Opinionista Alon Liel 26 April 2018

Israel: To be ashamed or not to be ashamed? That is the question

Israel should know better than to shoot live ammunition at demonstrators as history has taught us time and again. The coming days and weeks will determine the lessons gleaned from the killing of demonstrators in Gaza.

On 30 March, as the IDF shot dead 17 Palestinians and wounded hundreds with live ammunition near the fence separating the Gaza Strip from Israel, one of Israel’s leading journalists, Kobi Meidan, wrote a five-word post: “Today, I’m ashamed I’m Israeli.”

His life instantly changed. The hundreds of threatening posts were trivial relative to the order of the commander of Galei Tzahal, the army radio station for which he works, calling for his dismissal. Over the course of the following week, Israelis throughout the country attempted to clarify to Meidan just how proud he should be of his country. Yet many Israelis have ceased to be proud of their country, and have even begun to be ashamed. Not only because of the senseless killing on the Gaza border (currently approaching 30 killed, as I write), but also due to the reoccurring corruption scandals of the prime minister and his aids, as well as the government’s effort to forcefully expel some 34,000 asylum seekers.

The use of live ammunition against demonstrators over these past two Fridays is no less than despicable. The state of Israel, which has already successfully destroyed nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria, and is armed with state-of-the-art equipment to contend with demonstrations, had other means to address the protests, threatening as they may have seemed. There was undoubtedly another way. The massive crisis in the Gaza Strip is no secret. The approaching humanitarian tragedy is an unavoidable fact. The preparations for a march of the masses toward the border were candid and clear. Israel declared in advance that it would fire live ammunition and was even be prepared to “pay the price”. The decision to shoot was aimed to intimidate and deter, while shortening the cost of engagement – in turn minimizing the manpower needed to handle the Gazan front.

Israel should know better than to shoot live ammunition at demonstrators as history has taught us time and again.

On 5 March 1770, American demonstrators gathered outside a British customs house in Boston. Some of the demonstrators carried various objects that they hurled at the British soldiers, who were ordered not to allow anyone to cross a certain line. At some point, someone opened fire: five demonstrators were killed, six others were wounded. The incident, known as the “Boston Massacre,” is considered one of the turning points heralding the American Revolutionary War for independence.

In India, too, a massacre took place that generated change. On 13 April, 1919, in the city of Amritsar in the state of Punjab, Indian soldiers serving the British Army killed 379 Indian protesters and injured thousands more, most of whom were of the Sikh religion.

On March 21, 1960, thousands of demonstrators marched toward the police station in Sharpeville, South Africa. They were armed with rage and stones that they hurled at the policemen. At some stage, the police opened fire: 69 demonstrators were killed, 180 were wounded. Many of the demonstrators were shot in their backs trying to escape police fire. The incident, later known as the “Sharpeville Massacre,” compelled Nelson Mandela to choose armed resistance. The massacre is considered a dramatic turning point in the history of South Africa to this day, and a symbol of the struggle against apartheid and racism at large.

On Friday, 30 March 2018, tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered a few hundred meters from the border fence. They started marching towards it, waving flags and armed with burning tires, painting the air black. Seventeen demonstrators were killed and hundreds were wounded, many of them by live ammunition. History is yet to name the incident. Similar marches are planned in Gaza over the next few weeks. How this killing will impact the long-term future is yet unknown, though this could certainly be a turning point. One may predict the actions of the Palestinians, as well as the Israeli reaction. What remains completely unknown is how the world will react. The one thing we are certain of, is that without an international response the incident remain meaningless.

Years later, as president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela chose Sharpeville as the location to sign his country’s new Constitution. The coming days and weeks will determine the lessons gleaned from the killing of demonstrators in Gaza. This tragedy must be charged with a hopeful horizon of liberation, so that it can be remembered as a turning point for the better. This rests in all our hands. DM

Dr Alon Liel is a former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and was an Israeli ambassador to South Africa

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