This week the Israeli-Palestinian conflict saw an exercise in black and white morality. The blame for deaths in Gaza either fell squarely on Hamas or completely in Israel’s court. That dichotomy played out over and over in editorial pages and on television programs around the world, with split-screen imagery between the U.S. Embassy opening in Jerusalem and Gaza demonstrations offering a bizarre and discomforting backdrop to Monday’s events.
The “split-screen” effect made it almost impossible to separate the embassy opening from the Gaza crisis, even though the two events were tangentially related at best. The Trump administration’s toxic reputation at home and abroad makes it difficult to see the ceremony as anything but inextricably connected to an unpopular president. The whole affair felt made for the cinema, with Ivanka Trump cast (perhaps unfairly) as a Marie Antoinette figure, beaming as Israeli bullets felled Palestinians along the border, all set to a disquieting soundtrack of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” covered by Israeli singer Chagit Yasso.
It is difficult to overstate the degree to which the confluence of events on Monday and Trump and Netanyahu’s polarizing records sharpened responses to both the embassy opening and Gaza demonstrations. Some might still regard the embassy relocation as foolhardy under different circumstances, and the event was painfully partisan, but it would hardly look like such a gross excess if not attached to the Gaza demonstrations, Trump, and Netanyahu.
Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is also a consensus opinion among all major Israeli political parties outside the Arab sector and far-left, yet the issue has seemingly become exclusively Netanyahu’s turf. Under a prime minister seriously committed to a two-state solution and a US president genuinely interested in guiding that process, perhaps moving the embassy would not feel so calamitous to so many people. Indeed, under such circumstances it would seem strange for a building in indisputably Israeli territory (West Jerusalem) to be so intimately tied to the occupation, and yet, in the current context it is perfectly understandable (even if one does not agree with the connection).
The Gaza border confrontation is also taking place under the shadow of Trump and Netanyahu. To the uninformed observer, the two leaders’ personal friendship, affinity for populism and ultra-nationalist politics, and shared belief in the value of border walls makes Israel’s response to attempted breaches of the Gaza fence not a national security necessity but state-sponsored brutality aimed at sending a political message. Hamas is weak and confined to a position wherein it can only lob inaccurate and primitive rockets into Israel while threatening abductions via tunnels soon to be cut off by a subterranean barrier. It is a far cry from the massive fatalities the organization inflicted when its operatives were actually able to enter Israel in the 1990s and early 2000s. That bloody campaign of terror represented the original rationale for blockading the Hamas-run enclave, but it remains poorly understood outside of Israel.
Memories of terrorism from that era are muddied by Israel’s growing association with a deeply divisive US president, the accompanying pro-/anti-Trump dynamic, and the more recent echoes of three devastating Israeli military campaigns inside the Strip in which Palestinian (including civilian) casualties far outnumbered Israeli ones and Hamas was an ineffectual fighting force almost exclusively restricted to Gaza’s territory.
Much as the political opposition in the United States and in Israel has struggled to offer an alternative beyond “not Trump” and “not Netanyahu,” critics of Israel’s response to the Gaza riots tend to stop at simply saying “not this.” They are correct that something needs to be done differently. Even if the blockade was initiated on sound logic, Israeli restrictions combined with Hamas mismanagement have been disastrous for Gaza. 97 percent of drinking water is contaminated and 43.9 percent of the population is unemployed.
There are also perfectly legitimate questions about the IDF’s response to the demonstrations, (which it had several months of advance public notice to work with) including regarding the striking number of fatalities and injuries. Israeli authorities identified 24 of those killed as Hamas and Islamic Jihad members. Hamas put the number at 50, and the larger figure was quickly adopted by many Israelis and their supporters, even though it is not clear what Hamas membership entails in this context of Hamas’s claim (Participation in Hamas’s military wing? Party registration? A flat-out lie? As Hussein Ibish shrewdly observed on Twitter, Hamas may be trying to inflate perceptions of their political influence and might just as well have said 77 of 62 dead were Hamasniks).
Any military action merits review, investigation, and oversight, and such an inquiry may well conclude that deaths, including those of innocent civilians, were preventable. But it is hard to see a probe determining that no forceful response should have been fielded whatsoever. Had a mass-crossing of the fence been permitted, how would armed terrorists be distinguished from civilians? Would Palestinians simply wander back to their ancestral homes in Israel? And what of the risk that a single violent attack could set off the march to full-scale war as it did in the summer of 2014? It is clear that Israeli reaction to the border situation was imperfect and perhaps poorly planned, but it is equally evident that “not this” – an extension of “not Trump” and “not Netanyahu” – is not sufficient. But given the difficulty in separating partisan politics from real humanitarian and security imperatives, a serious alternative for Gaza will remain wanting.