Gaza killings pour fuel on Middle East fires


Gaza has in effect become the world’s largest open prison, its walls heavily secured by both Israel and Egypt. For the past decade both countries have tightly controlled what goes in or out in an attempt to isolate and neutralise Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the strip. Compounding that stranglehold is the rivalry between Palestinian factions, intensified by recent moves from the Palestinian authority to dock the pay of civil servants working for the Hamas administration.

In short, nowhere near enough is getting into Gaza and even less is able to get out. Eventually, as in any prison where the supply of basic commodities is squeezed inhumanely, the inmates rise up. So it is with Gaza. Its inhabitants appear ready to risk life and limb to have their voices heard.

On Friday, the Israeli government responded to protests with deadly force, killing at least 16 Palestinians and injuring many hundreds more. Israel insists that it had no option but to use force to prevent a breach of its borders by Hamas protesters. But the Israeli army has not provided compelling evidence that its soldiers were fired upon first and human rights organisations have cast doubt on Israeli claims of a threat to a heavily fortified border fence.

Israel says 10 of the dead were members of Hamas. The organisation says only five were. These competing narratives, and the potential violations of international human rights laws, demand independent investigation. Israel, however, has rejected UN Secretary General António Guterres’ call for an inquiry.

The containment strategy of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and a disproportionate use of force to police it, is myopic. There are 2m people squeezed into the 40km long and 11km wide strip that makes up Gaza. The conditions in which they live are steadily worsening, amid water and electricity shortages, and impending humanitarian disaster.

Friday’s killings should draw attention to the explosive cocktail that has been brewing as a result. The deaths occurred on the first day of a six-week series of protests culminating at the 70th anniversary commemoration of “Nakba”, when more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes.

Far from de-escalating tensions, Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has warned that the army will “respond more harshly next time” if it perceives that Gazans are attempting to breach the border security area.

This makes for a treacherous few weeks for the Middle East. In the absence of a credible peace process (and in the presence of an administration in Washington that has wielded a wrecking ball to received wisdom on how to create one) there is little cause for hope. The Palestinians, aghast at how ineffectual their ageing leader Mahmoud Abbas has become, are understandably despairing. Clearly, they will gain nothing, and lose more, should Hamas seize on mounting tensions to escalate the crisis.

In these dangerous circumstances, the UN and EU should continue to press for an independent inquiry into Friday’s killings — despite objections from Washington. That is the only way to sift fact from fiction in a region where myths are propagated on all sides.

Israel, meanwhile, would be wise to exercise restraint. In the absence of credible international mediation, all the ingredients are there for another round of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. That would be in no one’s interest, least of all Israel’s.



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