When all is lost, entire communities sometimes engage in suicidal gestures. It happened as recently as 1906 in Bali, when the local royal family and thousands of their followers, knowing they could not defeat the Dutch conquerors, dressed in their best finery and walked straight into the Dutch gunfire. Thousands were killed.
It has been happening again in the past six weeks in the area in front of the border fence that divides the Gaza Strip from Israel. It reached at least a temporary climax on Monday, when some 2,000 Palestinians were wounded, around half by gunfire, and 60 were shot dead by Israeli soldiers.
That’s at least a thousand unarmed Palestinian civilians struck by Israeli bullets in a single day. One Israeli soldier was lightly injured by a rock or a piece of shrapnel.
Even before the “March of Return” began in late March, the Israeli government said that the march was just a cover for terrorists to cross into its territory and carry out terrorist attacks. Soldiers would therefore be allowed to fire live ammunition against anybody trying to damage the border fence, which included anybody coming within 300 metres of it.
There have been unconfirmed reports that the army was later told to shoot only people coming within 100 metres of the fence, which would involve maybe only half the people in the crowd.
But the basic story was unchanged: those clever Hamas terrorists had figured out that the best way to sneak into Israel is to break through the border in broad daylight and make their way past thousands of heavily armed Israeli soldiers on full alert.
So anybody in the crowd could be shot if identified as a “key agitator,” even if he or she posed no immediate threat to the soldiers.
Indeed, the army, presumably using top-secret equipment that let them identify the dead while other Palestinians carried them away, claimed that 24 of the 60 Palestinians killed on Monday were “terrorists with documented terror background.”
Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu defends the slaughter on the grounds that Hamas “intends to destroy Israel and sends thousands to breach the border fence in order to achieve this goal.”
If he truly believes they could destroy Israel that way, then the country must be far weaker than anybody thought.
But he’s getting away with this nonsense because Israel’s allies refuse to call him on it.
The French government has called on Israel to “exercise discernment and restraint in the use of force that must be strictly proportionate.”
The British government said that “the large volume of live fire is extremely concerning. We continue to implore Israel to show greater restraint.”
The comments of Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was in Israel to celebrate the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, were even more anodyne. He just ignored the carnage happening at the border and restricted himself to saying that “The United States stands with Israeli because we both believe in freedom.”
But the prize for Most Revealing Remark must go to Khalil al-Hayya, a senior official in the Hamas party that rules the Gaza Strip: “We say clearly today to all the world that the peaceful march of our people lured the enemy into shedding more blood.”
Note the word “lured.”
At the leadership level, both sides see this ghastly event mainly in terms of political theatre.
Hamas wanted the Israelis to commit a massacre of innocent civilians for its propaganda value.
The Israeli army, well aware that this was Hamas’s goal, ordered its soldiers to shoot to injure, not to kill, whenever possible.
The final score shows that they largely obeyed: if they had just randomly fired into the crowd, around one in five of the victims would have been killed, not one in 40.
Nevertheless, it was a massacre, but the Palestinian civilians who were being maimed or killed were willing victims. The mostly young men and women in the crowd milling around in front of the border fence, which peaked at an estimated 40,000 people, knew they stood a fair chance of being killed or crippled, but they just didn’t care anymore.
It’s 70 years now since the grand-parents of these young Palestinians were driven from what is now Israel, and they know that they are never going back to their ancestral homes.
International law says that refugees have that right, whether they fled voluntarily (as Israel insists) or were expelled by force or the threat of force (as most other people believe), but in practice it’s just not going to happen. Israel is far too strong.
Most of the current generation know that they are never going “home,” and will have to live out their lives in what amounts to a not-very-large open-air prison: the Gaza Strip.
It’s only natural that they are in despair, and inviting death or injury at the hands of Israeli troops seems like an honourable way out.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book, ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’, was published last month by Scribe in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.