If there’s one thing Israel advocates agree on, it’s that Israel lost the PR war over May 14’s violent demonstrations in Gaza. Everybody from the U.N. Security Council to a New York public high school mourned the 62 Palestinians killed as innocent victims, even though 53 belonged to terrorist organizations. And with Hamas planning another demonstration on Tuesday, a battle has been raging over whether the PR war is inherently unwinnable or if Israel’s public diplomacy was simply incompetent.
The correct answer is both. And nothing better illustrates this than the story of the Palestinian baby allegedly killed by Israeli tear gas.
Israel’s critics immediately seized on the death of 8-month-old Layla Ghandour as proof of its malfeasance. As the New York Times wrote, “The story shot across the globe, providing an emotive focus for outrage at military tactics that Israel’s critics said were disproportionately violent.” The Times of Israel noted that “Her funeral was filmed and featured on global TV news broadcasts and newspaper front pages.”
Soon afterward, however, a Gazan doctor suggested that she most likely died of a congenital heart defect rather than anything Israel did (a theory later apparently accepted even by Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry, which last week removed Ghandour from its list of people killed by Israel).
What happened next was surreal: The doctor’s explanation was immediately seized on and disseminated worldwide by both official Israeli spokesmen and Israel supporters overseas as if it somehow mattered whether Ghandour was killed by tear gas or a congenital heart defect. In other words, Israel and its supporters implicitly accepted the view of the anti-Israel mob. Had the baby truly been killed by Israeli tear gas, presumably Israel could legitimately have been considered culpable.
What they should have pointed out instead is that Ghandour’s story proves just how dishonest all the critics accusing Israel of disproportionate force are. After all, ever since the weekly demonstrations along the Gaza border began in March, these critics have claimed that they don’t deny Israel’s right to protect its border. They merely demand that it restrict itself to nonlethal crowd-control measures rather than resorting to lethal force. As the New York Times put it in an April editorial, “Israel has a right to defend its border, but in the face of unarmed civilians it could do so with nonlethal tactics common to law enforcement.”
For now, leave aside that “unarmed civilians” lie. The more important point is that tear gas is exactly the type of nonlethal crowd control measure commonly used by law enforcement agencies. So if Israel’s critics meant what they said about its right to defend the border by nonlethal means, the death of a baby during a violent demonstration along the border might be a tragedy, but it wouldn’t be Israel’s fault. It would be the fault of the relatives who deliberately brought her into the heart of that violent demonstration, despite knowing Israel was using crowd-control measures to keep protesters from breaching its border.
Instead, Israel’s critics treated Ghandour’s death as proof of Israel’s evil. In other words, they effectively declared that Israel had no right to defend its border by any means whatsoever–even with non-lethal means like tear gas–unless it could somehow achieve the impossible feat of guaranteeing that no Palestinian would ever be killed under any circumstances. And if the only way Israel can win the PR war is leaving its border completely undefended, that war would indeed be inherently unwinnable; at least, among this portion of its critics.
But many people do understand that leaving a border undefended against angry mobs isn’t a tenable option. If Israeli public diplomacy had been even minimally competent, it would have made clear that this is the logical implication of blaming Israel for Ghandour’s death.
Critics might retort that even tear gas shouldn’t be used against completely peaceful demonstrators. But as the Times’ story makes clear, Ghandour wasn’t in a peaceful demonstration when she died. She had been deliberately taken from a peaceful one into a violent one.
On May 14, as in all the preceding weeks, there were actually two demonstrations taking place. One, which was largely peaceful, was hundreds of meters from the border fence. The other, which was right up against the fence, was anything but peaceful. Members of terrorist organizations threw bombs, Molotov cocktails, and slingshot-propelled rocks at soldiers. They flew incendiary kites across the border to set Israeli fields ablaze (to date, some 300 of these kites have ignited 100 fires, destroyed more than 3,000 acres of wheat and caused millions of shekels worth of damage). They vandalized the fence and tried to break through it. These are the “demonstrators” Israel targeted with measures ranging from tear gas to, when necessary, live fire, as evidenced by the fact that 53 of the 62 killed belonged to terrorist organizations.
Baby Layla was taken to the nonviolent protest by her 12-year-old uncle, who mistakenly thought her mother was there. Upon discovering his mistake, he responsibly kept her in the nonviolent section until late afternoon, when she began crying. Then, wanting to hand her off to an older relative, he “pushed forward into the protest in search of her grandmother, Heyam Omar, who was standing in a crowd under a pall of black smoke, shouting at Israeli soldiers across the fence,” the Times reported. Panicked by Layla’s crying, he deliberately brought her into the most violent part of the protest, where Israel was exercising its legitimate right of self-defense and where no baby should ever have been. And she died.
But even if it was Israeli tear gas that killed her, Israel cannot be held culpable for her death unless you start from the premise that it had no right whatsoever to defend its border against violent attacks of the type launched during this protest, even by the most nonlethal of means. That, of course, is precisely what many of Israel’s critics do think. And this is the point that Israel and its advocates should have been hammering home.
Originally published in Commentary on June 1, 2018