Gaza’s frustrations erupt
Protests began in peace and ended with clashes between Arab youths and Israeli soldiers. Many now fear for the future
Hashem Zakout should have been at his local hospital doing the voluntary work as a clerk that he hopes will lead to a full-time job. Instead the 24-yearold was a patient in the emergency room at another northern Gaza hospital, shot in the left knee after throwing “little stones” at Israeli troops across the border, east of the Jabaliya refugee camp where he lives.
Zakout was wounded last Friday during the latest mass protests at the divide between Israel and Gaza. The “Great March of Return”, a series of protests intended to continue until 15 May, the 70th anniversary of “the Nakba” – or catastrophe – when 700,000 Palestinian refugees fled their homes in the 1948 war, has captured his imagination. Zakout said he had been taking part in the protests for the idea of a “return to our lands” – the home in what is now Israel, from which his grandparents had to leave. But he also said he would not have joined the border demonstration if he had a full-time job. As it is, he relies – humiliatingly – on “pocket money” from his father, a former policeman for the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which has itself been cut by half as part of President Mahmoud Abbas’s sanctions on Gaza, which are designed to squeeze the Hamas leaders who run it.
Zakout is typical of many of the 491 Palestinians injured during the latest protests. He was lucky not to be one of the nine killed, among them a 14-yearold boy and a politically unaffiliated Palestinian video journalist, Yaser Murtaja, shot dead despite wearing a press jacket. The injured were being treated for gunshot wounds, or inhaling teargas, on the second Friday of the first mass unarmed demonstrations in Gaza since the
first intifada more than 30 years ago that led to the 1993 Oslo accord between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat and the huge hopes they engendered of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The spectacle presented last Friday was a confusion of near-fiesta and battlefield. Festive sounds mingled with the whistle of bullets, fired by troops at youths throwing stones and petrol bombs. White coils of teargas streaked across huge clouds of thick black smoke, billowing towards the sky as young Palestinians sought to obscure the Israeli troops’ sightlines by burning dozens of tyres.
The previous evening it had looked as though families would stay away, deterred by the 17 Palestinian deaths in the 30 March protest, the highest number on a single day since the 2014 war. Few if any buses ferried the demonstrators to the border, as they had the previous week when the protest coincided with “Land Day”, marking the deaths of six Israeli Arabs protesting against the government’s seizure of agricultural land in 1976.
At the Zeitoun border, south-east of Gaza City, teargas canisters occasionally landed further than 300 metres from the fence. By late afternoon in the north of the strip in the Abu Safiya district of Jabalya, 700 metres from the border, picnicking families, including grandparents and small children, had joined the march on foot or in cars, watching events unfold below in safety from the top of a gentle slope.
More bullets began to fly as numbers close to the border swelled. The Israeli human rights agency B’Tselem has urged soldiers to disobey orders to shoot at unarmed civilians. Three leading jurisprudence academics have said that firing on unarmed protesters is illegal in international law.
The sustained numbers suggest that the protest organisers may be able to maintain some momentum in the weeks leading up to 15 May. The next day president Donald Trump is scheduled to defy angry Palestinian protests and a half-century-old international consensus by transferring the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
According to one Hamas source, an attempt to encourage a break across the border on Nakba day is being discussed, but no decision has been taken. If this is not sabre-rattling, much could depend on how Israel responds, and not least whether it is ready to ease the decade-long blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The “Great March of Return” has given Hamas, increasingly friendless in the region, an initiative it badly needs. But there are several reasons why this is not the whole story. The original idea for an unarmed protest – with a conscious nod to Gandhi and Martin Luther King – appears to have originated with a group of young Palestinian intellectuals and graduate students. Atef Abu Saif, Gaza’s bestknown living novelist, said many of the ideas for what he called “a war of non-violence” were being driven by “the boys on the hashtags, the websites”. He added: “It was to have a peaceful demonstration [and] tell Israel after 70 years, and after even another 100 years, that without being given our rights, guaranteed in international law, you will not enjoy peace.” Nor could demonstrators have been persuaded to participate in these
numbers were it not for the hopelessness they feel after 11 years that have seen them suffer three bloody wars, an Israeli-Egyptian border closure, and an Israeli blockade that has imploded Gaza’s economy
But the wider demonstrations also attracted members of the more prosperous middle class. IT consultant Jalal Marzouk, 40, said that, as the father of four “beautiful children”, and with a wife who was furious he was attending at all, he would not be getting “too close” to the border. He said that many of his younger compatriots “don’t have any future and they are totally desperate. I have something to lose, but they have nothing to lose.”
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