We, members of the Progressive Jewish Alliance at Harvard Law School, deplore the Israeli government’s violent response to Palestinian protests in Gaza. We join groups around the world in calling for an end to the wanton killing of demonstrators, an end to the siege of Gaza, and ultimately for a democratic future in which both Israelis and Palestinians may live lives of dignity, security, and freedom.
Nothing occurs in a vacuum. While many who defend Israel’s actions ask, “What would you do in the face of protesters seeking to breach the border?,” we ask a different question: “What level of oppression would drive people to risk their lives protesting against one of the world’s most powerful militaries?”
A recent UN report found that the Gaza Strip is becoming “unlivable” as conditions continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate. Youth unemployment has reached 60%, most Gazans receive only a few hours of electricity each day, and access to clean water has decreased from 98% of the population in 2000 to only 10% in 2014. Currently, in contending with a growing number of casualties, Gazan doctors are facing a chronic shortage of drugs, medical supplies, and even hospital beds.
Over several weeks of protest, over 100 Gazans have been killed, and over 3,000 shot with live fire. Each of the 40,000 people who risked their lives to demonstrate in Gaza likely have their own reasons. But we want to call attention to a recent statement by Fadi Abu Shammalah, a Gazan father who explained his choice to participate in the protests through the following message to his children: “If risking my life means you and your brothers will have a chance to thrive, to have a future with dignity, to live in peace with all your neighbors, in your free country, then this is a risk I must take.”
Israel claims to have withdrawn from Gaza since pulling out its settlements in 2005. But in reality, it continues to exercise “extensive control over Gaza and its residents.” Israel controls all but one of Gaza’s land borders, as well as its airspace and sea access, ensuring that Gazans can neither rebuild their airport nor access the rest of the world by land or sea. Israel has established “buffer zones” on much of Gaza’s most arable land abutting the border fence, forbidding Palestinians access, and strictly limits the areas in which Gazans can fish. Israel determines much of what can be exported and imported into the Strip, often arbitrarily and without conceivable security rationale. And perhaps most notably, Israel severely restricts Palestinians’ freedom of movement. As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein stated recently, Gazans “are forced to seek exit permits from Israel for any reason, including for specialised health care, and many of those permits are denied or delayed – including permits for the majority of the demonstrators shot by Israeli security forces this week.” While we recognize that Hamas, Egypt, and other actors have played an important part in Gaza’s ever worsening humanitarian crisis, we emphasize the centrality of Israel’s role in ensuring that Gaza remains an “open-air prison.”
As progressive Jews and law students committed to equality, dignity, human rights, and international law, we have watched Israel’s stunningly disproportionate response to protests in Gaza with horror, grief, and outrage. As law students, we recognize that all states have the right to self-defense and territorial sovereignty. But a state’s right to protect its border “does not mean it has the right to do whatever it pleases to those who try to cross it.” According to the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials developed by the UN, “law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.” The Basic Principles further stipulate that “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
We ask: were the deaths of 60 Palestinian protesters “strictly necessary?” Did the Israel Defense Forces, one of the strongest militaries in the world, have no alternative but to resort to widespread lethal violence? Was live fire the only viable way to confront protesters, including those who were standing hundreds of meters away from the fence, or those in the midst of retreating? Was it “strictly unavoidable” to shoot Palestinian journalists taking photographs, or doctors tending to patients?
As Jews, we are keenly aware of our own history of oppression, discrimination, and dispossession. We refuse to sit idly by in the face of Israel’s cruel and disproportionate response to protests in Gaza, or accept its role in bringing Gaza to the precipice of humanitarian catastrophe. We call for an end to the disproportionate use of force against demonstrators, an end to the blockade of a Gaza, and for a fair and just future for all Palestinians and Israelis.