Inside Gaza:’ these are people with nothing to lose’
A Palestinian video journalist was among the nine people killed during the Great March of Return
Hashem Zakout should have been at his local hospital yesterday doing the volunteer work as a clerk that he hopes will be translated into a paid full-time chore. Instead the 24 -year-old 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 on Friday when he was 10 metres from the border fencing, hit by a sniper 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 70 th annual ceremony of ” the Nakba “ or calamity, when 700,000 Palestinian refugees were forced from their homes in the 1948 war, has captured his imagination.
Insisting he was ” not afraid”, 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 flee in 1948. But he also said he would not have joined Friday’s 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 imposing sanctions on Gaza, which are designed to squeeze the Hamas leaders who run it. Zakout would like to get married but couldn’t afford it.” I have energy ,” said Zakout.” But I require someone to employ me .”
As an unemployed man 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 -year-old boy and a politically unaffiliated Palestinian video journalist, Yaser Murtaja, shot dead despite wearing a coat proving he was press.
The injured were being treated for gunshot wounds, or after being hit by teargas canisters and inhaling the gas, on the second Friday of what may yet prove an historical phenomenon: the first mass unarmed demonstrations in Gaza since the first intifada more than 30 years ago. That was the mutiny that led in time to the 1993 Oslo accord between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat and the huge hopes they spawned of objective the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The spectacle presented on Friday in warm sunshine at the border areas, where some 20,000 Palestinians had gathered, was a confusion of near-fiesta and battlefield. Music mixed with the shouts of foodsellers- some wearing gasmasks- advertising everything from lupine seeds and smoothies to calf liver sandwiches.
The festive sounds mingled with the crack of teargas canisters and the whistling of bullets, fired by troops on youths hurling 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 overshadow the Israeli troops’ sightlines by burning dozens of tyres. Sirens voiced as ambulances stationed 150 metres or so from the border, red lights flashing, relayed the injured to hospitals and field clinics outside the danger zone.
The previous evening it had appeared 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 co-incided 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, close to the long-closed main Karni cargo crossing, teargas canisters occasionally landed farther than 300 metres from the fencing. 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.
Initially the Israeli military’s use of live fire was reduced compared with the previous week, but more bullets began to fly as numbers close to the border swelled. The respected Israeli human rights agency B’Tselem has urged soldiers to disobey orders to shoot at unarmed civilians. Three resulting 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 infringe 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 Gaza.
Israel has repeatedly stated that what it describes as the “riots” are being controlled by Hamas. The protests certainly have Hamas’s active endorsement, indicated by the payment of injury compensation on a sliding scale up to $3,000 for the families of those killed in the protests. Hamas has also crucial logistical support, from the lease of farmland for the mini-tent cities, including children’s play areas and lavatories, at each demonstration point, to the policemen supervising parking at the sites.
The” Great March of Return” has given Hamas, increasingly friendless in individual regions, an initiative it badly needs. But there are several reasons why this is not the whole story.
Even if it did not take off until backed by Hamas, the original notion 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. It was then voted in favour of all the factions, including Hamas but also its arch-rivals, Fatah.
One of the protest’s most ardent supporters is Atef Abu Saif, whose family were forced to leave for Gaza in 1948, and who is Gaza’s best-known living novelist.
Abu Saif, 45, said many of the ideas for what he called ” a war of non-violence” were being driven by” the sons on the hashtags, the websites “. He added:” These people who were going to the border were not trying to break the border. 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.
” We know we cannot defeat you. You are one of the strongest countries in the world … but we know our will is strong. If Israel wants to belong in this territory, it has to make peace with the Palestinians .”
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. There is despair over the undrinkable tapwater, the four hours of energy, the shortage of medications and the relentless increasing unemployment rate among one of the most trained peoples in the Arab world. Over 60% of under-2 5s are unemployed.
But the wider demoes also attracted members of the most prosperous middle class. IT consultant Jalal Marzouk, 40, was of the view that, as the father of four” beautiful children”, and with a spouse 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 countrymen” don’t have any future and they are totally desperate. I have something to lose, but they have nothing to lose .”
Two-thirds of Palestinians in Gaza- including Marzouk- are descendants of 1948 refugees, and the emphasis by so many demonstrators on the” right of return” is part of what has alarmed Israelis. Yet this reflects the failing over three decades to reach a peace deal, which could have included an honourable compromise on the refugees. That at least has been its own position of the Fatah leadership and- up to now- most of the international community. Arafat had agreed as early as 1988 to accepted 22% of historical Palestine for a country, said Abu Said,” but regrettably Israel wants to share even that with us “. Many of the Netanyahu government’s ministers now reject the idea of a Palestinian state and giving up the settlements, illegal in international law, in the West Bank.
” Israel has reduced the conflict to its fundamentals ,” said Raji Sourani, head of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, and the doyen of Gazan civil society.” We are back to square one .” He said Gaza has always” defined the tone” for the Palestinian struggle for rights, and asserts Israel’s concerted attempts to “neutralise” Gaza are destined to fail.
Sourani fears Israel could draw Hamas into another war, rather than face a continued stand-off. But he believes a long-contemplated return to unarmed action looks like” the right kind of chess move” after a decade in which Palestinians have been on the defensive and preoccupied by the Fatah-Hamas split.
According to Abu Saif the outcome of the coming weeks will depend on the political response not only of Israel but of an international community that he scolds for its refusal to “say no” to Israel.” Unless there is a political objective to it, this will be turned into disaster. Hopeless people have nothing left to lose … Nobody knows the end .”
Hamas seizes full control of Gaza. Israel intensifies land, ocean and air siege and places limits on Palestinians it allows to leave through Israel .
Gaza invasion launched. Israel said it is response to rockets fired into Israel. More than 1,400 Palestinians succumb.
Nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists killed in Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound assist flotilla trying to break blockade . November 2012 Missile ten-strike kills Hamas commander Ahmed Jaabari in Gaza City, triggering a confrontation in which 174 Palestinians die . July 2014 Operation Protective Edge launched by Israel, with 2,100 Palestinians killed, including 495 children . 2018 After 10 years of siege, 80% of the population are dependent on humanitarian assistance .
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