin is a journalist based in Jerusalem.