Special Report | Against Israel’s brutality, Palestinians remain undeterred

Today marks the third-week anniversary of the Great Return March in Gaza. Yousef Alhelou reports on the developments so far.

New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Friday, April 20, 2018 15:46 - 0 Comments

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Palestinians hold flags as youths practice their parkour skills at the March of Return protests in the southern Gaza Strip, April 10, 2018. (Credits: SAID KHATIB/AFP)

When thousands of mainly young Palestinian protesters decided to flock to the Gaza border areas as part of their Great March of Return, they explicitly asserted these protests would be peaceful.

Advocates of non-violent struggle hailed the absence of armed Palestinian men at the protests. Scores of Palestinian women were seen at the frontline. Giant posters and placards of world peace legends — Gandhi, King and Mandela — were erected near the border area to reiterate the peaceful character of the protests.

Predictably enough, however, this was another case of heavily armed Israeli occupation forces versus Palestinian civilian protestors. Stone throwers were met with live ammunition and sniper shots. A brutal, crushing force was used by the Israeli army to intimidate and terrify at the protests — be it civilians, journalists or paramedics.

With the killing of 33 unarmed protestors, including 3 children and a journalist in the three weeks of the protests so far, Israeli forces have turned the protests bloody.

Over 4000 injuries have been reported since the start of the protests on March 30th, including 134 in critical conditions. Some have lost limbs due to the severity of their wounds. Some patients were denied permission by Israel to be transferred to hospitals in Israel or the West Bank.

As Palestinians gear up for the commemorations of Nakba Day on May 15th, these measures are clearly aimed to punish the injured for taking part in the protests and weaken the morale of others. While reports of Palestinian casualties have become the norm, the Israeli side was completely unaffected, with zero casualties of any kind.

On the face of it, for unarmed Palestinian protestors to approach a fence manned by heavily armed Israeli soldiers and snipers — knowing the likelihood of being shot at was virtually certain— can seem to verge on the suicidal. The stark asymmetry of the balance of power, highlighted in the images of unarmed, defenceless protestors maimed or injured by IDF live ammunition have shocked the world.

For many of the protesters, images of the destruction, killings, attacks on fishermen and farmers, as well as arrest campaigns during previous Israeli invasions are engraved in their minds. On that first day, Friday 30th, as crowds started to gather along Gaza’s Eastern border under the watchful eye of ambulance crews and journalists. Palestinian boys attempted to reach the fence, always keeping eye contact with the Israeli soldiers in a show of defiance and heroism.

Despite Israel’s brutality, Palestinians remain undeterred. “Duty is calling” is what they would tell you. Of the many protesters sharing photos on social media, some poignantly bid their loved ones goodbye, lest they might not return alive.

No one is immune. In some cases wounded paramedics were carried off by their colleagues. Even Journalists are having to take extra precautions because they know they might not be spared by IDF fire during the course of their work.

The Israeli army has invited foreign journalists to report on the protests from behind the Israeli fence, taking cover from a distance behind piles of sand. I wonder whether these journalists were able to see their injured Palestinian colleagues across the border.

The scale and deadliness of Israeli force deployed against the protesters in the last few days has been less than the horrifically bloody toll of previous weeks. It is obvious that this is a direct result of Israel’s desperation to avoid more international outcries. Tel Aviv has undoubtedly suffered a real PR disaster this month, after numerous videos of Palestinian civilians being shot dead or seriously injured have gone viral across social media platforms and onto the mainstream media.

Scores of Palestinian women have also been visible on the frontlines, standing side-by-side with the men sharing their struggle. This was presumably their response to those Israeli officials who had criticised the participation of Palestinian women at the protests. Since the IDF has boasted that its snipers knew, in the words of an army official, “where every bullet landed” it seems clear they have been deliberately avoiding shooting female protesters to avert international condemnation.

No one is safe or immune in the besieged Gaza strip. This was made abundantly clear recently by Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who has stated that “no one is innocent in Gaza.”

Preparing for the next round

Over the past few weeks, the Palestinian Ministry of Health has been releasing ongoing updates on the causalities, as newly bereaved families prepare to bury their loved ones.

In recent days, protesters have been using increasingly inventive means to defy Israeli forces. Some have been long-range slingshots, others are flying homemade kites with burning rags dangling from their tails, letting them go at the right moment. The aim is to set ablaze drying wheat fields on the Israeli side just across the border. On every Friday since the start of the march, protesters left the border areas at nightfall, retreating to the safety of the encampment sites, about 700 meters from the fence.

For the fourth planned round of mass demonstration,  taking place today (Friday 20th), the organising committee of the protest moved the sit-in tents to within 300 meters from Israeli border fence. Bulldozers were used to  create protective sand berms around them.

While tensions continue on the ground, another battle is taking place online. Israeli army officials — including the Army’s Arabic spokesman,  Avchay Adraee, and Yoav Mordechai, known as the “the coordinator” of the Israeli Government Activities in the Palestinian Territories (COGAT) — have been posting messages in Arabic on their social media pages to communicate directly with the Palestinians, in an attempt to divert the attention and anger of the protesters against Hamas — accusing the latter of being responsible for the miseries in the besieged territory and for using Gazans under its control are hostages. 

The stubborn determination of Gaza’s youths cannot be punctured through intimidation or propaganda, however, especially when, for many of them, Israel’s occupation and blockade have left them with nothing to lose.

Gaza — which has been subjected to all-out devastating wars three times in the past decade alone, in 2008, 2012 and 2014 — is often described as a “pressure cooker”. The border fence with Israel represents a curse that haunts its inhabitants. As someone born in Gaza — a tiny piece of land; 40 minutes’ drive from the north to the south — I can tell you that when a Gazan says they wish they were a bird that can fly across the border, they are not joking. The width of the overcrowded enclave does not exceed seven miles while the zone allowed for Gaza’s fishermen does not exceed six nautical miles. Palestinian West Bankers have a 440-miles concrete wall to contend with, which runes four times as long as its infamous predecessor in Berlin.

Adding insult to injury, Israel has dismissed this latest round of nonviolent protests as a Hamas ploy. Although desperate Gazans are bearing the brunt of their bickering rulers’ failures (Hamas and Fatah alike), no one is forcing any one of them to march to the border.

Of course, the local authorities in Gaza, under Hamas’ rule, have facilitated some of the protest arrangements, by setting up the encampments and makeshift tents for people to rest, as well as by transporting people towards the border areas. The public medical sector has been out on high-alert standby.

Ordinary Gazans are paying the price for internal splits

Gazans are hoping for a better life. Some families cannot find bread to put on their table. What adds insult to injury is the prolonged division and punitive measures taken recently by the West Bank-based Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, by cutting the salaries of former PA employees (mostly former security forces and civil servants) in Gaza, and now threatening to cut them off altogether.

Many rounds of mediation talks have failed to achieve national unity, and bring an end to years of rift between Hamas and Fatah, the two major Palestinian factions. The latest attempt, last month, collapsed following an assassination attempt targeting Palestinian PM Rami Alhamdallah upon his arrival in Gaza through the Israeli-controlled Erez pedestrian security crossing. Hamas disarming and relinquishing total control over Gaza has been Abbas’s main condition, but Hamas, as Fatah’s main rival, has made it clear that “the resistance weapons” will be a red line as long as Israeli military occupation remain.

A grim reality prevails amongst the tiny enclave’s nearly 2 million inhabitants, half of whom are young people under the age of 18. Life is unbearable, and it is amazing how people are surviving on a day-to-day basis, with a large proportion of them relying almost entirely on aid assistance from international agencies such as UNRWA. Many cases of suicide have been reported in Gaza in recent years.

Those who can afford to have been leaving Gaza for Europe, in search for a better future. Two thirds of the population are decedents of refugees. Many of those taking part in the protests have told local media, “there is no life in Gaza”.

Today’s fourth weekly protest coincides with the annual Palestinian prisoners’ day, commemorated on April 17th. Now that Gaza — the world’s largest open air prison — has got the world’s attention, for a brief moment at least, and making headlines worldwide, it awaits international intervention to help find a political solution that will bring hope to its people. Of course, unless Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas reach a just solution, the people of Gaza will continue to suffer.

The Palestinian leaderships across the two territorial units — Gaza and the West Bank — should put the national interest of the Palestinian people above their factional and personal priorities and concerns.

What is happening in Gaza is a man-made disaster. The current protests along the border, largely by disillusioned and angry youth, are a cry of despair and defiance against the architects of their misery.

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Yousef Alhelou is a Palestinian journalist based in London, who has been reporting on Gaza since 2007 for a wide range of media outlets.

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