Opinion

Brute Force, Tear Gas and Tanks Can't Be Israel's Only Answer to Palestinian Marchers

Israel's flagged the drones, tear gas, sniper fire, even tanks it will employ against thousands of Palestinians planning to approach the Gaza border. But confronting a PR campaign with the language of force invites disaster

A Palestinian demonstrator hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes near Khan Yunis by the border fence between Israel and the southern Gaza Strip. March 23, 2018
SAID KHATIB/AFP

The Palestinians are planning and producing a huge PR event. The stage is set, and the curtain will be drawn this Friday, March 30th. Organizations in Gaza are initiating a series of events that will challenge Israel on the ground, physically and militarily, but their real intended target is the public arena.

As Israel organizes its own public relations opportunities in celebration of its 70 year anniversary, complete with a bonus additional PR event, the opening of the new American embassy in Jerusalem, the Palestinians plan to march.

Palestinians in Gaza intend to kick off their series of events by erecting "return camps," tent campsites along the area bordering Israel. Some assessments have suggested Hamas is going to rally around 100,000 people along the border area in a huge show of force.

Read more: Ahed Tamimi, the Teenage Girl Who Refuses to Be Israel's Compliant Palestinian | Opinion | Palestinians' New Doomsday Weapon Has Israel Scared to Death | Opinion | Hamas Urges Palestinians to Vex Israeli Troops in Run-up to Nakba Day | Gaza Border Breached Again: Army Arrests Two Armed Palestinians Who Crossed Into Israel

The main motifs circulating on social media and the Arabic news channels are the Palestinian right of return, breaking the siege and the negation of the Jewish state. Hamas have celebrated the initiative, and will support the efforts to rally the Palestinian cause worldwide, especially in the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank - and within Israel itself.

The months of April and May leading up to Nakba Day, when Palestinians commemorate their national tragedy as a consequence of the establishment of the State of Israel, are speckled with dates and historical anniversaries, Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian.

Passover, Palestinian Prisoners' Day, Israel's Independence Day and the historical symbolic move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem - all are bound to be magnets of global attention and global politics, but also riots, protests and attempted attacks.

A wounded Palestinian is evacuated during a protest against Trump's decision on Jerusalem and clashes with Israeli troops near the border with Israel in the southern Gaza Strip. March 16, 2018
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

Over the last few days, reports in the Israeli media have multiplied about how the security forces will confront the oncoming demonstrations and riots. Various means of riot dispersal, dropped from drones; tear gas; water cannons; targeted sniper fire against the main instigators; and even reports of tanks being deployed along the Israel - Gaza border.

A true show of brute force, showing the Israeli public the IDF is prepared for the security challenge.

What appears to be lacking from the Israeli preparation is the response to the political challenge.

In preparation for Israel's 70th anniversary celebrations, the government appointed Minister of Culture Miri Regev to manage and prepare the various events and ceremonies. No politician has yet to be nominated to confront the Palestinian attempt to spoil Regev’s party.

A Palestinian man plants olive seedlings during a protest ahead of Land Day, near the border with Israel, in the southern Gaza Strip. March 20, 2018
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

That minister would have to lead a public relations campaign to counter the Palestinian one. Israel needs to send a clear message: That it is willing to accept non-violent gatherings. The campaign needs to convey a message to would-be participants, their advocates, the international media and it needs to be pushed extensively on social media. Non-violent demonstrations are acceptable. Violent riots are not, and will not be tolerated.

The message should be conveyed not only by the usual suspects of the defense establishment, but also by government officials.

Unfortunately, it seems that the government will only convey a different message: That force will be met with force. The second, crucial part is missing: That calm will be met with calm.

Of course Israel cannot permit a breach of its sovereignty. It must maintain the integrity of its borders.

A Palestinian protester, nicknamed 'the man with the sling shooter,' gestures as he poses for a photograph at the scene of clashes with Israeli troops near the border with Israel, east of Gaza City. January 12, 2018
\ MOHAMMED SALEM / REUTERS

But Palestinians are seeking to obtain images that can be widely circulated of innocent marchers, women, children and men, longing to return to their homes, fired upon by heavily-armed Israeli soldiers. Israel must avert those images, and avoid becoming an extra on the Palestinian stage.

Israel needs to prepare for the coming celebration and marching season with an extensive public diplomacy effort, not only to celebrate our own independence, but to give those that wish to mourn, the room to do so. 

The key to success must be minimum friction, without causalities, without symbols like Ahed Tamimi or Ibrahim Abu Thurayeh, clear rules of engagement to lead to minimum injuries and minimum coverage.

That would allow Israel to celebrate its independence without overshadowing it.

Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) Peter Lerner is a crisis communications consultant, he served for 25 years in the IDF as a spokesperson and a liaison officer to international organizations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Twitter: @LTCPeterLerner