Opinion

Why Is Israel Using Lethal Force Against the Protesters of Gaza?

When Hamas sends young demonstrators towards a firing squad, that doesn’t mean Israel has to keep pulling the trigger

Smoke rises as Israeli soldiers are seen on the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip, Israel, May 14, 2018.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

The loss of life in Gaza at the ends of Israeli army snipers is not only gruesome, it’s reprehensible – because lethal force is not the only way to confront protesters.

We in America know that from our own history.

We’ve been thinking a lot about civil rights in America,recently. Last month marked 50 years since the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act.

In the year-and-a-half since Donald Trump was elected, we’ve seen a resurgence of racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic incidents, and signs of white supremacist groups moving out of the shadows and into town squares not en masse, but enough to make us realize that America remains rife with racism.

When most Americans look back on how police dealt with civil rights protesters in the 1960s, particularly African-Americans, it’s with a wince and a degree of shame. Water cannons turned on demonstrators were a degrading and painful way to beat back crowds. The blunt force of the water sometimes caused facial fractures, lost eyes and forced falls that led to other injuries.

But rarely death. 

Perhaps the Israel Defense Forces ought to give it a try as a tool of crowd control. After all, spraying a few thousand protesters on the Gaza border with water might knock down dozens of angry young men, douse tire fires, and cause a concussion or two, but it wouldn’t cause 60 deaths in one day.

In many countries from Chile to India, water cannons are a standard tool for non-lethal crowd control, sometimes used with colored water used to "tag" participants for later prosecution. 

There are a myriad of other methods of riot containment that are used worldwide and generally don’t result in scores of deaths. Why the Israeli army hasn’t employed them up to now is a troubling moral question. 

Palestinians carry a demonstrator injured during clashes with Israeli forces near the border between the Gaza strip and Israel east of Gaza City on May 14, 2018.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

It’s simply unacceptable that the same Israel that prides itself on innovation and ingenuity - cannot find a better way to stop thousands of Gazans threatening to overrun the border than to open fire on them with live ammunition.

Those technological achievements were, ironically, being lauded by Jared Kushner himself as he spoke at the U.S. embassy opening, while live fire was being used on Gazans. 

I know, I know. It’s considered politically incorrect for me, as an American Jew who spent 15 years of my life in Israel and has recently returned to whence I came, to pass judgment on anything the IDF does.

How dare I? How dare you? How dare anyone who doesn’t live in Israel, who doesn’t live in a community bordering Gaza, who isn’t serving on the front lines right now, suggest we know the first thing about how to contain a riot or respond to a terrorist threat?

So if you’re offended by the very notion that I dare say these things, it won’t matter that I’ve witnessed massive protests in a few different countries on this planet, and feel confident that there is more than one way to contain an angry crowd. 

I recognize that this is a flawed analogy on many levels. Mahmoud Abbas is no MLK and Ismail Haniyeh is no Mahatma Gandhi. 

In fact, one Palestinian I spoke with yesterday thought the model used by Jerusalemites and West Bankers on the Temple Mount last summer - daily prayer protests in the streets calling on the Netanyahu government to remove metal detectors placed at the entrance to the al-Aqsa Mosque - were far more effective, engendering international attention while largely remaining nonviolent. 

Palestinians clash with with Israeli forces near the border between the Gaza strip and Israel east of Gaza City on May 14, 2018, as Palestinians protest over the inauguration of the US embassy following its controversial move to Jerusalem.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

Protesters in Gaza lobbing rocks and Molotov cocktails or cutting through the fence are far from the textbook definition of "peaceful protesters" engaging in civil disobedience.

But neither do they present a lethal threat to 13 battalions of Israel army forces.

Indeed, to call every teenage protester a terrorist recruited by Hamas bent on murdering Israelis flies in the face of truth. For Jared Kushner to say, in the day’s sole mention of the day’s accumulating death toll, that Gazan protestors were "part of the problem, and not part of the solution” is to fail to recognize that Gazans themselves - yes, flesh and blood humans living just over hour southwest of Tel Aviv - must be part of the solution. 

The feeling of being forgotten and caged in is part of the reason they are protesting, most of them with full knowledge that reaching the homes of their grandparents, rusty old keys in hand, is a symbolic show rather than a realistic goal. 

Do we really imagine this so-called "March of Return" to be an existential threat to the strongest army in the Middle East? Demonstrators might be wild with rage and even psyched up by Hamas slogans, but they’re not armed and equipped to take on Israel. 

Are we to the point where the IDF is more worried about the optics of setting a precedent – a Gazan reaching Israeli soil – than the loss of life?

Hamas may as well be sending young demonstrators into a firing squad. But does that mean Israel has no choice but to keep pulling the trigger? 

Ilene Prusher is a journalist, columnist and author. She teaches journalism at Florida Atlantic University. Twitter: @ileneprusher