I am no fan of President Trump and I am ready to blame him for a lot of things — but not for the terrible bloodshed in the Gaza Strip on Monday. Yes, the confrontation between Palestinians and Israeli security forces occurred at the same time as the unveiling of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. And, yes, the embassy’s relocation could have been handled more smoothly and diplomatically. But it doesn’t mean that, if the embassy had stayed in Tel Aviv, peace and tranquility would have prevailed in Gaza.
Hamas, the terrorist organization that controls Gaza, would not accept any U.S. Embassy anywhere in Israel, because it doesn’t accept the state of Israel. Its charter says that “Palestine is a land that was seized by a racist, anti-human and colonial Zionist project” and vows that “the resistance . . . shall continue until liberation is accomplished.”
The nature of that resistance has changed over the years. From 1948 to 1973, Arab armies tried to destroy Israel through conventional military operations. That failed. During the 1970s, the Palestine Liberation Organization switched to terrorism. That too failed. Then, in 1987, came the First Intifada — Palestinian youths hurling rocks and molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers. That worked better, because the conscience of most Israelis was rightly pricked by pictures of Israeli soldiers shooting demonstrators. Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to recognize each other, but the reconciliation stalled when Yasser Arafat gave his go-ahead to the Second Intifada in 2000. This was more violent: suicide bombers rather than rock-throwers. But it too failed.
By the end of the Second Intifada in 2005, most Israelis were ready to wall themselves off from the Palestinians. Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister at the time, pulled Israeli settlements out of Gaza. But in 2007, Hamas, after having won legislative elections, seized control of Gaza. So now Israel had to deal with a terrorist state located about 40 miles from Tel Aviv (roughly the distance between Baltimore and Washington). One of Hamas’s first acts was a cross-border attack to kidnap an Israeli soldier.
To protect itself, Israel established tight security controls around Gaza, but Hamas used tunnels to smuggle in missiles and other weapons from Egypt. Hamas repeatedly rocketed Israel, leading Israel to stage three major military operations — in 2008-09, 2012, and 2014 — to establish a measure of deterrence.
The people of the Gaza Strip have paid a catastrophic price for this conflict. Egypt’s military regime has closed its sole border crossing with Gaza, and Israel has closed three of its five crossings . (Palestinians regularly attack the crossings — most recently on May 6 — and use them to try to smuggle fighters and weapons into Israel.) The Palestinian Authority cut salaries for some 38,000 civil servants in Gaza along with economic subsidies to pressure its rivals in Hamas. The result? According to the World Bank, the unemployment rate is more than 40 percent and the “economy and basic social services” are “collapsing.”
Amid this despair, Hamas has mobilized tens of thousands of Palestinians to march toward the border fence. Its aim is to pressure Egypt and Israel into easing the blockade and the Palestinian Authority into resuming payments. Israel is caught in a no-win situation: It can’t allow its border to be overrun — no state can — but if it tries to protect its territory, it runs a high risk of a human tragedy and a public-relations nightmare.
Sure enough, on Monday, Israeli soldiers ended up killing some 62 Palestinians. Hamas itself says that 50 of those killed were Hamas members. One 23-year-old “protester” told The Post that he was “excited to storm” Israel, where he would do “whatever is possible, to kill, throw stones.” It is easy to criticize Israel, but difficult to say how it should defend itself.
My suspicion is that the Israeli Defense Forces have been as ill-prepared for this new challenge as they were for the two Intifadas. Soldiers may have resorted to gunfire because they felt they had no good alternative. Israel, a high-tech powerhouse that has already pioneered missile defenses, should now take the lead in nonlethal weapons. These could be augmented with additional physical barriers to avoid deadly confrontations. The Israeli government would be well advised to appoint an independent commission of inquiry to recommend the necessary changes.
But those possible tactical misjudgments in no way obviate Hamas’s ultimate responsibility for this horror. Israel has shown it is willing to ease economic restrictions if the security threat decreases. That’s why life is so much better in the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority security forces work with the IDF to stop terrorism: The unemployment rate is less than half of what it is in Gaza.
If Hamas wants to ease the suffering of its people, it needs to do what the Palestinian Authority has already done: Accept the existence of Israel. But if it does that, Hamas will lose its raison d’etre. This, ultimately, is why the 1.8 million people of Gaza are consigned to an “open-air prison.” Their jailers are in Hamas, not Israel.
Max Boot, a Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. A best-selling historian, he is the author most recently of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam. Follow @MaxBoot.