For the first time in a long while, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took a central place over the weekend in international media news reports. Israeli spokespersons did supply evidence of Hamas militants trying to breach the border fence in Gaza under the guise of a supposedly popular protest, but Western opinion makers preferred the viral video of a Palestinian teen getting shot in the back and an overarching narrative of despondent Gazans protesting their oppression and blockade. Fifteen Palestinians were killed, hundreds were injured and the fence remained intact, but in the battlefield of propaganda, Hamas scored a victory.
Future developments are also in the hands of the Islamic organization. The more Hamas persists with the “March of the Million,” as it has been dubbed, and the more it succeeds in separating the protests from acts of violence and terror, the more it will succeed in defying and embarrassing Israel as well as Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. If commanders of the Israel Defense Forces don’t find a way to repel efforts to breach the fence without causing so many casualties, Israel’s predicament will grow exponentially. Friday’s day of bloodshed may be quickly forgotten if it remains a solitary event, but if the bloodshed recurs over and over during the six-week campaign that is slated to culminate on the Palestinian Nakba Day in mid-May, the international community will be forced to refocus its attentions on the conflict. Criticism of, and pressure on, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has virtually evaporated in recent months, could return with a vengeance.
The working assumption on the Israeli side is that terror and violence are an inherent part of Hamas’ self-identity; the Islamist group is supposedly incapable of suspending its “armed struggle,” even temporarily. If this is the case, Israel’s distress will soon pass and Hamas will squander the advantages it gained in the mass skirmishes near the fence. If the Israeli conception turns out to be wrong, however, and Hamas proves itself capable of tactical discipline and restraint, it could manufacture what has always been Israel’s hasbara nightmare: Mass, nonviolent Palestinian protests that compel the IDF to kill and maim unarmed civilians. Analogies to Mahatma Gandhi, apartheid South Africa and even the struggle for civil rights in America, superficial and preposterous as they may be, will frame the next stage of the Palestinian struggle.
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The immediate support of the Trump administration, expressed in a Passover-eve tweet by special envoy Jason Greenblatt, who lambasted Hamas incitement and its “hostile march,” is ostensibly a positive development from Israel’s point of view. Contrary to Trump, Barack Obama would have been quick to criticize what is being widely described as Israel’s excessive use of force, and might have conferred with Western European countries on a proper diplomatic response. Israel welcomes and Netanyahu often extols its unparalleled coordination with the Trump administration, but it could also turn out to be a double-edged sword, which will only make things worse.
Trump, after all, is one of the most despised U.S. presidents in modern history, in Western public opinion in general and among American liberals in particular. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his decision to move the U.S. Embassy there are widely perceived as contributing to Palestinians frustration and sense of isolation. As long as Israel maintains a low profile and doesn’t star in negative news headlines, its intimate relations with Trump cause only marginal damage; in times of crisis, however, the damage can be substantial. The criticism that would have been leveled at Israel in the wake of “Bloody Friday” in any case is fueled by widespread resentment of Trump and his policies - and by a wish to punish his favorites. The more the U.S. administration defends Israel’s unpopular actions, the more its critics, including American liberals, will treat Trump and Netanyahu as one unsavory package.
The unqualified U.S. support strengthens the resolve of Netanyahu and his ministers to stick with their do-nothing polices toward both Gaza and the peace process. Most Israelis view Hamas purely as a terror organization, and their gut reaction is that Israel can’t and shouldn’t be perceived as caving in to terror and violence. At a time when early elections seem just beyond the horizon, the last thing Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition wants to do is deviate from its established policies, which would be tantamount to admitting the error of its ways. Calls from the left to review the IDF’s conduct in Gaza and reassess Netanyahu’s policies toward the Palestinians overall could bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back to the center of public discourse after an extended absence, but will also provide the prime minister with an excuse - as if he needs one - to divert attention away from the crisis in Gaza to backstabbing internal enemies from within.
The Book of Hosea, however, taught us “He who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind.” Israel’s ongoing diplomatic paralysis on the Palestinian issue and its misguided belief that the status quo can be maintained indefinitely provided the opening for Hamas’ propaganda coup: The Islamist group can suddenly see light at the end of the tunnels that the IDF is systematically destroying. Hamas may shed crocodile tears over the dead and injured, but even if their numbers are doubled and tripled over the next few days, it is a small price to pay for resuscitating its prominence and for pushing both Netanyahu and Abbas into a corner. The fact that Jerusalem maneuvered itself into a position in which a proven terrorist group that still dreams of destroying “the Zionist entity” can outmaneuver Israel in the court of public opinion and cast it as malevolent occupier with an itchy trigger finger is a monumental failure, one that can only get worse as long as Netanyahu and his government prefer to entrench themselves in their obtuse self-righteousness.
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