Clashes between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza tend to be the most hotly contested aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Positions that are already hardened become even more so in the red hot Gaza forge, as Israel faces off against an actual terrorist group while casualty numbers — including civilian ones — mount terrifyingly fast and in a one-sided fashion on the Palestinian side. The fight over who is right and who is wrong is not a productive one, paling in comparison to the importance of coming up with solutions to avoid more fighting in Gaza.
Yet until people on both sides of the partisan divide are willing to accept some easily observable truths that challenge their own positions, the fight over who is right and who is wrong will drown out all else.
To my friends and colleagues on the left: The Friday protests are not peace marches. The August 1963 March on Washington did not have galabaya-clad men throwing Molotov cocktails. Gandhi’s salt march did not feature burning tires and bullets across a border fence. If the 5 percent of violent actors abuse the 95 percent of peaceful ones to wreak havoc, you cannot just pretend that the 5 percent do not exist and do not take up the bulk of the oxygen.
There are many peaceful protesters, and then a non-trivial group of ones who are there for nefarious purposes and nothing more. If the ones who truly want to engage in a mass act of protest and send a message to Israel and the wider world are unwilling to rein in the troublemakers in their midst, then they lose the moral high ground that they want to occupy but are unwilling to insist upon.
To my friends and colleagues on the left: The Friday protests are not peace marches.
There is a border fence between Israel and Gaza. Unlike the security barrier in the West Bank, the route of which does not stick to the 1949 Armistice Green Line, the Gaza barrier is built precisely upon the line agreed upon by both sides in the Oslo II agreement in 1995. Israel has withdrawn all of its soldiers and citizens from Gaza and does not claim the territory for itself. Attempts to tear down the fence or cross it to get into Israel illegally are not legitimate forms of protest, but criminal acts.
Every country in the world has the right to police its own borders, and the vast majority that do would act precisely as Israel does if large numbers of people were trying to tear the border fence down.
The majority of those killed have not been good guys, freedom fighters or human rights activists. They were known terrorists, identified by Israel and proudly claimed by Hamas itself. No deaths should ever be celebrated, and that includes these, but let’s be clear about who these people were and what their aim was. Young men carrying AK-47s and grenades, shooting as they rush the fence, are not sympathetic figures and they deserve nobody’s sympathy. Israel makes plenty of mistakes and does plenty of things wrong, but killing terrorists in the midst of violent acts is not one of them.
The fact that this is a lark compared to what goes on, say, in Syria does not make it beyond reproach. It also doesn’t matter that Hamas put Israel in the untenable situation in which it found itself, since this does not absolve the IDF from acting with the utmost care not to kill or even harm civilians who are in the way. Hundreds of injuries not only looks terrible; it is terrible.
To my friends and colleagues on the right: Israel is not an innocent blameless actor, thrust into the furor surrounding it through no fault of its own.
The claim that the IDF is the most moral army in the world is unsupportable. Not only is this impossible to measure or prove, there is no reason to think that the IDF is an exception to the rules governing war that have lasted through centuries of time and space. Crimes happen in war, and that Israeli soldiers do things that they aren’t supposed to does not make them worse than anyone else. It makes them exactly like everyone else.
Repeating a completely indefensible and evidence-free platitude like a broken record not only harms your general credibility, it makes Israel’s foes work extra hard to demonstrate that your position is nonsensical and rub it in your face. It also creates an impossibly high standard that can never actually be met, setting Israeli soldiers up for certain failure. The “most moral army in the world” talking point is both substantively and tactically foolish, it convinces nobody, and every time it is repeated it does more than anything else to shift the conversation on to Israel’s sins rather than its opponents’ ones.
The fact that there are no Israelis in Gaza does not mean that Israel has no responsibility for what goes on there. Israel controls Gaza’s airspace, enforces a blockade of it from the sea and controls the border on two of the three remaining sides. Israel has contributed to a staggeringly awful humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and Israel’s political leadership has used Hamas’ presence there to punish nearly 2 million people while avoiding having to make any hard decisions.
You can talk all you want about rockets, but Hamas has not fired a rocket in 14 months, and yet Israel has conceded nothing while every day the chances of an explosion increase. There is a reason that a majority of the cabinet in the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, along with near unanimity among the IDF leadership, support building Gaza a seaport and airport and ending its isolation from the rest of the world, yet Prime Minister Netanyahu sits on his hands. If tens of thousands of Palestinians indeed rush the fence and try to obliterate it on May 15, it really will represent Israel’s biggest crisis since the Yom Kippur War, despite being avoidable with some policy changes toward Gaza that may now be too late.
None of this is as straightforward as it appears to those who are passionate about these issues, and if we at least take a small step in acknowledging that, perhaps it can lead to solutions rather than loud and drawn out arguments. Solutions to the Gaza problem are desperately needed, since neither Israel nor the Palestinians benefit in any way if Friday after Friday continues in the same manner. PJC
Michael Koplow is the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum.