In late May of 2010, Israeli naval commandos descended onto a flotilla of six small civilian boats that aim to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip and bring humanitarian supplies to the besieged enclave. Nine civilians, eight Turks and one American citizen, were massacred. It sparked a diplomatic crisis as well as a public relations disaster for Israel. One of the key lessons Israel took from the event, and indeed a focus of its government’s investigative report, was not that Israel should not have massacred the civilians, but rather that it should have done a better job of explaining why it did so.
So early last week, well before demonstrators began to amass in Gaza for a planned protest, I could see how Israel was laying the foundation for the massacre to come, describing the march as a Hamas-organized event aimed at violent provocation. In the days before, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs circulated talking points preemptively framing the event as violent, dangerous, a cover for terror activity and an exploitation of civilians. The Israeli military sent 100 snipers down to the fence between Gaza and Israel. The stage was set for a massacre and this time, the Israelis may have thought they sufficiently prepared an international audience to justify it ahead of time.
By the time the sun had set on Friday in Gaza, 17 Palestinians were killed and hundreds of others were wounded by live ammunition. Videos emerged of unarmed protesters dodging bullets before ultimately being gunned down. International condemnations would follow, as would an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to address the issue.
Once again, Israel had used lethal force against unarmed protesters, even as Israeli soldiers faced no imminent threat. Indeed, no Israeli soldiers were injured during the events. And it is hard to imagine how they could be. These are soldiers armed to the hilt and positioned atop dunes or in armored vehicles, behind a fence as well, firing at Palestinians from a great distance. Even if a Palestinian was throwing a stone, the chances that under these conditions such an act could cause an imminent threat to life ― the only situation that would justify the use of lethal force under international law ― are infinitesimal. Indeed, even if Palestinians were trying to climb the fence, that would not give Israel the right to use lethal force.
Why does Israel keep finding itself in these situations with the Palestinians? Some will argue that the Jewish state is in the impossible position of constantly balancing efforts to maintain its security without creating another public relations disaster. The truth is, Israel keeps finding itself in these situations because of the ongoing denial of basic rights to millions of Palestinians. This march in Gaza was a demonstration against Israel’s policy of encagement.
Pluralistic democracies that respect human rights do not find themselves resorting to using lethal force against demonstrators. That’s what apartheid states do. But Israel has sold itself to the world as something else, a beacon of liberalism and democracy. Few things expose this image as a sham as well as massive non-violent mobilizations or civil disobedience.
More than the atrocities committed or the condemnations that followed, perhaps the most important and also inspirational element of the events of last Friday was the demonstrations themselves. Tens of thousands of Palestinians congregated in disciplined, organized demonstrations at various points along the fence of the besieged Gaza Strip. People of all ages joined, songs were sung, meals were cooked, pick-up volleyball games were played. All of this, importantly, was done as a unified Palestinian front. Despite Israel’s efforts to slap a Hamas label on it, the only visible flags were Palestinian, not factional. For Palestinians, this was a vision that brought us together with great hope.
These types of events are Israel’s nightmare, not because they are violent, but precisely because they are not. Israel is well equipped to deal with violence but it fumbles every interaction with non-violent dissent because these interactions thrust Israel’s policies ― policies that deny basic rights ― onto center stage. That is why the Israeli government tried to frame the event as violent before it took place, so it could brutally crack down and dissuade Palestinians from organizing such events again.
Happening on Land Day, which commemorates the massacre of Palestinian citizens of Israel by Israeli forces during a protest against land confiscation in the Galilee in 1976, the march was an effort to assert the rights of Palestinians in Gaza in a way that tied all Palestinians together.
Israel, since it’s inception, has relied on external support, particularly from the Western world, for justification of its policies in Gaza and the West Bank. These relationships are contingent on many things, including values the West claims to hold dear like freedom, democracy, civil rights and equality. The prospect of a negotiated agreement based on two-states has allowed Israel to stave off the confrontation between the myth of these values and the reality on the ground.
But as the notion of a two-state agreement fades firmly into history, the apartheid reality becomes impossible to ignore, and further episodes where Israel will confront masses of mobilized Palestinians demanding their rights will continue to highlight this contradiction.
It is now incumbent on the international community to encourage Palestinian non-violent dissent and civil disobedience, to condemn Israel’s violent repression and then hold it accountable for such violations of law. The massacre of protesters in Gaza this past week was Palestine’s version of the Sharpeville Massacre that happened almost exactly 58 years ago in South Africa.
The international community responded then with condemnation, beginning a process that included an arms embargo and ultimately led to the end of the apartheid system. How the international community responds to this event in Gaza and ones surely to come will determine how much longer Israel will be able to get away with its separate and unequal rule over Palestinians.
Yousef Munayyer is the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.