Monday May 14 marked the bloodiest day since the 2014 Gaza War. On this day, the 70th anniversary of Israeli statehood, 58 unarmed Palestinians were shot and about 2 700 were wounded by Israeli snipers. The victims included eight children and a baby.
On the eve of the Palestinian commemoration of al Nakba (the Catastrophe) — the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel in 1948 — this was a particularly historic and sensitive day. To add to the drama of the week, the United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem on May 14.
The killings can be compared with those of Sharpeville, and the bloodshed raises questions about the international community’s lack of political and legal intervention.
What made Monday’s killings particularly chilling was the grotesque “split-screen” reality presented by the juxtaposition of the celebration of the opening of the US embassy and the killings in Gaza. It was exactly how Al Jazeera presented the day’s news.
On the left one saw the well-dressed guests in West Jerusalem, with a euphoric Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declaring in a messianic tone: “What a glorious day.” Those making speeches, including Jared Kushner, an adviser to and son-in-law of US President Donald Trump, seemed oblivious to the shooting on the border and described the opening of the embassy as a “tribute to peace”. The idea that the moving of the embassy could promote peace could not have been further from reality.
On the right side of the screen, one saw dozens of Gazans being shot by snipers and teargassed by drones.
The death toll was higher than anyone expected. Some have spoken of the start of a new intifada but, after seven weeks of protests, the Gazans do not seem any closer to achieving their goals and it is unclear whether they will keep up the momentum of the protests.
The Palestinian leaders planned the mass protests as a way of making the strongest possible statement against the moving of the US embassy and to assert the Palestinians’ right of return to the land from which they were expelled.
The leadership was motivated by the failure of negotiations and the fact that life in Gaza, effectively an open-air prison, has become so dire that Palestinians have nothing to lose by protesting in the face of near-certain Israeli violence.
After 70 years of being trapped in the state of being refugees, it is little wonder that desperate Palestinians are ready to risks their lives to bring their plight to the attention of the international community.
The principle of proportionality is one of the key principles of international humanitarian law. It holds that, in the conduct of hostilities during an armed conflict, parties must not launch an attack if the attack could result in excessive civilian harm. There is consensus among international lawyers that Israel violated humanitarian law. The protection of civilians is one of the most sacrosanct principles of humanitarian law.
There is no equivalence in the actions of the Palestinians and the position of the Israelis. The Palestinians were unarmed and were not directly threatening Israelis.
What can be done? In light of the dominant and obstructive position of the US, international legal options remain limited. Theoretically, the United Nations Security Council, responsible for international peace and security, should take the lead in initiating collective action.
After the ongoing destruction of Syria, there is a widespread sense of disillusionment with the UN and the international community. But all is not lost. Should the US veto, the General Assembly can decide on a Uniting for Peace resolution, which would enable the assembly to take collective action and initiate a fact-finding commission. Palestine, furthermore, is ready to refer the massacre to the International Criminal Court.
A remedy that is often overlooked is that the UN secretary general enjoys considerable discretion in making recommendations. He can initiate a fact-finding commission, as he did in the case of the Israeli military shooting civilians on the Mavi Marmara ship, part of the Gaza freedom flotilla, that was in international waters.
The secretary general can also recommend that humanitarian aid be delivered to Gaza. Because of the shortages in Gazan hospitals after the massacre, this aid could prevent an escalation of the death toll.
Because Israel controls entry into Gaza, delivery of aid may prove near impossible.
With the exception of Egypt, which has assumed the position of mediator between Hamas and Israel, the international community has lacked the courage to take concrete action. As a stakeholder in the conflict, Egypt cannot be objective and its own human rights record also makes it a less than legitimate mediator.
This leaves a space for South Africa to fill. So far, South Africa and Turkey and Ireland have withdrawn their ambassadors from Israel.
On Monday evening, a Gazan tweeted that death can be smelled everywhere in Gaza. The results of this week’s Israeli brutality have left many young people maimed and angry after exercising their legitimate right to protest.
Whereas Sharpeville led the international community to express shock and take various kinds of action, it seems unlikely that there will be any erosion of the ongoing impunity enjoyed by Israel. Whereas Sharpeville represents a point of increased activism by the international community, the bloody events of May 14 inaugurate more of the same.
Mia Swart is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre and a research director at the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa