The march that too many didn’t return from
In today’s fast-paced world affairs and news cycles, even harrowing events are quickly forgotten and consigned to history. B’tselem and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights have therefore done all of us who care about adhering and upholding human rights standards, especially in times of conflict, a tremendous favor by investigating Israel’s conduct during the Great March of Return protests that took place from the end of March 2018 and lasted for nearly 18 months.
The joint report by these two human rights organisations, Israeli and Palestinian respectively, is not only a reminder of the 223 Palestinians, 46 of them under the age of 18, who were killed, and the nearly 8,000 who were injured by live ammunition, though the vast majority of the protesters were unarmed, but that it was done with complete impunity.
I recall a meeting at the height of these protests with two senior UN officials who had just come out of the Gaza Strip, and although both were very experienced in the humanitarian field, I have never seen them as distraught as they were by the scenes that they had just witnessed. It was not only the ever increasing deaths that were causing such visible distress, but on this occasion it was the deliberate targeting of limbs by Israeli snipers.
According to the UK-based NGO Medical Aid for Palestinians, by the end of 2019, 156 limb amputations were performed, and at least 27 people were paralysed as a result of spinal injuries caused by these snipers. This has left a legacy of suffering for decades to come, in a place where medical help and support for those who were left permanently disabled, most of them very young, is in short supply anyway. It is hard to believe that this was not exactly the message that Israel intended to send to the Gazan people, upping the price for those approaching the fence that separates Israel and the Gaza Strip to an unbearable level. In light of the fact that the vast majority of those killed or injured during these protests were unarmed and could hardly pose a threat to a fully equipped and highly modernized army, a thorough investigation into the behaviour of the Israeli armyand the political decision makers behind this policy is necessary.
At the heart of the B’tselem/PCHR report is the issue of accountability, especially considering the deployment of more than 100 snipers along the joint border, with what seems to have been a clear intent to kill and maim. It was probably a deliberate policy that was meant to warn in the most horrific manner those approaching the fence that such an act would end at best in life-changing injuries and at worst in their deaths. The Gaza Strip has suffered from an ongoing land, air, and sea blockade since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, involuntarily becoming the world’s largest open-air prison. Bearing in mind its more than 2 million inhabitants, including some 1.4 million Palestinian refugees and half of the population being children under the age of 18, living in one of the most densely populated territories on Earth under the most appalling conditions, Israel, and Egypt too, can only count their blessings that hundreds of thousands of Gazan “prisoners,” who are rather the victims, not the villains in this story, do not try to escape their imposed confinement more often.
This is the precise reason Israel wanted to deter the March of Return. After all, why should millions of people not try to break free from inhumane conditions where they experience food insecurity, where electricity is at best available for just eight hours a day, where many have infrequent access to clean water and sanitation, where more than 70 per cent rely on humanitarian aid, and where their freedom of movement outside this tiny piece of territory for any reason is practically non-existent? And there is no doubt that the March of Return protests were a political act as much as an act of desperation – but the hopelessness is nevertheless the result of the political conditions that the Gazan people live in, which are a combination of a cruel Israeli blockade and a Hamas government that also doesn’t respect their basic human rights.
At no point did the marchers threaten the security of Israel, and therefore an investigation to determine who created the open-fire policy with such devastating consequences should not be in question. There is a case for arguing that the soldiers should have refused the orders to deliberately kill and injure unarmed protesters. They could have followed the ruling by former Israeli Supreme Court judge Benjamin Halevy at the trial of the Kafr Qassem massacre’s perpetrators, where he famously wrote: “The distinguishing mark of a manifestly illegal order is that above such an order should fly, like a black flag, a warning saying: 'Prohibited!'”
B’tselem and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights have done all of us who care about adhering and upholding human rights standards a favor by investigating Israel’s conduct during the Great March of Return protests.
However, as that report rightly underlined, “the persons primarily responsible for the events and for determining the policy – the government-level officials who shaped, backed and encouraged it, and the Attorney General who confirmed its legality – were never investigated,” once again leaving the responsibility with either the soldiers or, worse, blaming the victims, but never those who make it legally and morally permissible.
Israel did initiate an investigation, but only into what it considered exceptional cases, and not into the regulations and policies under which this behavior occurred, since that might reveal too much of an inconvenient truth. The suspicion is that Israel felt as long as it initiated any sort of investigation, no matter how inadequate, this would be sufficient to avert an investigation by the International Criminal Court, since, the ICC asserts its jurisdiction and opens an investigation only when the state in question is “unwilling or unable” to do so. And when such an investigation is launched, the ICC will not intervene.
The Israeli investigation was therefore more a case of pre-empting an international inquiry than a genuine quest to learn the necessary lessons from this atrocious behavior, or a search for justice. As in many other cases of harming innocent Palestinian civilians, there is no genuine investigation, or if there is any kind of inquiry at all it is more a case of glossing over what needs to be thoroughly examined, which is the chain of culpability that should be traced all the way to highest echelons in the military and government, and permanently uprooted.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg