The vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza decided to stay home. Even at the peak, less than 2% of Gazans participated in the war, either as background peaceful demonstrators, back-up harassers or frontline militants. Of those who participated, the vast majority were peaceful protesters. Only 0.1% participated in the front lines, a paltry number given the number of sworn militants in Gaza. And this is in spite of the claims that Hamas paid $14 each to protesters, $100 to families with children and $500 to those injured when they attempted to breach the fence.
As indicated in the two previous blogs, the vast majority of pictures of the demonstration were of the militants hurling stones, burning tires. There are very few pictures of the many more Palestinians who peacefully participated in the demonstration largely in Friday prayers. Instead, almost every picture gallery depicted a disabled protester who had been wheeled towards the Israeli border in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood of Gaza City to enable him to hurl rocks either portrayed from his wheel chair or on the ground. Yet, in spite of this gross pictorial distortion, most references in print that I read were of “peaceful demonstrations.”
Though all of these circumstances reveal the inability of Hamas any longer to arouse the passions of Gazans to make sacrifices, these proportions did help fulfill the cover that the actions were simply peaceful demonstrations. And look at the relatively low cost compared to the three previous wars. In spite of the widespread hysteria about excessive numbers, in over six weeks of conflict only 104-110 died as martyrs, though at least a few of these were innocent civilians. These numbers are small in any international comparison – to Syria, to Turkey’s war on the Kurds, to Afghanistan, to the Rohingya when they were ethnically cleansed from Myanmar, and even within Mexico. In 2017, 25,339 Mexicans were murdered, an average of 487 a week or 5,847 over a six-week period.
Count the number of school children killed in attacks in the United States over the last six weeks. There were 29 mass shootings and 17 other shootings in schools in the United States even before the Parkland Florida massacre at Marjory Stoneman High School on 14 February 2018, bringing the total number of attacks by Valentine’s Day in 2018 to 18, or 3 per week. In Santa Fe Texas on 20 May 2018, 10 were murdered and this was only the fourth deadliest attack this year. Thus my contention: relatively speaking, especially in the context of war, 110 deaths over six weeks does not seem excessive at all, contrary to the widespread report that the number of casualties were disproportionate. The real issue is whether non-militants were targeted and even just wounded.
The Palestinian leadership made a sincere effort to be honest about the numbers killed as they walked a tightrope between the task of establishing that unwarranted numbers were killed and injured while not enough were martyred to demonstrate a Hamas indifference to Palestinian lives. On the other hand, too many false reports also emerged, such as the one that Israelis killed an 8-month baby with tear gas (the baby died from a pre-existing heart condition).
With the huge gap between the actual numbers killed and maimed compared to other conflict and non-conflict situations, the response to the violence in Gaza seems hysterical. But that was the point of holding a largely peaceful demonstration while small numbers fought in a war as willing martyrs.
There were other successes on the international and domestic stages for Hamas. The distinction between a policy recognizing Jerusalem as the capital and recognizing a united Jerusalem as the capital remained suppressed. The two main emotional issues for the Palestinians were linked – the insistence on Jerusalem as their capital and the return of refugees. The language was bathed in rights rather than on their suffering. The focus was placed on the complicity of the international community in rewarding Israel in untold ways, including allowing an Israeli entertainer, Netta Barzilai, to win the Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon that was also being celebrated in Tel Aviv at the same time as the final Nakba Day demonstrations. After all, even Australian Jessica Mauboy, the runner up, acknowledged Barzilai’s enormous power as an entertainer.
That is why Barghouti wrote and published the following:
“On one side there is an occupying power that is incessantly rewarded by the international community, even as the Palestinians are being pushed ever further out of their lands. Those who remain live under the harshest conditions: The denial of a right to live in dignity and freedom. In this age of media and social platforms, there is no excuse to not see what is happening. As such, remaining complicit is a conscious and active decision to side with oppression and directly be a part of it.”
Simply put, the international community is either for us (as Palestinians) or against us in remaining silent and supporting Israel. In the latter case, the international community was complicit in the loss of further Palestinian lands and the terrible conditions under which Gazans lived. Hamas responsibility for those conditions was ignored. The goal of return, so pronounced in the purpose of the demonstrations, was bracketed. The focus was on Palestinians as victims and Israelis as malevolent oppressors.
However, the bottom line among Palestinians, including those in Gaza, was an increased despondency. The vision of return has become a forlorn hope. Even the dream of an independent Palestinian state seems to be receding. That is not only because of the militancy and incompetence of Hamas, but Mahmoud Abbas, now in the twilight of his leadership, did not help with his antisemitic outburst weeks earlier. The international political situation in the Middle East does not help the Palestinians either. Iranian support is feckless. The Turkish economy is imploding. Qatar has its own problems in the Gulf. The Saudis and Egyptians support the Palestinian political goals only nominally as they forge stronger economic, military, intelligence and backroom diplomatic ties with Israel.
When return was mentioned, it was linked simply with the desire to stand up in dignity and not be punished for being displaced. Freedom was contrasted with repression and repression was linked with a long history of colonization. Jews settling in Palestine were but the latest phase of that colonizing effort. Palestinians simply had fought a century-old defensive war. But the international community condemned that defence and rewarded the Zionists.
“Our minds are turned into a space for psychological warfare to implant an image of inferiority into our core, to convince us that we are the lesser ones, destined to be either controlled or kicked out. Our bodies are objects—shot at, beaten, humiliated, assaulted, violated. Our ideas and dreams of liberation are swept into a corner because if we so much as dare to speak loudly and mobilize, we will find ourselves incarcerated or killed. Palestinians are wedged between a painful exile and a butchered land. This is the definition of ethnic cleansing.”
This war was being fought in a way to contrast Israeli strength, inhumanity and oppression with the valiant efforts at improvement of victims under unspeakable conditions. “Palestinians are brave enough to love life so much that they are willing to go out to the streets and protest, and when they are not protesting they are fighting in their daily life by merely echoing the word ‘Palestine’.”
Hamas may have won a short-term public relations victory in the 2018 Gaza conflict, but prospects are even dimmer now of Israel entering into a truce with Hamas. Nor is Israel likely to lift the blockade as readily as Egypt did. Israel will demand deep concessions. The Europeans may make some noise and others may bewail Israel’s use of “excessive” and disproportionate force, but the situation would almost undoubtedly have been worse, both from a public relations standpoint and in actual casualties, if Israel had not been firm in its red lines. Further, look at the political effects of Obama’s failure to stand up to Syria on his red line and the effective impotence of the pitiful one-off responses of Donald Trump to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrians. On the other hand, it would be helpful if Israel at least had the appearance of a positive response to the Gaza martyrdom of its own people.
Red lines have to mean consequences, and heavy consequences, if they are crossed. Indifference to the plight of the Palestinians, however, is not a policy. Israel must repeatedly and loudly offer Gazans rewards if the surrender their objectives of returning to Israel with the aim of Israel’s destruction even if one understands why Israeli leaders might tire of making such offers in a context that seems fruitless.
With the help of Alex Zisman