Middle East

Palestinian Casualties Are No Accident for Hamas

The organizers of a march on Israel's border are spoiling for a fight.
Corrected

A Palestinian protester flings a rock toward Israeli defense forces on April 2.

Photographer: Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Leave it to Hamas to make nonviolence violent.

This is what happened over the weekend as thousands of Gazans swarmed the Israeli border crossing on what they called a "march of return." It's not just that the Israeli Defense Force claims to have video showing peaceful marchers interspersed with militants wielding Molotov cocktails and burning tires. The organizers of this civil disobedience, Hamas, are themselves devoted to bloodshed.

As the Qassem Brigades helpfully announced on Sunday, five of the 16 marchers killed during the march were members of this Hamas militia -- which shares a name with the short-range rockets its members launch at Israeli towns and cities. You may remember them. In 2014, their kidnapping and murder of Israeli teenagers sparked the last major war between Israel and Hamas.

In case the point was missed this time around, the statement from the Brigades promises: "The blood of the pure martyrs will not go to waste. The enemy will pay a price at a time and place and in a way that the resistance decides.”   

None of this is to say that Gazans do not have legitimate grievances. They face a triple blockade from Israel to its north, Egypt to its south and the Palestinian Authority, that last year sought to choke off the strip from the electric grid in Israel. The fact that at least 16 Palestinians were killed in the march compounds this suffering. 

And that suffering demands attention from people of conscience. But this attention should not treat the arsonist like the fire victim. The arsonist is the march's organizer, Hamas. For this group, any Palestinian casualties in the march were a feature and not a bug. Like its tactics in previous Gaza wars, where it launched rockets from apartment buildings and schools, Hamas seeks Palestinian casualties to earn legitimacy for its armed struggle.

Other nonviolent movements have also sought to show the brutality of the oppressor to a global audience. Gandhi's 1930 Salt March comes to mind. But the analogy falls apart this time because unlike Gandhi's independence struggle for India, Hamas remains committed to the violent negation of the world's only Jewish state. Gandhi didn't send armed thugs to walk alongside civilians. And yet the reaction from many in Europe and America was to treat this Hamas provocation as an expression of Palestinian civil disobedience.  

Take European Union foreign policy chief and engagement enthusiast Federica Mogherini. She called for an independent investigation into Israel's use of live ammunition. "Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are fundamental rights that must be respected," she said.

Bernie Sanders struck a similar note. He tweeted: "The killing of Palestinian demonstrators by Israeli forces in Gaza is tragic. It is the right of all people to protest for a better future without a violent response."

Let's start by noting that the organizers of the march, Hamas, do not allow Palestinians to "protest for a better future." As the sovereigns of Gaza, Hamas authorities arrest Palestinians for spreading rumors online. They have cracked down on male barbers for cutting women's hair. If you are deemed a "collaborator," Hamas has been known to drag your corpse behind a motorcycle.

All of that aside, even if Hamas were committed to nonviolence -- which it clearly is not -- its aims should horrify Western progressives and conservatives alike. Hamas does not seek a two-state solution; it seeks to replace the world's only Jewish state with one ruled by fanatics. The title of the weekend's event, "The March of Return," is a giveaway. The idea is that every Palestinian family and its descendants have a right to return to the Israeli territory that Palestinians fled during the 1948 war for independence. Such a return would overwhelm the existing Jewish majority.  

And this is why it's so dangerous to treat last weekend's march like the Arab Spring or the brave demonstrations in Iran a few months ago. The march which has been discussed in Palestinian civil society for months was hijacked by Hamas, an organization that during nearly 11 years of rule has brought death and deprivation to Gaza.

Hamas is not the only culprit. Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority also share blame. But it is Hamas that has turned Gaza into a military staging area at the expense of the population. It is Hamas that kidnaps soldiers and civilians. It's Hamas that builds tunnels to infiltrate commandos into Israel to kill Jewish civilians. It's Hamas that venerates teenagers who killed themselves to bomb markets and restaurants.

A dozen years ago, it seemed like this approach had real popular support. Hamas won legislative elections in 2006, in part as a rejection of the corruption and failures of the Palestinian Authority. Today though, Hamas is desperate for another war, another distraction from its miserable record governing Gaza.

The least the U.N., the European Union and American progressives could do is to recognize this plain fact. The Palestinian people should not be conflated with the terrorists who seek to exploit their misery.

(Corrects origin of militia's name in third paragraph.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

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    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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