Analysis

With Riots and Live Fire, Gaza Just Went 25 Years Back in Time

The new situation on the Israel-Gaza border has the potential makings of a third intifada. But is there will on the Palestinian side?

Palestinians shout during clashes with Israeli troops during mass protests along the Israel-Gaza border, March 30, 2018.
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

Gaza has come a long way from the last time it was just Palestinian protesters against Israeli snipers. In April 1993, the Israel Defense Forces made a decision to go back to using live fire against Palestinian protesters – or rioters – in the Strip. It was over six years since the first intifada had begun and the army had been spending much of that time looking for more effective and less lethal means of controlling violent demonstrations.

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In the first weeks of the Palestinian uprising, dozens had been killed by soldiers who were still using live bullets. Then the army received the infamous order from Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin to “break their hands and legs” and troops were issued wooden clubs. That didn’t work so well either, as cases of cruel beatings, and in some cases to death, soon appeared. Israel’s defense industries came up with pebble-shooting cannons and all manners of strap-ons for a regular assault rifle barrel, allowing it to fire rubber pellets and tear-gas grenades.

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Just like security forces in other parts of the world, the IDF learned that non-lethal riot-control tools can also kill, and while they can push back most of the crowd, they quickly lose their effectiveness against increasing numbers of more determined individuals. Veteran protesters (and during the intifada, 16-year olds became veterans very quickly) who have been teargassed dozens of times know how to take care of their eyes and noses in order to minimize the effects, while standard infantry rifles are not made to fire rubber-coated bullets accurately – at short range, they can kill as well.

With the first intifada in its seventh year, the army decided to ease the rule specifying that live ammunition could be used only in life-threatening circumstances – not for everyone, just officers and specially-trained snipers with telescopic sights on their weapons. They were positioned in lookout posts above streets where violent protests were taking place, with orders to shoot at the legs of the “main troublemakers.”

Relatives of Ibrahim Abu Shaer, killed a day earlier by Israeli forces when clashes erupted on the Gaza-Israeli border, mourn at his funeral in Rafah, March 31, 2018.
SAID KHATIB/AFP

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The result was a short spike in fatalities - shooting live bullets into a fast-moving crowd, surrounded by clouds of tear gas, smoke and dust, even when using selective fire and trying very hard to aim at the lower half of the target’s body, will always cause deaths. But the level of violence went down, though it was more likely due to a general fatigue of the Palestinian population. The intifada had gone through its last throes of violence and was petering out by the time Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the first of the agreements that would become the Oslo Accords on September 9, 1993.

No serious research was carried out on the effectiveness of live fire as a riot-control method and none really needs to be: Bullets are made for killing, and no serious military official believes otherwise. Twenty-five years after that short and inconclusive exercise, the IDF once again found itself facing Palestinians in Gaza in similar circumstances on Friday.

After all that happened in Gaza over a quarter of a century, not least the doubling of the population and the increasing isolation and impoverishment in the enclave, Friday saw echoes of the first intifada. The Palestinian Authority took over in 1994, Israel dismantled its settlements and pulled out entirely in 2005 and Hamas wrested control in a bloody coup. The second intifada – the waves of violence over that time – was not a “poplar uprising” like the first one but an armed insurgency. Then came Israel’s military campaigns in 2005, 2008-9, 2012 and 2014, which were much more devastating than anything seen during the intifadas. Hamas and Islamic Jihad built up their rocket arsenals and dug tunnel networks. But these have now been rendered obsolete by the Iron Dome air defense system and the new underground barrier. Hamas is back to square one, isolated like never before in the Arab world.

There were three main scenarios for Friday’s events. The best one, at least from Israel’s perspective, would have been a mass protest a few hundred meters from the border fence, without anyone getting too close. The worst case, for which large forces were prepared, was a mass storming of the fence. What actually happened was something in between. Standing on the Israeli side, less than a kilometer away, it was quite clear that three interconnected events were taking place simultaneously.

The large majority of the nearly 30,000 Palestinian protesters was groups of families who remained around 500 meters from the fence, around the tents that had been pitched on high ground, out of harm’s way. Some of them ventured as far as the dirt road, just outside the 300-meter range. That was the “peaceful demonstration.” But the narrative of a non-violent event eroded closer to the border.

Much smaller groups consisting mainly of young men, some throwing stones and rolling burning tires, pushed forward toward the fence. These were met mainly by tear gas grenades dropped from mini-drones. And every few minutes, individuals darted forward to reach the fence and other border installations, trying to wreck them or set them alight, and were hit by sniper fire.

In the first hours of the clashes, as the army assessed the situation, it was clear that there were not going to be masses at the fence, but there would still be plenty of violence. “Hamas want to boost the number of casualties,” one senior IDF general told me, “but they’re not going to go all the way either. They’re building it up to peak on May 15.” At the time, two deaths had been reported.

No one had any doubt that whoever went into the zone 200 to 300 meters from the fence would get hurt. Badly. The IDF snipers had orders to aim for ankles, and only shoot to kill at individuals with weapons. How closely they all adhered to the orders is unclear. Footage from the scene shows that in at least a handful of cases, Palestinians were also shot when trying to run out of the buffer zone, and there are those who claim to have been shot farther away. But it was clear that even if Israeli soldiers scrupulously stuck to the rules of engagement, with the policy of firing at anyone in the zone, the number of casualties would be a result of how many tried to get into it.

Is using live fire at Palestinians trying to get close to the fence justified? Is it effective? From the IDF’s perspective, it is defending a sovereign border: Anyone trying to sabotage it has been warned and is committing an act of violence. But the argument that can be made about justification is superfluous as long as there are young Palestinian men willing to risk their lives doing so, whether on their own initiative or as members of Hamas.

In the short term, both sides feel they are ahead. Israel prevented damage to the border and there was no interference to civilian life on the Israeli side. But the army has tied down a significant number of units and troops and will continue doing so as long as the Palestinians keep up the demonstrations. And the IDF is once again having to face the dilemma of whether to use its overwhelming firepower to achieve results, no matter how high the casualties may get.

Senior Israeli intelligence analysts now believe that Hamas has already reached the conclusion that since it will always be outgunned by Israeli arms and technology, its investment in rockets and tunnels has proven to be worthless – not to mention the suffering that their use has caused the Palestinians due to Israel’s retaliatory attacks.

If that is indeed the case, then Hamas made a breakthrough Friday. They have found an old-new way to challenge Israel, and from the narrative emerging from the international media so far, succeeded in conflating the peaceful demonstration of the majority that held back with the much less peaceful rioting nearer the fence.

Will this be enough to draw the world’s attention back to Gaza at a time that other more compelling dramas are happening elsewhere? It certainly won’t be enough if it remains a one-off event, or even a repeat occurrence over the next few Fridays and a similar-sized protest on Nakba Day on May 15. The ultimate test will be whether it continues into the summer and develops into something resembling the first intifada, only this time on the borders of Gaza instead of within the Strip.

As of Saturday afternoon, there were no major follow-up protests and the estimated 30,000 who turned up Friday – less than two percent of Gaza’s tired population – doesn’t indicate a massive appetite for a new uprising. If Friday’s events repeat themselves, there are the potential makings of a third intifada. But Hamas and other organizations that would like to see that happen just don’t seem to have the support right now.