Gaza’s frus­tra­tions erupt

Protests be­gan in peace and ended with clashes be­tween Arab youths and Is­raeli sol­diers. Many now fear for the fu­ture

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page - Don­ald Macin­tyre

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.”

Noth­ing to lose … many Pales­tinian demon­stra­tors have been in­spired by de­mands to re­turn to lands oc­cu­pied by Is­rael in 1948 Reuters

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