Analysis |

Why Comparing the Mexican and Gaza Borders Is Irresistible, but Dangerous

The comparison does little more than score political points, and by fanning the already-high level of rhetorical flames, may actually be making matters worse

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A migrant family, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America to the United States, run away from tear gas in front of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018.
A migrant family runs away from tear gas in front of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018.Credit: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

For both critics and supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, the visual similarities of Sunday’s drama in Tijuana and the ongoing unrest on the Gaza border have been impossible to ignore.

A Palestinian protester carries a boy as he runs from tear gas fired by Israeli soldiers during a protest, Israel-Gaza border, September 10, 2018.Credit: Felipe Dana,AP

Ever since the confrontation on the U.S.-Mexico border, both left and right have taken to social media, invoking the specter of Gaza to bolster their arguments and strengthen their accusations.                          

The optics have been, at times, nearly identical. On one side of a border fence, huge crowds of civilians – men, women and children – protest, while a smaller, more daring group of individuals approaches the fence directly, attempt to penetrate it and force their way through. In both cases, armed police and military troops have repelled the protests and attempts to cross the border, using tear gas, causing the crowds to flee, eyes burning in pain.

And so, comparisons have been irresistible. For critics on the left, the way in which the U.S. government’s behavior resembles Israel’s is a brutality and disregard for the lives of civilian demonstrators, representative of the similarly inhumane policies of Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many of them stress that the Israeli response in Gaza has gone well beyond tear gas and even rubber bullets, and into the realm of lethal force.  

The pro-Trump right, for its part, equates the migrants to the Palestinians in an effort to depict them as unsympathetic, hostile actors, not mere protesters or desperate asylum seekers. They point to their rock-throwing as evidence of their violence and a justification for the use of deadly force to suppress them. As in the case of the Gaza protests, they argue that if parents choose to bring their children into such situations, the fate that befalls them is their own fault, not that of the forces protecting their country’s border.

One video being circulated in conservative social media groups shows the migrants in Tijuana supposedly detonating an explosive device near the fence.


In reality, the two situations are as different in circumstance as they are distant geographically. The Gaza demonstrations have been taking place weekly for the past eight months – with a death toll of more than 200 and thousands injured – in an ongoing campaign that its organizers originally dubbed the Great March of Return. The basis for the protests is a demand that Palestinians be allowed to return to the land in Israel from which they were displaced. The protests were initiated by independent activists but supported and encouraged by the Hamas regime, which uses the protests – which involve rock-throwing, tire burning and firebombs – as leverage to push for easing of the Israeli blockade and improvement of Gaza's desperate living conditions.

Those demonstrating on the Mexican border aren’t protesting their displacement or oppression by the country they are trying to enter. The Central American migrants, desperate as they may be, aren’t expressing frustration over a decades-long conflict. They are upset over change: The tightening new criteria imposed by the Trump administration that are making it far more difficult for them to seek asylum in the United States – a country that once professed to welcome those fleeing oppression.

And Mexico is no Gaza. As the confrontation continues to disrupt vital cross-border commerce, the Mexican government wants it to calm down, not escalate. To that end, it has done what it can to try to keep the protesting migrants away from the border, often making its own police force the target of the migrants’ anger.

To be sure, in the past, the Israeli government hasn’t been immune from drawing comparisons when doing so has served its interests. Early in Trump’s presidency, Netanyahu expressed enthusiastic support for Trump’s desire to build a wall on the southern border of the United States, saying a wall on Israel's southern border has been a “great success” in combating illegal immigration.

Last summer, when U.S. Secretary for Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen visited Israel, her counterpart, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, pointed out ways in which the United States could learn from Israel’s experiences, taking Nielsen on a tour of Israel’s high-tech fences both on the Egyptian border and the border with Gaza. Nielsen said in a Jerusalem speech: “Border security is national security. Our Israeli partners know that better than anyone, and I was fortunate today to see the incredible work they’re doing to keep their territory and citizens safe.”

And, sympathetic to Israel’s desire to keep its borders secured, Trump and his administration have noticeably refrained from condemning the Jewish state for its use of deadly force against the Gaza protests, unlike most  other countries and international bodies in the West. In May, the Americans blocked a UN Security Council call for an investigation into the deaths of protesters at the border. 

Trump’s language has sought to frame the migration situation as a military confrontation. Earlier this month, Trump said that migrants attempting to “violently overrun” the border were “like an invasion.” Noting that rocks had been thrown at Mexican police during confrontation, the U.S. president warned that if rocks were thrown at U.S. forces, he would view the rock-throwing like “a firearm” or “a rifle,” and said that “if they want to throw rocks at our military, we’re going to fight back.” Should Trump make good on his threats and use live fire against those crossing the border, as he clearly would like to do, the visual resemblance to Gaza will only grow.

Still, as temptingly similar as the optics may appear, the ongoing comparison between the migrant crisis and the Israel-Gaza confrontation does little more than score political points. It does little to help resolve the situation on the southern border of the United States – or Gaza, for that matter. And by fanning the already-high level of rhetorical flames by dragging the Middle East into a domestic U.S. crisis, it may only be making things worse.

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