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The death toll along the Gaza border with Israel has risen to 60, making Monday’s protests the worst violence between Israel and the Palestinians since 2014. But while journalists seek to cast blame and attribute the cause of violence either to Israel or to President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel’s capital Jerusalem, they may be missing the point and, in doing so, becoming Hamas’ useful idiots. The violence has little to do with the outside world and everything to do with internal Palestinian politics.
First, let’s dispense with some myths: The situation in Gaza is dire, but it’s not as bad as many think. In terms of basic health and welfare metrics, the average Gazan is better off in many ways than the average Indian, South African, or Egyptian.
Second, those living in Gaza are not refugees. Technically they are internally displaced persons, since Gaza is part of historical Palestine. Journalists should also note the ambiguity to the term “refugee” as applied to the Palestinians. Both the United Nations and the Palestinians themselves apply a definition not used anywhere else in the world, one which applies perpetual refugee status even generations later. To put it another way, if the same definition of refugee was applied to South Asia and the bloody partition of India, there would be 200 million refugees today split between India and Pakistan.
Third, Gaza is not occupied: Israel withdrew fully in 2005. That Gaza shortly after became a hotbed of violence and a safe haven for Hamas is probably the reason why there is remarkable consensus among Israelis from left to right that unilateral withdrawals don’t work. Regardless, while Hamas talks about a right of return, the Palestinians living there have never left Palestine.
Fourth, Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is not the reason for Gazan outrage. Remember, Russia recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital months before Trump did. And much of Jerusalem is not even under dispute: only certain neighborhoods in East Jerusalem are.
So, putting these myths aside, what is motivating Hamas and its violence? (And, yes, it is violent: Many of those killed are senior members of Hamas itself, a designated terror group. Burning tires and human shields are meant to provide cover for those seeking to conduct terrorism by tunnel or rocket). It’s Palestinian politics, plain and simple. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is 82 years old and in the 13th year of his four-year presidential term (yes, you read that right). He is also a chain smoker and, unlike Yasser Arafat before him, he has refused to appoint a successor.
By sparking violence, Hamas is seeking to take a dominant position on the Palestinian street. The Jerusalem embassy and Israel? They are just news hooks of convenience from which Hamas seeks advantage, much the same way that al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden used to use various headlines of the day as a platform to advance his noxious ideology.
Alas, too many journalists play along. Israel is a democracy and, as such, journalists can report widely there. But to report from the Gaza Strip requires hiring a ‘minder’ and, in effect, paying protection fees to Hamas. To not play by Hamas’ rules means to forfeit all access and put one’s life in danger.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, CNN’s then-chief news executive Eason Jordan wrote a New York Times op-ed describing the self-censorship in which CNN engaged in order to maintain its access to Iraq. Commentators wrung their hands and castigated CNN, but the real scandal was that no one asked what else CNN and other major media outlets were censoring.
By castigating Israel without acknowledging payments to Hamas (via minders) or the ground rules upon which Hamas insists, Western journalists are essentially renting themselves out on behalf of Hamas. They are also making themselves bit players in Hamas’ attempt to take the primacy over the entirety of Palestinian-controlled territory. That is too bad, and it is unfortunate that the U.S. and European tendency to navel gaze, assume it’s about us, and to discount the agency of Palestinians to act upon their own strategies, actually allows radical groups to use Western journalists.
Israel has every right to crush Gazan protests which threaten its borders. Indeed, the future of the two-state solution might depend on it. For if diplomats pressure Israel to stand down and if Hamas is allowed to claim victory in any way, then that will be the death knell for Palestinian moderates in the post-Abbas-era and for the two-state solution more broadly.
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