ISRAEL-GAZA BORDER—At the same time that Israeli and U.S. officials were congratulating themselves at a lavish ceremony opening the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, here at the line between Israel and Gaza more than 50 Palestinian protesters were killed and over 1,000 injured as they tried to breach the border fence separating the coastal territory from Israel.
Serious violence was, in truth, expected: the culmination of seven weeks of demonstrations at the border in what Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, promised would be the “mother of all marches.” But by late morning it was clear the demonstrations and violence today would be different from what had gone before.
The Palestinians were setting tires ablaze, hoping a smokescreen would shield them from Israeli snipers, and the black clouds from the burning rubber rose high above Gaza, visible for miles all around southern Israel. Closer to the action, on the outskirts of the Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz parallel to central Gaza, the choking smell of burning rubber wafted into a makeshift journalist position on a hill overlooking the demonstrators below.
Thousands of Gazans already were positioned at that early hour at the large camp set up in the shadow of the old Karni border crossing, near the Shujaiya neighborhood. This was just the biggest of what ultimately would be 12 such camps established all up and down Gaza. Demonstrators were fanned out on foot south of Karni, standing opposite the fence, and opposite the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
A lone Merkava battle tank guarded Nahal Oz’s easternmost flank. Armored Humvees flitted to and fro on the dirt access roads, and heavily armed infantry could be seen deployed to the earthen berms that marked the front line.
Aside from acting as a physical impediment to any cross-border infiltration, the berms also served as elevated nests for IDF snipers directly facing the demonstrators. As one European journalist who had recently reported in Gaza told me, demonstrators can see the faces of the snipers, that’s how short the distance is.
At various points, the crack of sniper fire could be heard, but more often it was the heavier, almost incessant thud of tear gas canisters deployed either via cylinder launchers from atop Humvees or from drones. There was a constant cacophony: IDF personnel on loudspeakers urging protesters, in Arabic, to stay 300 meters away from the fence, and preachers on the other side with their own loudspeakers urging the opposite. And throughout were the ominous sirens of ambulances evacuating the Palestinian wounded inside Gaza.
For journalists on the Israeli side of all this, behind the IDF military police lines, the risk was catching a whiff of tear gas due to the eastward wind—a sign, itself, that the IDF’s nonlethal means of crowd dispersal wouldn’t be all that effective in such open spaces.
Against Israel, Gazans chose to deploy a new weapon—kites—and more to the point, kites bearing incendiary devices that dropped into the fields of the various Israeli agricultural communities all around. Two such kites fell behind the journalist position outside Nahal Oz, starting a conflagration in the dry wheat. IDF bulldozers and firefighting crews eventually put out the blazes.
Hamas militants, for their part, did use live fire against Israeli forces on at least one occasion farther north, and one cell attempted to lay improvised explosive devices on the fence farther south, belying the claims of a wholly nonviolent protest movement.
But overall, the vast majority of violence was due to Palestinian protesters, many unarmed, attempting to reach, and breach, the border fence—and Israeli forces using lethal countermeasures to rebuff them.
In response to the high level of violence, the IDF bombed several Hamas positions in north Gaza near Jabaliya in the later afternoon. Journalists at the Black Arrow lookout point near the kibbutz of Kfar Aza could hear the massive booms clearly.
Black Arrow is also the site of a memorial to previous Israel-Gaza violence, back in the early 1950s, when Israeli paratroopers carried out retaliatory raids against what was then Egyptian-occupied territory. Now it’s a venue for picnics. Underneath a small pine forest, the tables were filled this day by IDF soldiers from a mixed-gender combat unit and soot-faced firefighters milling about, waiting for something to happen.
To be sure, there was still the occasional sound of live fire or tear gas grenades from across the vast fire-scorched wheat field below. But the Jabaliya camp appeared to be static. Elsewhere in Gaza, like at Karni previously, protesters played a more dynamic cat and mouse game with the Israelis. There were, we were told, IDF personnel—including special forces—all around Gaza in case of a breach, but they were well-concealed.
In the end, the Gazans never rushed the fence en masse as had been threatened. The relatively low turnout, an estimated 40,000 at the 12 different camps, was less than half the number feared by Israeli officials. But that only makes the eventual loss of life on the Gazan side that much more striking: 55 dead and counting.
The IDF, as it has been saying for weeks, simply cannot allow Palestinians to break through into Israel, risking wider violence as well as harm to the civilian communities nearby.
“The army’s mission,” said IDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, “is to defend our home. What Hamas planned was to breach the fence, for terror operatives to infiltrate into Israel and attack soldiers and civilians. We completed our mission with success.”
Many in the international community have criticized the IDF as trigger happy, noting the repeated cases of women, children, and journalists struck by sniper bullets. The IDF responds that a senior commander has to authorize every use of live fire—and yet mistakes or accidents clearly occur, without any real follow-up (to date) to explain why.
For its part, Hamas is an internationally designated terror group committed to violence, and it has effectively co-opted what began as a grassroots protest movement. More to the point, Hamas by its own admission, has failed at governing Gaza since it evicted the Palestinian Authority (PA) in a violent coup nine years ago. With Israel and Egypt and the PA squeezing it economically, and with three failed wars with Israel since 2009 behind it, Hamas views these demonstrations on the border as a good bludgeon against Israel internationally and as a possible escape valve.
The more deaths there are, the more media attention and world sympathy is directed toward Gaza’s plight—as the eclipse today of the U.S. Embassy opening celebration demonstrates. Indeed, for three straight nights Gazan rioters have set fires at the Kerem Shalom crossing—a vital lifeline for fuel, gas, and all manner of goods into the Strip. One Hamas leader has already threatened increased violence, saying late tonight that “the patience of the resistance factions, including… Hamas and [its military wing] the Qassam Brigades, will not last for a long time.”
Driving further north on the border, on a hill outside the Israeli town of Sderot, I came across a young Israeli couple seated below a massive olive tree looking out in the direction of Gaza. It may have been the bloodiest day for a long time in this interminable conflict, but Gaza—save for some tear gas in the distance—was an abstraction, and something you watched (fairly securely) down below. It was the best summation possible of how different the reality is on either side of this volatile frontier. Sadly, given today’s events and the escalating threats from both sides, Tuesday may prove to be just as violent.