On Tuesday Daniel Sugarman wrote an article on the clashes at the Gaza border. Today he acknowledges that he was wrong.
It’s never easy to say you’re sorry.
To admit you’re wrong. To announce publicly, “I made a mistake”.
But to apologise when that apology comes bound up with what is, perhaps, the most intractable conflict on earth, makes it a thousand times harder.
But that is what I am. Sorry.
A few days ago I wrote a column about the latest round of violence on the border with Gaza.
It was a cry from the heart. I love Israel. I have always loved it, and cannot envision a time when I will not love it.
But in my office, I sit near a television set. And on Monday, I saw the following, side by side.
On the left, in Jerusalem, I saw happy faces. Self-congratulatory faces. I saw the Prime Minister of Israel talking about how the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem was a big step towards peace.
And on the right, simultaneously, in Gaza, I saw tear gas, and smoke, and bullets.
And it was in this context that I wrote my piece, which was an extremely personal one. I wrote it in anguish. I wrote it making clear that I despised Hamas and all it stood for. But I also wrote the following:
“Every bullet Israel fires, every life Israel takes, makes this situation worse. There are ways to disperse crowds which do not include live fire. But the IDF has made an active choice to fire live rounds and kill scores of people. You cannot tell me that Israel, a land of technological miracles which have to be seen to be truly believed, is incapable of coming up with a way of incapacitating protestors that does not include gunning dozens of them down. But no. In front of the entire world, Israel keeps shooting, and protestors, including very young protestors, keep dying. You may tell me that Hamas wants these deaths, wants to create martyrs, wants to fill the hearts of the people of Gaza with rage against Israel because the alternative is for people to look at their lives in Gaza and rage against Hamas. But if you tell me that, why are you not asking yourselves why Israel is so willingly giving Hamas exactly what it wishes?”
I received a lot of praise for my piece, from people I admire greatly, as well as from a great many unexpected sources, including from within the Jewish community.
I also received a lot of criticism. I got called a traitor, and that most vile of all insults a Jew can bestow or receive, a “Kapo”.
People also wrote pieces in response. I was told that, as a Jew not currently living in Israel, my greatest worry was whether Starbucks would have almond-soya milk for my latte.
But the criticism I paid more attention to was from people who pointed out that it was absurd to deal in hypotheticals. I’d said that surely there must be a way the protestors could be stopped without shooting live ammunition at them – that Israel, with its incredible technological capabilities, must be capable of developing a way. That was a cry of anguish, but it was not an argument. If no such technology currently exists, then it was absurd of me to blame the IDF for not magically willing it into existence. The traditional crowd stopping technology would not have worked effectively. Rubber bullets are only short range. The same with water cannons. And with tens of thousands of people rushing the border, this would have been extremely unlikely to work effectively. The border would have been broken through. And then, without much of a doubt, a lot of people in Israel would have died. That was, after all, Hamas’s stated aim.
But what really affected me the most was yesterday, when a Hamas operative went on television and claimed that, of the 62 people killed in the last two days, fifty were Hamas operatives. Islamic Jihad claimed three more, meaning that over 80 percent of the people who were killed while trying to breach the border were members of terrorist organisations whose direct aim is to bring death and suffering into Israel.
And I opened my eyes and saw what I had done.
I had fallen into the trap I had always been convinced I would not fall into. I had condemned Israel for defending itself.
There are things one can write about how Israel could have acted differently in the run-up to these attempts to charge the border. But I did not write about those in my original piece. I wrote that, by killing the Palestinians running towards them, the IDF was giving Hamas exactly what it wished for – martyrs for the cause.
I failed to acknowledge that, either way, Israel would be giving Hamas what it wanted. Shoot at those charging at you and Hamas would have its martyrs. Fail to shoot and Hamas would break through the barrier and bring suffering and death – its stated aim – to Israelis living only a few hundred metres away from that barrier. The march may have originally been, as it was declared to be, about Palestinians returning to the homes they had to leave 70 years before. But Hamas’s aim was far more straightforward – “We will take down the border and we will tear out their hearts from their bodies.”
I wrote in my previous article that Israel was a regional powerhouse, and that it was strong enough to take criticism from Jews in the Diaspora.
I still believe it is strong enough to do so. I just don’t believe that my criticism of it was valid. Given the circumstances, and the situation on the ground, I am at a loss in terms of coming up with a better solution. The choice was, quite literally, shoot at people running at you with the stated aim of killing you and your families, or fail to shoot and let them do it.
A few days ago I said I could not and would not defend Israel’s actions. Now, in the cold light of day, I could not and would not see how I would fail to defend them.
I said that Israel should be ashamed of its actions. But today I am the one ashamed.
The article was published in the Jewish Chronicle
Many questions remain about what led to the deaths of up to 58 Palestinians on Monday. One of the key issues surrounds how the protests are organized. Based on observation and discussions with sources close to the protests, the following presents a clearer picture of what has occurred over the last weeks, and attempts to paint a picture of how the May 14 protests unfolded.
Since the end of March, there have been mass protests along the Gaza border. These protests have been well organized and planned as part of an eight week “Great March of Return,” from the Palestinian Land Day on March 30, to the “Nakba Day” on May 15.
On May 14, the mass protests, which coincided with the US opening its embassy in Jerusalem and came a day before what was supposed to be the last day of the protests, resulted in 58 Palestinians killed and up to 2,700 wounded, according to Gaza-based Palestinian reports.
The protests have been organized around five locations next to Israel’s security fence. Over the eight weeks of demonstrations, protesters used a variety of different tactics and methods. For instance, protesters began lighting massive fires and burning tires during the second Friday, in early April. Then they began launching burning kites to ignite Israeli farmland. They also tore down a section of barbed wire of one of the fences between Israel and Gaza on April 27. It was during this protest that a reliable source provided some insight into the methods employed by Hamas and the protesters.
The protesters have gathered every Friday with tens of thousands participating. At the very back of the protest, hundreds of meters from the fence, are tents and field hospitals, prayer areas and families. This is where some of the Hamas officials will show up in the morning or early afternoon to rouse the people and encourage them in their protest. Speeches will be made and prayers offered. It is well organized. Buses bring people to the protests. There are people selling food. There is even a macabre element of this, with protesters saying they’ll have a meal before they become “shahid” or a martyr at the front.
The masses of protesters who approach the actual fence are generally made up of young men and teenagers, including youth and children. There are very few women in the area closest to the fence. The protesters know how the Israeli security forces have been operating; they expect to be shot or are cognizant that this is a distinct possibility. There are ambulance teams and medics, as well as numerous spontaneous volunteers, ready to take away the injured, many of them shot in the legs.
As the young men burn tires, and others prepare Molotov cocktails or slingshots, some prepare kites to fly. The goal of the protesters is to get to the fence and, with select groups of young men who have brought wire cutters, to cut through. Most of them don’t make it this far, but some of them do.
Gazans who attempt to reach the main security fence first have to deal with other obstacles. There is a barbed-wire fence in sections to deter protesters from reaching the main fence. Israel has continuously warned since March that anyone approaching this kind of buffer zone would be shot. A section of barbed wire fence was torn down and dragged away in late April. The Palestinians cheered as they brought it back to the protest camp. A sign of victory.
According to reports, it takes about thirty seconds running between the barbed-wire fence and the main security fence.
But what happened in late April was not just the spontaneous chaos of rioters at the fence. Some of those wounded and killed by live fire, as shown on videos, have not been directly threatening the fence, but there are others groups whose sole purpose is to penetrate the fence.
The actual attempt to get closest to the fence and break through it has involved planning and coordination on the Palestinian side. Hamas members, unarmed but clearly directing some of the young men, are in the crowd. They watch for an area of burning tires and people, where the protesters have managed to get close to the fence or breach the first line of barbed wire.
Some of these professional activists are on motorcycles and they may come and go or drive along the line of protests or observe them from a high point. When they sense that a breach can be made, they gather together groups of young men, men who have prepared beforehand for the assault.
Like some kind of First World War charge of death, the young men then rush as a group toward the fence.
During the April 27 events, up to 700 men were reported by IDF spokesman Col. Jonathan Conricus to have assaulted the fence “in a way that we have not seen them assault it before,” according to a New York Times report.
An earlier Times report titled “300 Meters in Gaza: Snipers, Burning Tires and a Contested Fence,” summarized well the planning and details of the protests and confirmed later accounts.
Planning began ahead of the May 14 protests. Joe Dyke, the AFP correspondent in Gaza, wrote on May 10 that, at a “briefing to foreign media, Gaza head of Hamas told journalists today he would support thousands of Palestinians breaking through the border fence next week.”
On Sunday the IDF dropped leaflets on Gaza warning protesters to stay away from the fence. On May 14 Dyke, in Gaza, tweeted: “literally as the US embassy inauguration is beginning, loud speakers east of Gaza City are calling on protesters to prepare to seek to breach the border fence.”
By the end of the day, 58 had been killed.
The article was published in The JPost