Deadly unrest at Gaza border mirrors Israeli author's novel

JERUSALEM — For Israeli author Mishka Ben-David, the deadly scenes that have been playing out every Friday for weeks along Gaza's border, with thousands of Palestinian protesters marching and threatening to storm the security fence and Israeli troops opening fire, are eerily familiar.

They have already taken place — on the pages of his best-selling thriller last year, "The Shark."

The novel begins with a cross-border tunnel attack by Hamas militants, followed by a mass march by thousands of Gaza Palestinians into southern Israel. As the story unfolds, Israel's adversaries — Iran, the militant Lebanese Hezbollah group and Syria — enter the fray, backed by Russia.

Events escalate into a region-wide war, with mayhem and death at every turn.

Hamas missiles topple one of Tel Aviv's Azrieli towers and in the book's climax, (SPOILER ALERT) an Israeli submarine fires off nuclear missiles in a desperate attempt to save the country. The book's title, "The Shark," is the name of the submarine at the center of the action.

While such a scenario may seem far-fetched, the novel contains more than a few elements that mirror reality as Israel braces for a volatile May, with tensions rising on its northern and southern fronts.

"Unfortunately, quite a few things seem realistic now, more than they seemed before," Ben-David told The Associated Press.

The ongoing weekly border protests in Gaza present the most immediate challenge.

The Hamas-led demonstrations, in which nearly 40 protesters have been killed by Israeli live fire, are meant to draw attention to a crippling decade-long blockade imposed by Israel after the Islamic militant group seized power in the coastal strip.

But Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, has also said the protests are aimed at promoting the "right of return" of refugees to properties inside what is now Israel. Some two-thirds of Gaza's 2 million people are descendants of Palestinian refugees who either fled or were expelled during the war surrounding Israel's creation in 1948.

The protests have grown increasingly intense.

Last Friday, hundreds broke away from a crowd and attacked the border fence, trying to rip away barbed wire and setting sections of it on fire with burning tires. Organizers have signaled they may call for a mass border breach on May 15, the anniversary of Israel's creation — similar to the scenario in Ben-David's novel.

Israel accuses Hamas of exploiting civilians and has vowed to defend its border, raising the likelihood of further bloodshed, particularly if Hamas follows through on threats to send large crowds into Israel.

Ben-David, a retired former agent in the Mossad spy service who turned to fiction writing, said envisioning such a scene did not require much imagination.

For years, Hamas has been digging attack tunnels along the border, managing to capture an Israeli soldier in 2006 and briefly infiltrating Israel during a 2014 war. Adding an above-ground component of unarmed civilians, as Hamas has done, was a logical extension, Ben-David said.

"It's the only scenario that we don't have a military response to," he said. "Israel is not equipped morally or internationally to deal with such a situation."

Israel has already come under heavy criticism from the European Union, United Nations and human rights groups for shooting at the protesters. A heavy civilian death toll, even in the case of a border breach, would risk triggering further international condemnations and scrutiny in the International Criminal Court.

The Trump administration's decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, scheduled for May 14 and bitterly opposed by the Palestinians, has added an extra element of volatility to the mix.

In Ben-David's book, Israel's harsh response to the Gaza crossing sparks unrest with the Palestinians and Israel's own Arab minority. Neighboring Egypt comes to the Palestinians' defense, while Hezbollah takes advantage and carries out missile attacks and an infiltration across Israel's northern border. It doesn't take long before other regional players get involved.

Even if the real-life situation is nowhere close to that, Israel is nervously bracing for the possibility of violence in the north.

Israel's arch-enemy Iran has sent forces to assist Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country's civil war. Israel, which has repeatedly warned it will not allow the Iranians to establish a permanent military presence at its doorstep, is suspected in a pair of deadly airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria in recent weeks, and Iran is vowing revenge.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's presentation this week of what he said were tens of thousands of illicitly obtained Iranian nuclear documents has only added to the tensions.

An Israeli confrontation with Iran in Syria could easily drag in the Iranian proxy Hezbollah and other Shiite militias active there, and even risk clashes with Russia, which has forces also backing Assad.

Ben-David is a prolific author, with 15 books to his name, including works such as "Duet in Beirut" and "Final Stop, Algiers" that have been translated into English. "The Shark," after months as a local best-seller, is now in its fifth printing, he said, and the latest Gaza unrest has also attracted interest from Hollywood producers.

Ben-David spent 12 years in the Mossad, playing a role in the failed assassination attempt of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Jordan in 1997. Ben-David said he was not involved in the operation itself, but was responsible for delivering the antidote used to save Mashaal's life after agents poisoned him in Amman.

While real-life Mideast dramas may be good for fiction-writing, Ben-David is pessimistic about the region, fearing an "inevitable" Israel-Iran conflict and confrontation between Israel and Russia in Syria, despite their back-channel communications.

And if Iran develops an atomic bomb in the coming years, even nuclear war is "not far-fetched at all," he said.

Ironically, the spark that sets in motion the tragic sequence in "The Shark" is a peace initiative — Hamas sets out on its fateful mission to derail the signing of a historic agreement.

In real life, Ben-David believes peace is badly needed.

"Without an overall peace initiative," he said, "we are not far from the situation I described."

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