Analysis

Killing of Gaza Protesters Undermines Israel's Claims of Self-defense

Tensions in north, West Bank and Gaza likely to continue until mid-May – when they converge ■ In the meantime, Iran continues to threaten Israel

Palestinian medics evacuate a wounded protester during clashes with Israeli forces on April 20, 2018, east of Gaza City, in the southern Gaza Strip during mass protests along the border of the Palestinian enclave, dubbed "The Great March of Return," which has the backing of Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

The week of Independence Day events, despite the many warnings and security forces on heightened alert, went by without unusual attempts at terror attacks. The Israelis were free to squabble among themselves about the character of the torch-lighting ceremony and the insult from the latest cancellation from Hollywood.

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But the period of security tensions isn’t really behind us. Iran’s warning of an attempt to settle accounts for the attack attributed to Israel in Syria still stands. Meanwhile, in mid-May a cluster of events is expected: the possible American announcement of a withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement, the inauguration of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, and right after that, the Palestinians’ marking of the 70th anniversary of the Nakba. All these will require heightened preparedness.

Israeli security officials haven’t sounded the all-clear regarding Iran, because the matter seems far from concluded. Tehran continues to threaten Israel, while Israeli media outlets have reported on the extent of the military infrastructure installed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria.

Meanwhile, according to apparently reliable information from American sources, The Wall Street Journal reported that the attack on Syria’s T4 base on April 9 also damaged advanced Iranian anti-aircraft systems, in addition to killing seven members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The delay in response despite continued Iranian threats could be tactical. But other considerations are apparently at work, including Tehran’s uncertainty over the Trump administration’s final decision on the agreement and what appears to be Israel's resolve to escalate the conflict in Syria if the Netanyahu government deems it necessary. Either way, nervousness in the north continues, even if some of the incidents (such as the mistaken automated phone call to an elite unit’s reservists during the holiday) have been coincidental.

Meanwhile, Hamas and Islamic Jihad blamed the Mossad for the shooting death Saturday of Hamas’ Fadi al-Batash, an engineer from the Gaza Strip, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Israel as usual refused to respond to the accusations. This operation recalls the assassination of the Palestinian engineer shot to death in Tunisia in December 2016. In retrospect, it turned out that he had been involved in drone tests for Hamas in the Strip. This action was also attributed to Israel.

A recurring pattern can be seen here to thwart two Hamas-led efforts in Gaza: improving the organization’s technological capabilities and the attempt at remote-controlled terror in the West Bank. (In March 2017, Mazen Fuqaha, a senior figure in this effort, was shot to death with a pistol on the Gaza beach.) If Israelis are indeed involved in thwarting these efforts, as Hamas claims, it seems they’re part of the “battle between the wars” waged in recent years against Hezbollah. Each operation denies the Palestinian organizations progress that could cost Israeli lives, whether between conflicts or in the next round of fighting in Gaza.

The Palestinian accusations against Israel haven’t yet been accompanied by rocket fire from Gaza. The rising number of Palestinians killed by Israeli army sharpshooters in the weekend demonstrations at the border fence haven’t yet been responded to with rockets. This shows that Hamas is closely controlling events in the Strip, but it also reveals a clear goal: The protests are being marketed to the international community as a spontaneous, civilian protest.

Rocket fire could invite an Israeli military response that could quickly escalate. In contrast, the killing of civilians sparks international criticism and calls into question the Israeli claim of protecting Israel’s sovereignty from a Hamas-planned mass breach of the fence.

The death of a Palestinian photographer two weeks ago stirred criticism, which was raised again Friday when among the four killed was a 15-year-old boy whose killing by a sharpshooter was caught on video. The incident provoked an immediate condemnation by the UN special coordinator for the Middle East, Nikolay Mladenov, who posted on his Twitter account: “It is outrageous to shoot at children.” Unusually, even the U.S. administration commented on the incident, albeit in the spirit of the current president, with a statement by U.S. Ambassador Jason Greenblatt that Israel would investigate the shooting.

All this and the approximately three dozen Palestinians killed and many hundreds wounded during the incidents since late March still haven’t put Israel in any real distress. And the number of protesters is declining. This time the army counted 10,000 Palestinians, less than half the number a few weeks ago.

Demonstrations slated for Tuesday April 17, “Prisoners’ Day,” were canceled after it appeared that not enough protesters would come. Maintaining tension along the fence, backed up from time to time by the laying of explosives, creates constant friction with the army and releases Hamas from criticism at home because of the gloomy Gaza economy and suspended reconciliation talks with the Palestinian Authority.

Meanwhile, the West Bank has responded with extraordinary indifference to the killings in Gaza. At the moment this is in the interest of the PA, which sees Hamas as a hostile adversary.

But the U.S. Embassy’s move to Jerusalem could upset the relative quiet in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. And extreme right-wing activists have renewed their vandalism of Palestinian property in the northern West Bank and in one case set fire to a mosque in the village of Akrabeh. Israeli security officials see this, too, as a possible contributor to an escalation.