WHEN all is lost, entire communities sometimes engage in suicidal gestures.

It happened in 1906 in Bali, when the local royal family and thousands of their followers, knowing they could not defeat the Dutch conquerors, dressed in their best finery and walked straight into the Dutch gunfire. Thousands were killed.

It has been happening again in the past six weeks in the area in front of the border fence that divides the Gaza Strip from Israel. It reached at least a temporary climax last week when 2000 Palestinians were wounded, around half by gunfire, and 60 were shot dead by Israeli soldiers. That's at least a thousand unarmed Palestinians struck by Israeli bullets in a day. One Israeli soldier was lightly injured by a rock or shrapnel.

Even before the "March of Return" began in late March, the Israeli government said it was just a cover for terrorists to cross into its territory and carry out attacks. Soldiers would therefore be allowed to fire live ammunition against anybody trying to damage the border fence, which included anybody within 300 metres of it.


There have been several unconfirmed reports the army was later told to shoot only people coming within 100m of the fence, which would involve maybe only half the crowd. But the basic story was unchanged: those clever Hamas terrorists had figured out that the best way to sneak into Israel was to break through the border in broad daylight and get past thousands of heavily armed Israeli soldiers.

The French government has urged Israel to "exercise discernment and restraint in the use of force that must be strictly proportionate".

The British said "the large volume of live fire is extremely concerning. We continue to implore Israel to show greater restraint."

The comments of Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was in Israel to celebrate the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem, were even more anodyne. He ignored the carnage and restricted himself to saying that "The United States stands with Israeli because we both believe in freedom".

But the prize for Most Revealing Remark must go to Khalil al-Hayya, a senior official in the Hamas party that rules the Gaza Strip: "We say clearly today to all the world that the peaceful march of our people lured the enemy into shedding more blood." Note the word "lured". At the leadership level, both sides see this ghastly event mainly in terms of political theatre.

Hamas wanted the Israelis to commit a massacre of innocent civilians for its propaganda value. The Israeli army, well aware that this was Hamas' goal, ordered its soldiers to shoot to injure, not to kill, whenever possible. The final score shows that they largely obeyed: if they had just randomly fired into the crowd, about one in five of the victims would have been killed, not one in 40.

Nevertheless it was a massacre, but the Palestinian civilians who were being maimed or killed were willing victims. The mostly young men and women in the crowd milling around in front of the border fence, which peaked at an estimated 40,000 people, knew they stood a fair chance of being killed or crippled, but just didn't care any more.

It's 70 years since the grandparents of these young Palestinians were driven from what is now Israel, and they know they are never going back to their ancestral homes. International law says refugees have that right, whether they fled voluntarily (as Israel insists) or were expelled by force or the threat of force (as most other people believe), but in practice it's just not going to happen. Israel is far too strong.


Most of the current generation know that they are never going "home", and will have to live out their lives in what amounts to a not-very-large open-air prison: the Gaza Strip. It's only natural that they are in despair, and inviting death or injury at the hands of Israeli troops seems like an honourable way out.

■Gwynne Dyer's new book, Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work), was published last month by Scribe in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.