by Mitchell Plitnick
Writing in The Intercept, the noted pundit Mehdi Hasan angrily attacks the hypocrisy of US “liberal interventionists” who rail about the human rights violations of everyone, yet somehow fall silent when the victims of those abuses are Palestinian. These PEPs (Progressives Except for Palestine) engender an outrage in Hasan that he vents with little restraint:
The ongoing and glaring refusal of liberal interventionists in the West to say even a word about the need to protect occupied Palestinians from state-sponsored violence is a reminder of just how morally bankrupt and cynically hypocritical the whole “liberal intervention” shtick is.
Both in tone and substance, Hasan is correct in pointing out the remarkable ability of liberals in the West to find excuses and apologies for blatantly criminal and immoral acts by Israel when they would never do so for any other country, even their own.
The United States, unsurprisingly, blocked a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have called for an investigation into Israel’s killing of 16 Palestinians and wounding of over 1,400 others during protests marking Land Day. This annual event commemorates the deaths of six Palestinian citizens of Israel in 1976 who were protesting Israel’s appropriation of land for new Jewish towns. It’s difficult to fathom how the US action can be justified, but incidents like it have become commonplace across successive presidential administrations.
But this episode is far from closed. Palestinians in Gaza, as well as the Hamas leadership, have vowed to continue the protests. Israel has stated that its response will be the same as it was last week. A call from the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, for soldiers to refuse what it correctly calls illegal orders to shoot civilians is unlikely to have much impact.
This is likely to be a new flash point in the debate over the occupation and human rights. So it’s worth looking more closely at the claims Israel and its defenders have made to excuse the deaths and injuries in Gaza last week.
“The protests were not non-violent”
Indeed, according to reports, protesters threw stones, Molotov cocktails, and possibly burning tires at Israeli soldiers. But the soldiers were well away from the fence. There was little chance of these lightweight weapons doing any damage, and certainly no threat to the lives of the soldiers. These photographs show the distance that needed to be covered. Indeed, the Israelis would have been foolish to venture any closer. Their rifles, mortars, and other weaponry were more than capable of reaching the protesters from a safe distance.
That some of the protesters engaged in technically violent behavior is irrelevant. The army or the police can only use force in the face of an imminent threat of injury or significant damage to property. There was no such threat, much less one that could possibly justify the use of deadly force. In fact, there is not a single report of an Israeli casualty. That’s good news, but it also shows the absence of any real threat to the Israeli soldiers, much less Israeli civilians.
As Human Rights Watch observes:
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials hold that security forces shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.” Furthermore, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
“Hamas, a terrorist group, organized the protests”
Hamas was certainly involved in organizing the demonstrations. But that is not relevant to the use of deadly force by Israeli soldiers. Setting aside the fact that Hamas, whatever it is labeled as, is the governing authority—to the extent that it is possible to govern the besieged Strip—the source of the protest makes no difference. Israel could easily justify deploying troops on its side of the fence and take appropriate and proportionate action if anyone crossed the line into Israel. But that didn’t happen.
Outside of Israel, no one, not even the United States, has directly disputed the right of the Palestinians to protest their living conditions. Whether Hamas or some other group calls such a protest does not mitigate that right. Only the actual events at the protests could do that.
“Many of those killed were members of militant groups”
This is apparently true, although there is some question as to how many of the dead were members of any such group. But it’s also irrelevant. First, the soldiers had no idea who they were shooting at when they shot, despite aiming with precision. More importantly, membership in Hamas or Islamic Jihad or any of the smaller militant groups in Gaza is not punishable by death. The political affiliation of anyone at the protest doesn’t matter. The only question at hand when using force against protesters is whether the protester’s actions merit a response of force and, if so, what the appropriate level of force might be. There remains no evidence at all that any Palestinian was taking part in an action that required a response of lethal force.
As Human Rights Watch said:
The Israeli government has not shown that the demonstrators throwing rocks or Molotov cocktails posed a grave threat to the well-protected soldiers deployed on the other side of the border fence, nor has Israel claimed that any Palestinian crossed the border on March 30.
“The march was for the return to what is now Israel. This is a direct threat to Israel’s security.”
The great unspoken piece of the Israel-Palestine conflict has always been the question of the right of return. Israelis believe that this matter is no longer on the table and that any mention of the right of return demonstrates that the intent is not Palestinian freedom but the destruction of Israel. In terms of this protest, the demands of the protesters are, once again, irrelevant to the use of force.
But more broadly, if there was once a formula for dividing the land and even Jerusalem—formulas long since rendered irrelevant by the expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and by Israeli and US attitudes and policies—there was never any such notion on the right of return. It has long been a matter that certain Palestinian leaders have winked at when talking to US or Israeli officials, but compromises on that point have never been publicly discussed among Palestinians. It is what it has always been for Palestinians: a fundamental and inalienable right. For Israelis, it is anathema.
This is an irresistible force meeting an immovable object and pretending otherwise only heightens Israeli fears and Palestinian anger while making the issue ever more difficult to resolve. It needs to be brought into the open. Like every other issue, the absolutist position of either side cannot be fulfilled. In my experience, many Palestinians are willing to discuss modes of implementation, but those who are willing to sacrifice the right altogether are exceedingly few. If an agreement ever becomes a possibility again, this issue needs to be treated in an entirely different manner, openly discussed within and between Israeli Jewish and Palestinian society.
Israeli leaders have praised the soldiers
This is all the more reason why an international investigation is needed. In the past, Israel has ducked such investigations by conducting their own. Such investigations would usually end with a mostly clean bill of health, with a few soldiers being charged with some minor infractions like looting. Now, Israel is abandoning even that pretense.
Yet an international investigation has never been needed more desperately. This violence was foreseen and preventable. Before the protests, B’Tselem warned of the orders the soldiers were receiving:
Completely ignoring the humanitarian disaster in Gaza and Israel’s responsibility for it, (Israeli officials) are couching the planned protest in terms of a security risk, framing the demonstrators as terrorists and referring to Gaza as a “combat zone.” Fragments of information reported by the media indicate that: soldiers will be ordered to shoot anyone coming within 300 meters of the fence; snipers will fire at anyone touching it; live fire will be used also in circumstances which are non-life-threatening. In other words: shoot-to-kill unarmed Palestinians taking part in these demonstrations.
This sort of behavior is characteristic of the most brutal dictatorships, not “the only democracy in the Middle East” as Israel likes to call itself. Mehdi Hasan is right to wonder how liberal interventionists can look away while Israeli soldiers gun down protesters.
In the story of Passover, God, wanting to make sure that the Egyptians suffer all ten of the plagues he had in mind, hardened Pharaoh’s heart against compromise. The age of Trump has more than its share of hard-hearted people. It is inexcusable that those whose hearts are open everywhere else harden them only when the victims are Palestinian.