After killing of Palestinians, Israel isn’t faring well in court of public opinion

Israel is embroiled in a messy PR war. Here are the facts.

A wounded Palestinian protester arrives at a field hospital near the border fence with Israel as mass demonstrations continue on May 14, 2018 in Gaza City, Gaza. CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
A wounded Palestinian protester arrives at a field hospital near the border fence with Israel as mass demonstrations continue on May 14, 2018 in Gaza City, Gaza. CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

A week after the killings of over 60 Palestinians at the hands of Israeli soldiers — who injured about 3,000 more in a day of unbridled violence — the narrative of what exactly happened continues to be shaped by Israel and the United States.

The Palestinian foreign minister on Tuesday asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to launch an investigation into crimes committed against Palestinians, with Israel immediately claiming that the request was “legally invalid,” because “Israel is not a member of the Court and because the Palestinian Authority is not a state.”

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The spat is just the latest in ongoing efforts by Israel, which is currently embroiled in a PR debacle, to douse opposition and control the narrative. But before you get lost in the back-and-forth, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Is the fence between Israeli territory and Gaza really a border?

Israel justifies the violence against Palestinians by saying it was defending its border. U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, recently echoed those remarks. The media does too, for the most part.

But here’s the thing: that fence is by no means an internationally recognized border. Even though 176 U.N. member states voted in December to recognize Palestinian statehood (in a non-biding resolution — the U.S. and Israel were among the seven who voted against it, with four abstaining), Palestine is not considered a country, nor is Gaza a state. As things stand, Palestine is unlikely to ever achieve statehood, as it would need U.N. Security Council approval, and the United States, a permanent member of the Security Council, regularly uses its veto power to benefit Israel.

As a result, Israel often uses Palestinians’ lack of statehood to dismiss the claims they bring before international authorities.

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While the Palestinian Authority does issue passports, but these papers remain problematic. The United States, for instance, accepts the passport as a travel document, but not as proof of any kind of citizenship. The Palestinians are, as a result, considered a stateless people.

So, if Palestine is not a country, the fence is not border. It’s certainly a demarcation, though, with Gaza’s perimeters set by the Egypt-Israeli General Armistice Agreement of 1949 and imposed by Israelis. Palestinians, who had been driven from their homes in the fighting that had followed Israel’s creation the year before, protest the presence of this heavily surveilled, militarized fence.

Palestinian territories — the West Bank to the east, and the Gaza Strip in the west, are separated by a swath of Israeli territory, expanding via settlements considered illegal by the United Nations, which also condemns those who profit off them.

What is Hamas? 

Israel and the United States both point to Hamas as being responsible for the violence, saying the group had mobilized everyone to attach and breach the fence.

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Viewed as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, Hamas has been around since the late 1980s and took control of Gaza after beating the Fatah party (also known as the Palestinian National Liberation Movement/Organization — or the PLO) in the 2006 elections, which the U.S. publicly supported until the winners were announced.

The administration of President George W. Bush banked — quite literally: $2 million — on Fatah winning the elections, promoting the party on the down low. When that failed, the Bush administration launched a plan to start an all-out civil war between Fatah and Hamas, which also failed (although there were certainly major hostilities briefly in the summer of 2007). At times, Hamas has been lambasted by rights groups for its violence against civilians. Israel, a country that is the largest recipient of military aid from the United States, is also condemned by rights groups, as well as the U.N. member states and U.N. rights experts for its treatment of Palestinians.

Hamas — which is both a political party and an armed group — has always been anti-Israeli, although it has largely modified its tone to no longer call for Israel’s destruction.

Before Israel made Hamas one of its favorite bombing targets, it supported the group as a counter to the PLO, nurturing a relationship with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who founded Mujama Al-Islamiya, the precursor to Hamas which Israel registered as a charity.

What’s next?

It’s unlikely that any claim against Israel will go anywhere in the ICC or on the floor of the United Nations. The only real challenge for Israel is fighting a media it claims is biased against it (the Palestinians also feel they are misrepresented by the media).

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Israel has insisted that the Palestinian deaths were essentially a Hamas PR ploy. The Palestinians rail against that description and have long felt that any act of protest on their behalf is seen as terrorism that ends up justifying Israel’s forceful response), and furthers the false narrative that “are no innocent people in Gaza.

In recent days, Israel has taken aim at several media outlets around the world — from a Dutch parody show it accused of anti-Semitism for airing a song critical of Israel, to mainstream U.S. and British media for focusing on the killings of Palestinians rather than on the damage done to the fence.

Given the lack of legal mechanisms provided to Palestinians, it seems the only court Israel has to worry about is that of public opinion.

It’s also entirely possible that between this incident and strikes in Syria against Iranian forces there to support troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad that Israel will become bolder in the region when it comes to taking military action in the region.