Written by Peter Wertheim AM. co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry
Events at the Israel-Gaza security barrier on May 15 followed what has become an all too predictable pattern. Hamas starts a confrontation with Israel; Israel defends itself; the world condemns Israel.
Why did Hamas start the confrontation this time? Their apologists will tell you it was because of the “siege” imposed by Israel on “occupied” Gaza, and the terrible living conditions faced by most Gazans.
Here is what they won’t tell you.
- In 2005 Israel vacated all of its military forces from the Gaza Strip, dismantled all of the settlements located there and repatriated all of the settlers to Israel.
- In a coup in 2007, Hamas illegally seized executive power in the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority and immediately stepped up weapons smuggling and rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza against civilian population centres in Israel.
- Hamas remains determined to “obliterate” Israel, as its grossly antisemitic and genocidal Charter Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar remains on record as saying, “The discussion is no longer about recognising Israel but about wiping Israel out.” Unlike authentic national independence movements in the past, Hamas as a whole, or its military wing, is listed as a terrorist organisation by countries such as the US, Canada, the EU, the UK, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.
- In response to the Hamas coup and increased rocket attacks in 2007, Israel imposed a naval blockade against Gaza to prevent the further smuggling of weapons and munitions into the area.
- In 2011, an international Panel of Inquiry established by the Secretary-General of the UN under the chairmanship of Sir Geoffrey Palmer of New Zealand, an expert in international maritime law, found that Israel’s blockade of Gaza is a lawful act of self-defence against the continuing attacks against Israel from Gaza.
- Far from there being a “siege”, an average of 1,000 trucks per day carry supplies into Gaza via Israel each week, plus further truckloads each day carrying fuel.
- Hamas has diverted billions of dollars of international aid to build tunnels into Israeli territory from which to attack, kill and abduct Israeli civilians, thereby exacerbating the difficult conditions of its people
- Hamas leaders themselves have declared that Gaza is no longer occupied by Israel and is under Palestinian self-rule.
Given that background, one might wonder why so many people condemned Israel for doing what every government is obligated to do – defend its people and its territory from attack, and other threats to their physical security? The condemnations were based solely on images posted online or screened on television, and of course the number of dead and wounded among the much-manipulated people of Gaza was shocking and tragic.
Yet the images could provide no answer to two critical questions.
Firstly, what consequences were Israelis facing if Hamas had succeeded in its attempts to breach the Gaza fence and have the 40,000 Palestinian protesters, some of them heavily armed, storm into Israel?
Secondly, what realistic alternatives did the IDF have to live fire in order to prevent the Gaza barrier from being breached?
Hamas itself provided the answer to the first question. In a blood-curdling speech in the week prior to May 15, Yayha Sinwar responded to the tens of thousands of leaflets dropped in Gaza by the IDF warning Gazans for their own safety not to approach the barrier during the protests by declaring:
“Our people and our boys will surprise the entire world with what they have in store. Let them wait for our big push. We will take down the border and we will tear out their hearts from their bodies.”
The “big push” on the barrier on May 15 was thus clearly pre-planned and orchestrated by the Hamas leadership. Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahhar openly admitted that claims that the protests were a form of “peaceful resistance” against Israel were “a clear terminological deception.”
Hamas printed maps for its operatives indicating the civilian population centres within Israel situated only a few hundred meters from the barrier which their terrorists were to attack if the attempts to breach the barrier had been successful.
Hamas also disseminated detailed directives via social media ahead of the May 15 violence at the barrier. These directives went so far as to name the Israeli towns and communities in which each terrorist leader would be delivering victory speeches after the protests had achieved their stated goals.
The number of deaths would thus have been vastly higher if Hamas had succeeded in its aim of breaching the border and sending thousands of Gazans storming into civilian population centres in Israel.
The second question about the IDF’s use of live fire was also never examined beyond the images.
Here is a summary of the attempts made to storm and breach the security barrier on
May 15: 12:53pm – Five pipe bombs exploded.
12:58pm – Bomb exploded.
1:15pm – A terror cell sought to plant explosives by the border fence and opened fire at IDF forces.
1:30pm – Fire opened at IDF forces. 1:45pm – eight terrorists armed with firearms were killed in a shootout with IDF.
2:09pm – Three bombs exploded. 3:10pm – Bomb exploded.
7:02pm – Terrorists opened fire at IDF troops. 17 kites carrying flammable materials were flown from Gaza into Israel, causing major fires in 23 locations.
True, most of the protesters were not involved in these actions, but neither were most of them shot at. There were 40,000 protesters present on May 15. Even if only 5% of them were involved in attempts to breach the fence, that’s about 2,000 people. Live fire was targeted only at instigators who fired at troops, threw firebombs, fired weapons, planted explosives and sought to breach the barrier.
More than a month earlier, the CEO of the company which built the barrier warned that thousands of Palestinians could trample the 10-foot-high barrier. It would take only about 30 seconds to cross into Israel.
There was thus no way other than lethal force to stop this from happening. Nobody has been able to point to a specific alternative that the IDF could have used. Rubber bullets and water cannon do not work over the distances that existed between the IDF and those on the Gaza side of the barrier who tried to breach it.
The use of live fire was thus necessary. But was it “proportionate”? It is wrong to suggest that the relative number of casualties on each side has anything to do with the legal question of proportionality. There is no rule of international law that the number of casualties on each side of a conflict must be equivalent.
Article 57(2)(b) of Additional Protocol 1 to the Fourth Geneva Convention forbids action that
“may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated”.
This has nothing to do with whether casualties are disproportionately on one side or the other. Article 57(2)(b) requires the danger Israel was facing to be weighed against incidental civilian deaths and injuries that might occur as a result of Israel’s defensive measures against that danger.
In this regard, Hamas official Salah Bardawil in an interview with the Palestinian Baladna news outlet made the damning admission that 50 of the 62 Gazans killed in the violence at the barrier were Hamas operatives, not civilians. Another three were members of other terror groups. Yahya Sinwar’s prior declaration and the Hamas maps and social media messages naming targets in Israel make it clear that they were preparing to enter Israel with weapons and to use them.
Tragically, among those killed there were also children who should never have been taken to a violent protest, but who were present as part of Hamas’ disgracefully cynical manipulation of the events.
Given the gravity of what Yahya Sinwar said would have happened if his operatives had got their hands on civilians in Israel, and the absence of effective alternatives to stop them, and given that more than 80% of those killed were not civilians, lethal force was both necessary and proportionate to the removal of that threat.
Democratic governments that may have a contrary view need to think carefully about what they would do differently to Israel if they were to face a comparable danger in the future. As Britain’s Colonel Richard Kemp observed, and Australia’s retired Major General Jim Molan concluded after the 2014 hostilities in Gaza, the IDF generally meets higher standards in avoiding civilian casualties than is required by the laws of international armed conflict.
Finally, a note of hope. Whilst Hamas might have won a momentary propaganda victory in the eyes of some, its standing among its own people was damaged. For many Gazans, there are signs that the scales are starting to fall from their eyes as they realise that Hamas has no future to offer them, let alone a strategy to get there.
Deep down many Palestinians concluded long ago that both the Islamist and the secular Palestinian elites can only offer them more of the same – rejection of Jewish people-hood and self-determination, more violence and more bloodshed. This is the same legal, moral and intellectual dead-end into which Palestinian leaders have whipped up their people for 100 years.
Acceptance of Israel’s right to exist as the State of the Jewish people with equal legal, civil and religious rights for all its citizens does not mean the “defeat” of the Palestinians – the constant lie on which they have been fed. On the contrary, such acceptance is the essential precondition for establishing an independent Arab Palestinian state alongside Israel, as the UN originally intended.