Israel’s murderous violence

June 8, 2011

Eric Ruder reports on the latest Israeli assault on unarmed protesters as the spirit of the Arab Spring spreads through Palestine and beyond.

ISRAELI TROOPS killed 23 unarmed demonstrators and wounded 350 more on the border with Syria June 5 as the protesters marched on the fortified fence separating Syria from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The demonstration near the Golan Heights town of Majdal Shams was organized to mark the 44th anniversary of the 1967 war that left Israel in control of the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula.

Israel's wanton use of violence has angered people throughout the Arab world--as has Egypt's decision to again close its Rafah border crossing with Gaza, just days after it was supposed to be permanently opened for the first time in four years. Israel's violence also seems designed to send a message to activists preparing to launch a second Gaza Freedom Flotilla later this month to bring desperately needed humanitarian supplies to Gaza.

The scene on the Syrian border--of Israeli troops firing on and killing unarmed demonstrators--is a repeat of what occurred May 15 during Palestinian protests to commemorate Israel's war of "ethnic cleansing" that led to its founding in 1948.

Protesters who marched to a fortified border fence with Israel carry a man wounded by IDF forces
Protesters who marched to a fortified border fence with Israel carry a man wounded by IDF forces

Predictably, Israeli officials downplayed the violence, claiming that Syrian sources were overstating the casualties--and that protesters took "theatrical" measures to deal with victims of Israeli gunshots in order to gain international sympathy.

"There were a lot of charades," Lt. Col. Avital Leibovitz, an Israeli military spokeswoman, told reporters. "When someone was shot in the feet, they were carried away on a stretcher in front of the cameras," she said.

Apparently Leibovitz thinks that Palestinians shot in the feet by snipers should have walked to safety under their own power.

Amnesty International contradicted the Israeli version of events, based on an eyewitness report by a human rights activist, and called for a full investigation, according to a Ma'an News Agency report:

The activist said soldiers had initially warned protesters in Arabic before opening fire, as Israeli army statements had said, but that troops did not fire tear gas or sound bombs to disperse the protesters until around dusk, in contradiction to army assurances that all non-lethal means were used, Amnesty said in a statement.

The rights organization also noted that while military spokespeople said Israeli troops aimed at the lower half of protesters' bodies, Syrian health authorities reported that the majority of injuries were to the upper body.

The Israeli military is well-equipped to use non-lethal means to deal with unarmed protesters, as it has many times in the past with Israeli settlers. But in this case--with unarmed Palestinian protesters in their sights--Israeli troops opened fire.

Israeli and U.S. officials asserted that the use of lethal force against unarmed marchers was justified, and denounced the nonviolent protests as an attempt by the Syrian regime to deflect attention from the anti-government protests shaking that country. "This is clearly an attempt by Syria to incite these kinds of protests," said State Department spokesperson Mark Toner. "Israel, like any sovereign nation, has a right to defend itself."

In fact, the day after the massacre, Syrian police set up checkpoints to prevent pro-Palestinian marchers from reaching the border fence separating the Golan Heights from Syria.

BUT EVEN if the protests were encouraged by the Syrian regime, the fact is that the protests reflect the popular mood--and represent one more way in which the Arab Spring is affecting the Palestinian struggle for liberation.

Majdal Shams resident Selim Ibrahim said he had watched with pride as the demonstrators scrambled down a hill on the Syrian side and raced towards a razor wire barrier to begin cutting through it. As he sat atop an unfinished building watching for signs of renewed protests on the Syrian side, he told a reporter:

These people are full of Arab nationalism, they're proud, and they feel they have no rights. It might not change anything now, but it does affect public opinion abroad, and it also makes the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza know that they are with them, they are suffering, too.

Other effects of the Arab Spring include the announcement of a plan for a Fatah-Hamas unity government and the Palestinian Authority's vow to push for statehood at the UN General Assembly in September. But more generally, there is a growing frustration among the mass of Palestinians with the slow pace of change--and a willingness to express that frustration in action.

For example, 100,000 Palestinians marched in the Al-Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria to protest Israel's June 5 massacre of protesters. The massive demonstration was an outpouring of anger that boiled over into a confrontation with gunmen from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a pro-Syrian Palestinian organization with a building in the camp. The gunmen shot and killed 14 Palestinians and injured more than 40 more.

There has also been fury at Egypt's decision to re-close the Rafah crossing into Gaza--just days after it announced with great fanfare that the border with Gaza was being permanently opened.

Significant restrictions remained even before Egypt's decision to close the border again. For example, men between the ages of 18 and 40 were barred from crossing, unless they had a foreign visa or proof of admission to a university abroad. Hundreds of Palestinians without identification documents cannot leave Gaza under any circumstances--and Israel remains in control of the population registry responsible for issuing such documents.

In the first days after Rafah was opened, thousands of Palestinians flooded to the border checkpoint to cross. It's widely speculated that Egyptian authorities came under heavy pressure from the U.S. and Israel and decided to put a cap of 400 on the number of Palestinians allowed to cross each day. When anger at the glacial pace emerged, Palestinian authorities closed the border altogether.

Egypt has announced plans to reopen the border on June 8, to the relief of thousands of Palestinians waiting to cross. But even if it does abide by this promise, the checkpoint won't be equipped to handle the importation of building materials and other goods needed to alleviate the siege conditions imposed in Gaza by Israel--much less to start the massive rebuilding necessary to return Gaza to some semblance of normalcy after years of Israeli bombing, in particular, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 that leveled thousands of buildings and left more than 1,400 people dead.

IN THIS context, the second international Gaza Freedom Flotilla set to sail in the third week of June represents an exciting challenge to Israel's illegal blockade of Gaza. The last flotilla came to a bloody end on May 31 last year when Israeli troops illegally boarded the ships and killed nine unarmed Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara in the dead of night.

The U.S., Israel and even UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon all sought to dissuade governments along the Mediterranean coast from allowing boats desitined for the flotilla to set sail from their shores, but it appears that the pressure campaign has failed.

Turkey, which plans to send the Mavi Marmara to again joint the flotilla, has come under especially heavy pressure, but according to Al Jazeera English:

Ahmet Davutoglu, the widely respected Turkish foreign minister, has said repeatedly in recent weeks when asked about Freedom Flotilla 2, that no democratic government should claim the authority to exercise control over the initiatives of civil society, as represented by NGOs. Davutoglu has been quoted as saying, "[N]obody should expect forget that nine civilians were killed last year...Therefore, we are sending a clear message to all those concerned. The same tragedy should not be repeated again."

Israel, however, has threatened to use snipers and attack dogs against the humanitarian aid mission "in order to protect Israeli soldiers"--as if Israeli soldiers, not the aid activists, are the ones in danger!

Such threats are alarming. But predictably, they haven't incurred any condemnation from U.S. officials who unswervingly back Israel's use of force in such circumstances.

A fact-finding mission appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the attack on the last flotilla found that Israel violated international law in several respects. According to the mission, Israel used excessive force, wrongfully attacked humanitarian vessels in international waters, and in any case had no right to enforce a blockade that is itself unlawful.

Activists in the U.S. and around the world must be prepared protest outside Israeli embassies and consulates if and when Israel attempts to use force against or otherwise intercept the aid vessels bound for Gaza.

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