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GAZANS POSITION a large slingshot to hurl stones at Israelis during clashes at the Israel-Gaza border, April 2018.(Photo by: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS)
The fifth column: A big black flag
One take on the recent Gaza protests.
 For the past several weeks Gaza has returned to the news, with weekly accounts of protests near the Israeli border fence. These have been met with extensive use of live ammunition, dozens of people dead – at least 31 when this article was written – and hundreds wounded.

The Israeli narrative goes something like this: These are provocations initiated by Hamas, conducting “terror marches” toward the border fence, with the express intention to breach the fence and march in droves into Israel. Our imagination can take it from there: A mob of thousands of ISIS-looking people, hatred in their eyes and machetes in their hands, raping, pillaging and beheading all in their wake. So, to prevent this, Israel’s army – “the most moral army in the world!” – is taking preventive measures by firing warning shots toward any “terrorist” coming near the fence.

Now let’s talk about what’s really going on, starting with some background.

The Gaza Strip is 41 kilometers long, from six to 12 kilometers wide, and a total size of 365 square kilometers. Its population is roughly two million, making it the third most densely populated polity in the world. And all these people are living under Israeli occupation.

Wait. What? But Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005! Indeed it did, yet occupy still it does. The Gaza Strip is under Israeli blockade, preventing any air and sea movement and heavily controlling its land crossing. Gazans are not allowed to travel into or out of the Strip. Gaza is fully dependent on Israel for its electricity and water supplies, which are severely limited. The power is on in Gaza for an average of four hours a day. This constitutes occupation.

Just how controlling is Israel of what is allowed to enter the Strip? According to documents revealed by a freedom of information petition by the NGO Gisha, Israel applied a policy of intentional limitation, based on calculations regarding the minimum number of calories required for the prevention of starvation of the Gaza population.

The living conditions in Gaza are dismal. In 2017, unemployment in Gaza reached 44%. Among women it is 71.5%, and among people under 29 it is 61.9%. Health services in Gaza are in a dismal state. With limited electricity, medical facilities use generators which allow only partial power. This, coupled with an absence of medicine and medical supplies, lead hospitals to have to turn patients away. Two UN reports from 2017 determine that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is so severe that by 2020 Gaza will be declared unlivable.

But didn’t Gazans vote Hamas into power? They should blame themselves!

No, they did not. Yes – there were elections to the Palestinian legislative in 2006, in which Hamas won a majority (in all of the Palestinian territories, not Gaza specifically), following which a unity government with Fatah was created. The US and Israel then worked hard to monkey-wrench this unity, and following the collapse of the unity government Hamas forcibly took control of the Gaza Strip.

Make no mistake: Many aspects of Hamas’s behavior are abhorrent. The several accounts of torture and summary execution are but some of the human rights violations committed by Hamas against the Gazan population, and its – and other armed groups’ – targeting of civilians in several rounds of conflict constitute war crimes.

Israel has every right to conduct warfare against these armed groups in order to defend itself. However, its conduct toward the Gazan population as a whole constitutes an extreme version of collective punishment, punishment that has been going on for years, and for many in Gaza it is the only reality they know.

If you grew up in this reality – living basically in an overcrowded cage, with limited food, water, electricity, medicine, inability to leave, inability to find work and build a future – wouldn’t you rise up?

By all accounts (aside from Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s unsubstantiated blabber), these protests over the past weeks are a popular uprising.

There are no serious accounts of weapons, or actual plans to cross the border en masse. There are, on the other hand, countless verified accounts of shooting unarmed protesters several hundred meters from the fence with live ammunition, many in the back as they were fleeing; many teenagers; in some cases, identifiable journalists. The orders to shoot unarmed protesters are illegal, according to international law. Carrying out such orders constitutes war crimes, and should be refused by soldiers – as a recent B’Tselem campaign has highlighted – as a manifestly illegal command. Manifestly illegal commands were beautifully described by Supreme Court justice Benjamin Halevy in the 1957 ruling regarding the Kafr Kassem massacre:

“The hallmark of manifest illegality is that it must wave like a black flag over the given order, a warning that says: “Forbidden!” Not formal illegality, obscure or partially obscure, not illegality that can be discerned only by legal scholars, is important here, but rather, the clear and obvious violation of law.... Illegality that pierces the eye and revolts the heart, if the eye is not blind and the heart is not impenetrable or corrupt – this is the measure of manifest illegality needed to override the soldier’s duty to obey and to impose on him criminal liability for his action.”

Shooting unarmed protesters has a big black flag waving over it. It has to stop now.

The writer is the director of Amnesty International Israel, and formerly worked for the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, Greenpeace and the Masorti (Conservative) Movement. The views expressed in this column are those of the writer. He can be reached at director@
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