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IDF falls into Hamas’ trap on Gaza border

It took Israel three weeks to understand what was evident from the beginning: that only restraint could minimize the number of casualties on the Gaza border fence.

One of the most infuriating aspects of the conflict taking place on the Gaza border over the last few weeks is that there are no surprises in this script. The Palestinians in this crowded prison are ready — at least some are — to risk their lives in order to express their rage. The most powerful army in the region, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), still does not know exactly how to deal with unarmed civilians. So it shoots. Hamas sees the popular protest initiative as a blessing and grants it resources and an institutional framework, where every Palestinian casualty counts as an achievement. Some of the world criticizes Israel for disproportionate use of force, but since the United States is not participating in this critique, the Netanyahu government is not worried.

It is a script with a familiar ending, also because it has a deadline: May 15, the day the Palestinian people mark as Nakba Day (Day of Catastrophe), marking the establishment of Israel. On this date the last and largest demonstration is set to take place, where Palestinians are expected to be killed in larger numbers than in previous weeks. After that, most likely, Fridays will return to normal. Hamas will see this as a “victory,” because it succeeded in leading a significant public process, preventing its rival, the Palestinian Authority (PA), from placing additional sanctions on the Gaza Strip, and proving that it is the most significant political body in the field, despite 11 years of a proven failure to govern. It could glorify itself with about a hundred Palestinian casualties, if not more, hundreds of wounded and a sense among Palestinians that cunning on their part could draw media attention, even though the world has grown weary of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the internal Palestinian one. 

The Israeli government could also declare “victory,” especially if the Palestinians do not cross the border and the number of wounded on the Israeli side remains zero. 

The investigations of the events, which draw more public interest than the events and their handling themselves, are important, of course. Nine days after the conflict at the fence began, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot decided to appoint an investigation panel — headed by Brig. Gen. Motti Baruch, the head of the IDF’s Operations Directorate's Instruction and Doctrine Division — to examine the army’s operation against the Palestinian protesters. We can assume that the IDF understands that every Palestinian fatality — especially if it is a minor, woman or journalist — is a clear advantage for Hamas. Despite knowing for many years that a conflict at the fence is an option considered seriously by the Palestinian side, the inventors of the Iron Dome missile defense system have not come up with a means to temporarily neutralize the other side without obliterating it. 

The International Criminal Court has also started an investigation. Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who has won over the years credibility for her careful and measured work, announced April 8 that she will investigate both Israel’s conduct and the conduct of Hamas, to decide whether to submit indictments. This is a very long process that will not necessarily lead to meaningful decisions. And still, this is one of the few international institutions that has teeth. Thus, when it starts to work its gears, it does cause concern for the parties involved. After all, what makes this court unique is that it tries individuals themselves and not states. 

But the more meaningful investigation should take place in Israel, and it should take place on the political level. Not because Israel is the only one to blame for the situation in the Gaza Strip (it shares blame with Egypt and the PA), but because it is the only democracy involved, and every public inquiry has ramifications and conclusions. Israel has been embroiled for many decades in a clearly asymmetrical battle with the Palestinian side, and it faces a complicated challenge in conducting itself as a state dealing with a non-state, both in a situation of warfare and in negotiations toward peace or more modest diplomatic agreements. 

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon acted with a great deal of courage when he unilaterally left Gaza in 2005 and destroyed all of the Israeli settlements created there. But to the same extent he acted irresponsibly when he did not examine the legal ramifications of this act, and when he did not try to accomplish the disengagement as part of an agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and when he acted under the unfounded belief that throwing the keys to the other side is enough to be rid of all responsibility for the future of the Gaza Strip.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to destroy the threat of Hamas in Gaza on the eve of entering office in 2009, while Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, the most outspoken figure in Israeli politics, boasted in May 2016, a short time before his surprising appointment to the role, that if he assumes responsibility for the issue, he would destroy Hamas’ leadership in short order. There was nothing behind these threats — no secret plan, no considered thought, but empty drawers, and disdain for public opinion, which it seems is prepared to swallow any foolishness as credible.

The “startup nation” should not have allowed itself to step into the obvious trap prepared for it by the desperate youth of Gaza and Hamas, which was smart enough to back them. An Israeli official with access to secret documents and discussions will have to get into the thick of things to understand the mistakes we made in dealing with the Gaza Strip, and how we could fix the damage.

The prime minister in the 1960s, Levi Eshkol, used the Yiddish expression "Shimshon der nebekhdiker" ("poor, misfortunate Samson") to describe, with nearly scientific precision, how Israel complains, day in and day out, about problematic things that it does, not of bad intent, but because it is so strong and its enemies weak. 

It seems that on April 13 some lessons were finally learned. Journalists were allowed to enter the area where IDF snipers are stationed. The snipers’ supervision by senior commanders was clear and plainly visible. One Palestinian was killed by Israeli fire — a significant decline compared to the 30 casualties in the two weeks prior. But this correction should be only the beginning.

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