MUL­TI­PLE DEATHS AT MAS­SIVE GAZA BOR­DER PROTEST

Or­ga­niz­ers from Ha­mas vow daily demon­stra­tions

Regina Leader-Post - - FRONT PAGE - Fares akram and karin LauB

GAZA, PALES­TINIAN TER­RI­TORY • Thou­sands of Pales­tini­ans marched to Gaza’s bor­der with Is­rael on Fri­day in the largest such demon­stra­tion in re­cent mem­ory, and 15 were killed by Is­raeli fire on the first day of what Ha­mas or­ga­niz­ers said will be six weeks of daily protests against a bor­der block­ade.

It was the blood­i­est day in Gaza since the 2014 cross­bor­der war be­tween Is­rael and Ha­mas.

The Pales­tinian Health Min­istry said more than 750 peo­ple were wounded.

The Is­raeli mil­i­tary said a crowd of Pales­tini­ans — some es­ti­mates put the num­ber at more than 20,000 — threw stones, fire­bombs, and rolled burn­ing tires to­ward troops de­ployed on the other side of the bor­der fence. It ac­cused mil­i­tants of try­ing to carry out at­tacks un­der the cover of mass protests, say­ing that in one in­ci­dent, Pales­tinian gun­men fired to­ward sol­diers.

Ear­lier, the army said ex­trem­ists tried to plant ex­plo­sives along the bor­der un­der cover of the protests and in one case sent a seven-year-old girl to the fence in an ap­par­ent at­tempt to draw Is­raeli fire, but sol­diers un­der­stood what was hap­pen­ing and re­turned the girl to her par­ents.

The large turnout of the flag-wav­ing marchers in the dan­ger­ous bor­der zone was a tes­ta­ment to Ha­mas’ or­ga­niz­ing skills, but it also sig­nalled des­per­a­tion among Gaza res­i­dents after a decade-old bor­der clo­sure. Life in the coastal strip has de­te­ri­o­rated fur­ther in re­cent months, with ris­ing un­em­ploy­ment, grind­ing poverty and daily black­outs that last for hours.

Is­rael had warned that it would use live am­mu­ni­tion, drop­ping leaflets say­ing that any­one who came within 300 me­tres of the fence would be in dan­ger. But some Gazans said they did not care if they died.

“I want to be shot,” said 22-year-old Yahya Abu As­sar. “I don’t want this life.”

As­maa al-Katari said she par­tic­i­pated in the march de­spite the risks and would join up­com­ing protests be­cause “life is dif­fi­cult here in Gaza and we have noth­ing to lose.”

A few hun­dred me­tres from the bor­der near Gaza City, a fes­ti­val at­mos­phere pre­vailed as fam­i­lies gath­ered for pic­nics. Stalls sold ice cream, smooth­ies, nuts and sand­wiches, even as am­bu­lances screamed past fer­ry­ing the in­jured and as tear gas can­is­ters were dropped from drones.

“We are here to say we want to re­turn to our land,” said Suheila Abu Rish, 65. She said her fam­ily was dis­placed from Ash­dod, now an Is­raeli city 50 kilo­me­tres up the coast, dur­ing the 1948 Arab-Is­raeli war.

Is­rael had threat­ened a tough re­sponse, hop­ing to de­ter breaches of the bor­der fence. The Is­raeli mil­i­tary re­leased video show­ing a row of snipers perched on a high earthen em­bank­ment fac­ing the Gaza crowd in one lo­ca­tion.

Fri­day’s high death toll and prospects of daily protests in com­ing weeks have raised con­cerns about an­other es­ca­la­tion along the volatile fron­tier. Is­rael and the Is­lamist mil­i­tant Ha­mas have fought three cross-bor­der wars in re­cent years.

Other at­tempts to break the block­ade, in­clud­ing wars with Is­rael and at­tempts to rec­on­cile with the West Bankbased Mah­moud Ab­bas, have failed over the years.

The lat­est Egyp­tian-led rec­on­cil­i­a­tion ef­forts col­lapsed ear­lier this month, when a bomb tar­geted but missed Ab­bas’ prime min­is­ter and in­tel­li­gence chief dur­ing a visit to Gaza.

Ha­mas and Ab­bas traded ac­cu­sa­tions after the bomb­ing, sig­nalling that any deal on Ha­mas hand­ing the Gaza govern­ment to Ab­bas is in­creas­ingly un­likely.

The Ha­mas leader in Gaza, Yehiyeh Sin­war, said the protests are a sig­nal to Is­rael and the world that “our peo­ple will not ac­cept the con­tin­u­a­tion of the siege.”

Is­rael and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­pressed con­cern in re­cent months about a loom­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in Gaza and ap­pealed to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to fund large-scale de­vel­op­ment projects there, in­clud­ing a de­sali­na­tion plant.

How­ever, such plans ap­peared to be linked to a deal on Ab­bas tak­ing charge in Gaza.

Ha­mas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum praised the turnout. “The large crowds ... re­flect the Pales­tinian peo­ple’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to achieve the right of re­turn and break the siege and no force can stop this right,” he said.

Maj.-Gen. Eyal Zamir, com­man­der of the Is­raeli mil­i­tary’s South­ern Com­mand, which in­cludes the Gaza bor­der, said he held Ha­mas re­spon­si­ble for the vi­o­lence and al­leged there were at­tempts to “carry out ter­ror at­tacks un­der the cam­ou­flage of ri­ots.”

Fri­day’s protest cam­paign be­gan as Jews pre­pared to mark Passover, and it is sched­uled to cul­mi­nate with the start of Ra­madan, the Mus­lim holy month, in midMay.

SAID KHATIB / AFP / GETTY IM­AGES

An in­jured Pales­tinian man is car­ried by fel­low pro­test­ers as they run for cover dur­ing clashes with Is­raeli se­cu­rity forces in the Gaza Strip on Fri­day. At least 15 peo­ple were killed, with the Pales­tinian Health Min­istry claim­ing more than 750...

SAID KHATIB / AFP / GETTY IM­AGES

A Pales­tinian child stands out­side a tent dur­ing a tent city protest Fri­day near Khan Yu­nis in the south­ern Gaza Strip. At least 15 Pales­tinian pro­test­ers in Gaza were killed by Is­raeli fire as ten­sions in the area es­ca­late.

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