Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
Counter-insurgency depends on the careful calibration of violence. Brutal measures backfire, and recruit more insurgents to their cause. Less observed is that this applies as much to the insurgent as it does to their enemies. When Hamas launched its campaign of suicide bombing almost 20 years ago, it set the violence too high. Israel defeated the second intifada. Its military doctrine – heavy retaliation to obtain deterrence, and the construction of physical barriers to limit the damage Palestinians are able to inflict – proved operationally successful. It was repeated in the wars fought in Gaza in 2008 and 2014.
These military successes could have created space for political progress towards, if not an actual two state solution, at least a political climate in which Israel could have uprooted settlements in the West Bank as it had in Gaza, and Palestinian political and eventually security institutions could have been built that might eventually have led to a Palestininan state.
But the domestic politics of Palestine and Israel got in the way. The Palestinians were too divided between Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas. The Israelis grew arrogant.
Their Iron Dome missile system prevented Hamas from being able to launch rockets. They managed to stop Hamas from tunelling under the border fence. The Palestinians’ unique advantage — an ability to draw the world’s attention to their plight — was eclipsed by the much bloodier conflicts in Iraq and Syria and the other turmoil related to the Arab Spring.
Israel, which elected its most pro-settler government in 2014, felt itself to have a free hand. The overthrow of the pro-Hamas revolutionary government in Egypt, and its replacement by a military even less friendly to Hamas than Israel itself; the collapse of Syria into civil war, and the development of an anti-Iranian alliance with Sunni Arab states further strengthened the Israeli position.
Then came Donald Trump. Whereas Israel had to operate within limits set by the Obama administration (and even by the sincerely pro-Israel Bush administration before it), Trump is ignorant of the Middle East’s politics. Despite that, and his flirtation with anti-semitic white supremacy, the President likes the aggressive, martial image of Israel that Benjamin Netnanyahu chooses to project: Trump may not like Jews much (unless they’re his lawyers), but he sure loves un certain idée de l’Israël.
With Trump’s election, free from the distraction of a peace process he never believed in, Netanyahu became free to concentrate on his real enemies: Iran, and his two right-wing political rivals, Nafthali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman. It matters, in particular, that Lieberman is defence minister. His unreconstructed jingoism (he described Hamas as “cannibals” today) plays right into Hamas’s hands.
Because Hamas have, for once, learned to calibrate violence.
The “protests” as they are usually reported in the Western media, are not framed as opposition to Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, but as a “March for Return”. They are not protesting at the border, but seeking to cross it.
Palestinians’ traditional demand has been for the descendants of the people who left or were expelled in 1948 (which version it is depends on who you ask; obsessed readers can fill their boots by reading the authoritative historical account) be allowed to return to their families’ territory. Israelis see this (correctly!) as an attempt to displace them.
That Israel wants to stop them shouldn’t come as a surprise. The first question is who issued instructions to shoot live ammunition at unarmed men? The normal rules of engagement allow a soldier to shoot only if his life is threatened. The law of war requires them to use force proportionate to achieving the military objective. The second question is why were troops, and not border police officers, trained in the non-lethal dispersal of crowds, deployed to the area? And even if troops were required for reinforcement, why were they deployed with guns and live ammunition. Announcing (by dropping leaflets) that people who come close to the fence will be shot does not absolve the shooters of responsibility.
These were all deliberate decisions either made or approved by the defence minister. The March of Return was announced well in advance, and there was a similar confrontation at the Israel-Gaza border a month ago. Moreover, the use of live ammunition goes against the Israeli military’s understanding that creating Palestinian martyrs does them no good, a view which might be summarised as “Every Israeli and Palestinian who dies is bad for us, but good for them.”
The result is not just 61 dead as I write, and hundreds of injured Palestinians (the Israeli Army’s assertion that 24 of those killed had terrorist affiliations leaves the obvious implication that 37 did not), and a collapse in Israel’s diplomatic relations with Turkey, but also a return of the Palestinian question to the international agenda and greater pressure on Israel’s alliances with Arab countries.
Hamas set Israel a trap; and Israel jumped straight into it.