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For Israel, There’s Little Political Cost to Killing Palestinians

The aftermath of the protests underscored both the desperate futility of the Palestinian struggle and the relative impunity with which Israel can snuff out Palestinian lives.

All the while, the ongoing blockade and restrictions imposed on Gaza have made conditions more difficult for the Palestinians who live there. “I want to be shot,” one 22-year-old protester told my colleagues on Friday. “I don’t want this life.”(Photo: Adam Helweh/Flickr/CC)

All the while, the ongoing blockade and restrictions imposed on Gaza have made conditions more difficult for the Palestinians who live there. “I want to be shot,” one 22-year-old protester told my colleagues on Friday. “I don’t want this life.”(Photo: Adam Helweh/Flickr/CC)

This weekend in Gaza, Palestinians buried their dead after Israeli soldiers killed at least 18 Palestinian protesters and wounded hundreds more on Friday. About 30,000 Palestinians had gathered near the fenced barrier separating the Gaza Strip from Israel, both protesting the stifling blockade on their territory and mourning the dispossession of their ancestral lands at the hands of the Israeli state.

As in many other Palestinian protests that take place in the occupied territories, most protesters were unarmed and nonviolent. Families picnicked in the shadow of the Israeli border and flew Palestinian flags. But like so many other Palestinian protests, this one ended in tears.

“I took my grandchildren. We went to a peaceful demonstration,” Fayik Sabbagh told The Washington Post. “We went there to tell them this is our land, but what we found was different.”

Israeli authorities claimed they opened fire in response to some protesters who had encroached near the fence, burning tires and hurling stones or molotov cocktails. Footage that emerged from the chaotic scene suggested Israeli soldiers targeted unarmed protesters, including some who were running away and were shot from a distance by snipers.

One victim was 20-year-old Badr Sabbagh, Fayik’s son, who was killed just minutes after arriving to watch the protests. “He asked for a cigarette, I gave it to him, he had two puffs, and then he was shot in the head,” his brother Mohammed told The Post.

The killings marked the worst day of violence in Gaza since the 2014 war between the Islamist group Hamas and the Israeli military, in which the United Nations said at least 1,462 Palestinian civilians died. And the aftermath of the protests underscored both the desperate futility of the Palestinian struggle and the relative impunity with which Israel can snuff out Palestinian lives.

The right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered neither sympathy nor remorse. “Israel is acting determinedly and decisively to protect its sovereignty and the security of its citizens,” Netanyahu said. Officials described the protest as a "camouflage" for Hamas infiltrators supposedly launching an attack across the fortified border. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman rebuffed international calls for an investigation, saying that “under no circumstances” would there be an inquiry into the incident and opining that the Israeli soldiers manning the fence “deserve a commendation.”

On Saturday, the IDF even boasted that its troops had maintained total control of the situation down to the number of bullets fired. But the Israeli military soon deleted the tweet as more footage surfaced of panicked Palestinians being gunned down while trying to flee.

“These are the predictable outcomes of a manifestly illegal command: Israeli soldiers shooting live ammunition at unarmed Palestinian protesters,” said Amit Gilutz, a spokesman for B’Tselem, a Jerusalem-based leftist organization that monitors human rights abuses in the occupied territories. “What is predictable, too, is that no one — from the snipers on the ground to top officials whose policies have turned Gaza into a giant prison — is likely to be ever held accountable.”

The Israeli leadership had reason to feel comfortable in its defiance. The most vocal criticism from abroad came from Iran and Turkey; censure from either country is more likely a source of relish for Netanyahu than unease. And at the United Nations, the Trump administration blocked the Security Council from issuing a statement that called for an “independent and transparent investigation” and affirmed the Palestinians’ right to peaceful protest.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States was “deeply saddened” by Friday’s events. But Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s leading envoy for Israeli and Palestinian negotiations, undercut that message by taking Israel’s side and pinning the blame on Hamas for the “hostile march.”

Indeed, the Trump administration has helped stoke Palestinian outrage. Across the occupied territories, Palestinian factions have called for protests every day until May 15, “the day after the anniversary of Israel’s independence in 1948, known to Palestinians as the ‘Nakba,’ or catastrophe,” as my colleagues reported. It also happens that the White House has chosen that date to open its new embassy in Jerusalem, a move that reinforced the Palestinian view that Washington can no longer be trusted as a fair broker in the long-stalled peace process.

Nor can the Palestinians look for much help from their neighbors. As we’ve discussed in this space, some of the region’s key powers — most notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia — have moved closer to Israel in recent years. It has become clear that while the stateless Palestinians garner tremendous sympathy from citizens across the Arab world, their plight is a tiresome nuisance for some Arab leaders, who are more keen to crack down on Islamist parties at home or confront Iranian influence abroad.

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Ishaan Tharoor

Ishaan Tharoor is a staff writer for TIME magazine and co-editor of TIME World, based in New York City.

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