IDF feels it managed to stop Hamas, but what of the diplomatic battlefield?

The border was not breached, the terrorists were thwarted. The question is whether the international community will see Friday’s Gaza fatalities in the same light

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Palestinian protestors wave their national flag during a demonstration near the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on March 30, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)
Palestinian protestors wave their national flag during a demonstration near the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on March 30, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

Israel’s military considers its handling of the border riots that erupted amid Friday’s Hamas-orchestrated “March of Return” to have been effective and legitimate. The security fence was not breached or badly damaged; border security was maintained; Hamas was rebuffed. The military response was “a success,” Hadashot TV news’s military analyst Roni Daniel, a reliable conduit of the IDF mindset, proclaimed on Saturday evening.

The IDF’s Spokesman Ronen Manelis said Friday evening that the army had faced “a violent, terrorist demonstration at six points” along the fence. He said soldiers used “pinpoint fire” wherever there were attempts to breach or damage the security fence, and that several of those killed “were known to us.” By Saturday evening, Hamas had acknowledged that several of the fatalities in what it had said would-be a non-violent protest were actually gunmen from its military wing. Later, the IDF said it had identified at least 10 of the 15 fatalities as members of terror groups.

But as no shortage of experience has demonstrated, there is a second battlefield on which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fought — in the diplomatic arena. And here, on Saturday evening, Israeli officials were more hesitant to draw conclusions, with one diplomat telling The Times of Israel that the Foreign Ministry had not yet completed its assessment of this weekend’s events.

Depending on how things develop over the next couple of days — on the ground in Israel’s south and in the halls of international diplomacy — Israel may yet find that, along with an ongoing border battle, it will again be waging a battle to defend Israel’s good name.

From Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down, it moved quickly to stake out its position.

“Respect to our soldiers who are guarding the country’s borders and allowing Israeli citizens to celebrate the holiday in peace,” Netanyahu said Saturday evening, moments after the end of the Sabbath. “Israel will act determinedly and decisively to defend its sovereignty and the security of its citizens.”

The Foreign Ministry, which issued a statement Thursday stressing that Israel has the right to defend its borders and that Palestinian terror groups should be held responsible for any violence at the Gaza border, on Saturday night sent out a press release reiterating the same talking points.

“The border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip separates a sovereign state and a terrorist organization. It separates a state that protects its citizens from murderers who send their countrymen into danger,” the statement read.

“The fence separates an army that uses force in self-defense and in a focused and proportionate manner, and Hamas, an organization that sanctifies murder and death, that for years — yesterday included — has been intent on harming millions of Israelis. Anyone who mistakenly views in this murderous spectacle even an iota of freedom of expression is blind to the threats the State of Israel faces.”

Earlier on Saturday, Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren took to Twitter with similar arguments.

“Israel regrets civilian casualties but all were caused by Hamas,” Oren wrote. “Recognized as a terror group by the US and Europe, Hamas murders hundreds of innocent Israelis while using Palestinians as shields. It is using them still while trying to destroy Israel. We must defend ourselves.”

Emphatic though Israeli officials may sound, many of their arguments fall on deaf ears in at least parts of the international community, which over the weekend either condemned Israel or called on both sides to exercise restraint.

The United Nations and the European Union demanded independent investigations, the Security Council convened a special emergency session, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that “Israel will get trapped under the oppression it inflicts in Palestine.”

“The EU mourns the loss of life. Our thoughts are with the families of the victims,” the union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said Saturday in a statement. Israel’s use live ammunition should be subjected to an “independent and transparent investigation,” she said, echoing earlier comments made by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres gives a speech at the 54th Munich Security Conference on February 16, 2018, in Munich, Germany. (AFP Photo/Thomas Kienzle)

“While Israel has the right to protect its borders, the use of force must be proportionate at all times,” Mogherini said, adding that freedom of expression and freedom of assembly “are fundamental rights that must be respected.”

On Friday night, a Kuwaiti-initiated Security Council session featured Palestinian and other Arab delegates slamming Israel. Still, Israel has the firm support of the US administration, which on Friday said quite mildly that it was “deeply saddened” by the Palestinian deaths.

“While Jews around the world gathered with their family at the Seder table to celebrate the Passover holiday, the Palestinians sunk to a new deceitful low so that they could use the UN to spread lies about Israel,” protested Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon. “This shameful exploitation of our holiday will not succeed in stopping us from speaking the truth about the Hamas terror-gatherings that aim to destabilize the region.”

Gaza’s Hamas terrorist rulers released these images of members of its military wing who it acknowledged were among 15 Gazans it said were killed by Israeli fire during clashes along the security fence on Friday, March 30, 2018.

A spokesman for Netanyahu, David Keyes, said dryly that “The United Nations is hardly the right forum given its decades of anti Israel obsession. What the UN should be investigating is Hamas– its brutal terror attacks, calls for genocide of Jews, quest to destroy Israel, and use of children as human shields.”

And Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman declared that “I don’t understand the choir of hypocrites who call for a commission of inquiry. They got confused and thought that Hamas organized the Woodstock Festival yesterday and that we should give them flowers.”

For all the aggrieved cynicism of comments like that, the fact is that incidents in which Israeli forces kill large numbers of Palestinians generally prompt a difficult diplomatic aftermath. The coming days will determine how difficult.

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