I’m not going to pretend I can solve the Middle East crisis in a column. Personally, I expect this to still be grinding on for the rest of my life, with occasional flare-ups of fighting breaking up the long stretches of despairing status quo.
But there is one glimmer of good news: while we can’t expect to see peace and normalization between Israel and the residents of Gaza anytime soon, we can at least reasonably hope for no further large-scale killings in the immediate future. And all that needed to happen was for Hamas to decide a bunch of dead Palestinians no longer served its interests.
The killings this week, which left 60 dead on Monday, occurred during a large protest, involving tens of thousands of people, along the fence that constitutes Israel’s southern border with Gaza. Gaza is controlled by Hamas, a listed terrorist group that also functions as Gaza’s government. The protesters were calling for the right to return to homes and villages they (or their ancestors) lost during previous Arab-Israeli conflicts, which typically end with Israel both victorious and larger.
It is difficult to overstate how ridiculous that claimed right is. Israel’s existence and massive military superiority are textbook examples of facts on the ground (heavily armed facts, at that). There isn’t going to be a return, period. Still, Hamas and other jihadist groups have had a role in organizing the protests, which are also fuelled by the genuine frustrations of Gazans tired of living in the densely populated, economically stagnant enclave, wedged between Egypt and Israeli checkpoints.
WATCH: Israeli forces deployed forces on Thursday across Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip in preparation for another day of protests.
Israel, for its part, has been clear that any attempt to breach the border fence, including by approaching it within 100 metres, will be considered hostile and met with force. On Monday, reporters at the scene of the protest noted that Israel had deployed Arabic-language leaflets, which read, in part, “The prepared to face all scenarios and will act against every attempt to damage the security fence or harm IDF soldiers or Israeli civilians. Do not let Hamas cynically use you as its puppet. … Stay away from the security fence, from terror instigators and the violent rioters! Save yourselves and prioritize building your future!” When that didn’t work, tear gas was used, and warning shots fired into the dirt in front of protestors. When that didn’t work, live ammunition was used, resulting in the deaths and hundreds of injuries (further hundreds were apparently injured in the rush away from the shooting). Some of the dead were children.
That’s bad. But there’s an easy solution: Hamas makes the protests stop, or at least keeps them back from the border.
This isn’t some fantasy land call for a unicorn-dust-based solution. It also is far more practical than most of the other proposals for Mideast peace, which would require a time machine to mulligan a significant part of 20th century history. In fact, this isn’t even aspirational: Hamas is already reportedly dialling back on the protests. Ergo the Israeli military, freed of the need to defend its border and the civilian areas behind it, would have no reason to fire. The Middle East is complicated, sure, but sometimes, there are easy fixes to at least some problems. This is one of them: if Hamas keeps people back from the border, no one else has to die.
Personally, I’m of the camp that believes that Hamas is delighted every time Israel kills any civilians. When you’re a brutal terror group doubling as a municipal government, trading a few dozen of your people for some positive international press apparently seems like a bargain. But Israel also cannot accept a status quo where it’s forced to kill large numbers of civilians, even civilians being cynically used as cannon fodder and human shields. So the Israelis, clever fellows that they are, has reportedly sent a message to Hamas: rein in the protests or we attack Hamas’s leadership directly. To prove the point, the Israeli Air Force and Army hit a series of Hamas targets in Gaza on Monday.
WATCH BELOW: Israel strikes alleged Hamas training camp in Gaza strip
And wouldn’t you know it, the protests calmed down. It’s true that the Muslim holiday of Ramadan is beginning, and that was always likely to tone things down, but it’s also clear that Hamas has gotten the message: not only is Israel unwilling to give an inch at the border, it’s equally prepared to escalate the fighting so that Hamas’s leadership faces the same risks as the civilians it callously pushes toward Israel lines.
The New York Times, for instance, reported on Tuesday that, “there were signs behind the scenes that Hamas could be looking for a way to bring a halt to the bloodshed, if not the entire protest campaign.” Citing an unnamed “well-informed Middle Eastern government official,” the Times added, “Hamas officials had been surprised by the number of casualties on Monday, but did not wish for the kind of escalation of hostilities that some Gazans were demanding in response. Hamas had failed in its goal of infiltrating Israel and harming or kidnapping an Israeli, the official said, but might be willing to settle for having revived international interest in the Palestinian cause.”
i24, an Israeli English-language news outlet, also reported, citing Hebrew-language Israeli media, that “the combination of 60 Palestinians killed by Israeli fire in the single bloodiest day of conflict since 2014 along with the Israeli air strikes apparently caused Hamas to rethink its strategy. The report came as Israel warned Hamas on Monday that it could carry out targeted killings of the group’s officials if the violence continued.”
That’s the way forward here, if forward is the term. It’s imperfect. It doesn’t solve the broader problem of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But what will? There’s no reasonable prospect for peace in the region, at least not any time soon. That being the case, the goal has to be minimizing the bloodshed today. Israel putting a gun to Hamas’s head seems to be working. For now, it’ll have to do.
Matt Gurney is host of The Exchange with Matt Gurney on Global News Radio 640 Toronto and a columnist for Global News.
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