Could Israel’s Gaza massacre be a turning point?

Palestinian protesters flee from Israeli sniper fire, near the Gaza-Israel border on May 14.

In just over 24 hours on May 14 and 15, the single greatest number of deaths and injuries of Gazans at the hands of the Israeli military since the start of the Great March of Return protests on March 30 occurred. Israel’s latest crimes must be a catalyst to strengthen the struggle for Palestinian freedom.

There were more deaths than in the entire preceding six weeks, as the Gazan protests and Israeli killings coincided with the official opening of the new United States Embassy in Israel in Jerusalem — a huge provocation for Palestinians who see the city as their capital.

As during the entire Great March of Return protests, in which the death toll of unarmed Gazans is into triple figures, not one Israeli injury was reported. In Jerusalem’s streets, where crowds of Israelis waved the Star of David, those raising Palestinian flags were reportedly attacked.

Brutal response

As dignitaries and politicians from 22 countries gathered to celebrate the relocation of the US embassy, Israel unleashed its most brutal response to the Great March of Return yet.

The pattern of injuries remains depressingly familiar. Severe limb and tissue damage from illegal live fire — whether high velocity rounds used at relatively short distances or (as rumoured but unconfirmed) so-called “dum dum” rounds — is still the biggest single category of injury. The death toll could rise as medical assistance is denied entry to Gaza and injured Palestinians are denied permission to leave.

Ministry of Health figures published by Middle East Eye list 59 names out of 62 dead as a result of Israeli attacks on Palestinian protesters in Gaza. The youngest Palestinian to die was eight-month-old Laila Anwar Al-Ghandour, who suffocated after being hit with drone-delivered tear gas.

Fadi Abu Salah, who was made a double amputee during Operation Cast Lead in 2014, also died from injuries received on May 14 — Jerusalem Day. Images of wheelchair-bound, stone throwing Fadi have quickly come to represent the grim determination of Palestinians challenging the ongoing occupation and the horror of Israel’s response to protests marking the 70th anniversary of al-Nakba (“The Catastrophe”), as Palestinians call the foundation of Israel in 1948 on the backs of mass Palestinian dispossession.

Israel claims that it acts with restraint and exercises the greatest judgement in apprehending infiltrators and terrorists can have no traction against a legless man throwing stones and an infant who suffocates because of tear gas. There has been no explanation offered as to why Fadi Abu Salah and Laila Anwar Al-Ghandour were considered such threats to the Israeli state.

Major cities in the West Bank were under virtual lock down in the lead up to the US Embassy inauguration and the Nakba anniversary. This has not stopped people in places like Ramallah, where thousands of Palestinians gathered to march and attempt to reach the infamous Qalandiya checkpoint in Jerusalem.

Restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement are severe and any attempt to circumvent Israel’s system of checkpoints and segregated roads in the West Bank is heavily punished. Dozens were tear gassed as the marchers approached Qalandiya.

The old city of Hebron — or Al Khalil — contains the greatest concentration of checkpoints of anywhere across the West Bank. Palestinian residents endure an incredible level of scrutiny and movement restriction. Participants in the Great March of Return were tear gassed and an unknown number of Palestinians arrested.

Israeli soldiers ransacked a refugee camp close to Hebron on Jerusalem Day, claiming they were shot at to justify late night raids on Palestinian homes. Soldiers prevented vehicle and pedestrian access to a Palestinian market in the days following Nakba, arresting several young boys.

There are reports of abductions of Palestinians across the West Bank, with Al Saha News reporting on May 9 that 12 Palestinians had been abducted that day by Israeli soldiers. Palestinian families are routinely not told for days where a family member has been taken.

The scale of Israel’s killing forced some of the Western responses to the Jerusalem Day/ Nakba Day massacre to shift from the usual remarks about regret for the Palestinians dying in “clashes” — as though it were a struggle between equals and the Palestinians were just unlucky — to active use of words like killing and killed.

The sheer horror and scale of the deaths and injuries could be a turning point in responses to Israeli crimes — if the global solidarity movement is able to capitalise on widespread disgust and anger, and strengthen pressure.

Global response

South Africa and Turkey responded to the massacre by withdrawing their ambassadors. There were also protests across South America and the governments of Bolivia and Venezuela, which have already cut ties with Israel over past massacres, strongly condemned the latest killings.

Others governments, such as Ireland’s, have expressed outrage at Israel’s actions, but stopped short of expelling the Israeli ambassador. However, sections of the Dail (Ireland’s parliament), including some members of the coalition government, have called for the Israeli ambassador to be expelled, and for Ireland to recognise a Palestinian state.

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn condemned Israel’s actions and called for an immediate lifting of Israel’s siege on Gaza. He also called for a review of British arms deals with Israel.

Labour MP Emily Thornberry told the British parliament: “What makes yesterday’s events all the worse is that they came not as the result of some accidental overreaction to one day’s protests, but as the culmination of six weeks of an apparently calculated and deliberate policy to kill and maim unarmed protestors who posed no threat to the forces on the Gaza border.

“Many of them were shot in the back, many of them were shot hundreds of metres from the border and many of them were children.”

In Australia, it has been Greens politicians who have condemned Israel’s actions. Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon and leader Richard Di Natale issued statements condemning Israeli attacks and the failure of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to criticise Israel, with which Australia has arms deals worth billions of dollars.

For 70 years, Palestinians have suffered ongoing Israeli attacks, theft of their land and resources, the destruction of their communities, discriminatory laws, dwindling access to basic infrastructure and amenities and frequent deadly violence by a heavily armed military.

Yet Palestinians continue to demand the right to return to lands from which they were expelled, and an end to Israel’s violence and apartheid law. It is well beyond time the world backs their demands — Israel’s latest deadly crimes must become a turning point in the struggle for Palestinian liberation.